For many years the most popular question about small cars
used to be: "does anyone do one with power steering?" The
answer was generally "sorry, no", but gradually power steering
has become more the rule than the exception - available as
an option, even if not standard.
In other ways, too, small cars have improved.
They are now generally pleasant to drive, comfortable and
cruise on the motorway without fuss or excessive noise. But
of course they vary in matters of space, equipment and behaviour
on the road.
We assess here the small cars from main contenders
ranging from Citro‚n to Volkswagen, looking for value, satisfaction
and appeal. Acceleration is expressed as the time to reach
80mph, which is much more revealing than the more widely quoted
0-60 mph figure, but in one or two cases where we were not
able to obtain a current test car, the manufacturer's claimed
time to the lower speed has been quoted. Fuel consumption
is also our measured test figure.
FIAT PUNTO 60S 3-door
May of last year brought major revisions to the extensive
range of Fiat's small car, the Punto, and the first price
rise since the previous October. At the bottom end of the
line-up, the important change was replacement of the former
55bhp engine with a larger unit giving 60bhp from capacity
of 1,242cc. Fiat also introduced a sporting version of the
Punto 1.2 16 valves, called the Sporting.
I was a little sad to learn that the excellent
arrangement of offering a six-speed gearbox had been dropped,
but perhaps a five-speed is sufficient for the average small
car owner, no matter how economy-minded. No recent test has
been possible yet - only a brief driving appraisal in the
far north of Scotland - so acceleration to 80mph is not available,
and we have had to quote the average from the official fuel
Driving the new models on this appraisal, I found
the difference between the eight and 16-valve versions of
the 1.2-litre engine less marked than expected, and the best
value seemed to be at the lower end of the range. Apart from
the engines, the Punto was relatively little altered, but
the suspension and steering were revised to give a better
ride with sharper handling response.
Fiat's Punto compares very well in this group,
offering lively performance, an engine that is pleasantly
quiet and refined, and especially good road behaviour.
Power steering is not available for the Punto
60 - it comes only with the turbo diesel, which is roughly
£1,000 more expensive and even then costs a further £385.
However, with this light engine at the front, it hardly shows
any need for power assistance. The control is so easy to turn
even at low speeds that the extra cost would hardly be justified
even if it were available.
"Quicker, quieter and more comfortable" was the
claim made by Fiat at the time of the launch, and I felt it
met these objectives while also being fun to drive.
Fiat Punto 60S 3-door - £7,789
Extra for 5-door £539
Power steering n/a
0-80mph n/a (0-60mph: 14.5 sec)
Fuel consumption (Govt. average) 41.5mpg
Insurance Group 3
CITROEN SAXO 1.1i X 3-door
For 1998, Citroen revise the appearance
of the Saxo with larger chevrons on the front grille; but
of more interest to the buyer will be the special 'deal' which
is on offer until the end of March. It sounds almost too good
to be true: price of the 1.1i X is cut from £8,315 to £7,825
on-the-road, and you get two years' free insurance.
There's quite a lot of tyre roar with the Saxo,
but in other respects it's a very pleasing small car, and
I was surprised to find how lively the car is with just the
1.1-litre engine. It's a smooth and free-revving engine, which
doesn't object to being revved hard.
Citroen always seem to manage to do a good job
in designing the suspension of their cars, and the Saxo is
true to form, giving a very comfortable and level ride. The
steering is not heavy even in standard form, but power assistance
with electric action for the hydraulic pump is available.
This is preferable to a belt-driven pump for a small car,
eliminating the tendency for the engine to stall when the
wheel is turned at low speeds, and saving energy in straight
Rather thick screen pillars are a bit obstructive
of vision on corners. A good and practical safety feature
is the wide energy absorbing compartment on each side door.
The facia design is good, with a well laid out console locating
the radio/cassette unit sensibly high for easy access.
Saxo is fun to drive, good to travel in, and
generously roomy inside, with ample boot space as a result
of carrying the spare wheel in a wind-down cradle beneath
the floor. There are also neat touches such as the map light
which is moved to either side and switches on automatically,
and the centre air vents which can be pulled forward to direct
cool air to the face in hot weather.
Pity about the name - but everything else about
Saxo pleases, and at this temporarily low price it's a tempting
Citroen Saxo 1.1i X 3-door £7,825
Extra for 5-door £420
Power steering £380
0-80mph 26.9 sec
Fuel consumption 43.2mpg
Insurance Group 4
VOLKSWAGEN POLO 1.0L 3-door
When I drove a Volkswagen Polo for the first time, at the
launch in France (August 1994), there were four people on
board, and although uncomplaining, the engine evidently made
rather heavy weather of the load. Driven later with less weight,
it performed better, but was still not very lively.
This was improved a great deal by the introduction
of a new all-aluminium engine with multi-point fuel injection
in August 1996, taking the power output up from 45 to 50bhp,
and making the Polo a much more eager and enjoyable car to
drive. At the same time, the economy was improved. Around
44mpg should be attainable.
When the new Polo was introduced, it was rather
unusual to have power-assisted steering on a small 1-litre
car, and all the cars submitted for test driving were fitted
with it so I haven't tried a Polo with standard steering.
Even for this small car, the extra cost of power assistance
seems well worthwhile, bringing it into line with the lightness
and responsiveness of all the Polo's controls. The handling
is also very manageable.
Comfort rates very well in the Polo, with a suspension
that gives a level and well-damped ride free from the banging
and thumping that beset some small cars, and although there's
not a lot of the Polo behind the rear wheels it's a surprisingly
roomy car inside. That very slab-sided tail end is good for
Standard equipment is generous, as it needs to
be to justify a relatively high price for the Polo in this
group. Even in this cheapest form as the 1.0L, it comes with
such items as a digital clock, rev counter, height adjustable
steering column and headlamps, and electric heating and adjustment
for the mirrors.
In addition, there's a wide range of options
including an electrically-operated fabric sunroof which gives
a large opening, for £575 extra. But air conditioning is available
only for the 1.4-litre.
The Volkswagen Polo can fairly be described as
the small car with big car pretensions.
Volkswagen Polo 1.0L 3-door £8,265
Extra for 5-door £465
Power steering £445
0-80mph n/a (0-60 mph: 18.5 sec)
Fuel consumption (Govt average) 47.9mpg
Insurance Group 3
NISSAN MICRA 1.0 PASSION 3-door
Despite its name, the Nissan Micra is very much a British
car, designed at Nissan's technical centre at Cranfield, and
built at Sunderland. In many ways, too, it exhibits British
characteristics except for the typical Japanese feature of
a self-locking boot with floor-mounted release.
Its 1-litre engine has 16 valves and is a lively
if slightly harsh unit, giving fast cruising without fuss;
but the fuel consumption is a little on the heavy side in
brisk driving. Well over 40mpg should be obtainable in more
An easy and positive gear change is fitted, and
the steering is precise at speed and remains light right down
to parking speeds, when it does become quite hard work. Power
steering is available, but was not fitted on the test car;
it might prove wise to opt for it to ease the armwork. A good
feature is that the steering column is vertically adjustable,
for an ideal driving position.
Very tidy handling and a comfortable ride make
the Micra nippy and easily controllable, and the brakes respond
A little higher up the range than the base model,
the Passion Micra has the name emblazoned on the back, and
is well equipped, including a winding glass panel sunroof
with tilt or slide action, a light in the boot, and a four-speaker
radio/cassette (unfortunately not working very well on the
test car). Air conditioning is available (£1,380). Either
front seat tips forward easily and stays there for access
to the rear. The rear seat backrest is divided 60/40, and
either section folds down readily for extra luggage space
- useful since boot capacity is rather limited.
Optional equipment on the Micra was a very effective
Nissan anti-theft device incorporating remote central locking
of the doors, which are then dead-locked. Adding this for
£217 might ensure that no one takes your Passion away!
Nissan Micra 1.0 Passion 3-door £8,395
Extra for 5-door £440
Power steering £336
0-80mph 32.1 sec
Fuel consumption 37.4mpg
Insurance Group 3
VAUXHALL CORSA MERIT 1.0 12v
When the little three-cylinder 1-litre engine started appearing
on the GM stand at international motor shows, it looked so
small one almost felt it would fit in a briefcase. On start-up
it sounds very lumpy as it is cranked over on the starter,
but once running it is quiet and unobtrusive. It also makes
the Corsa surprisingly lively for a 1-litre, and even driven
quite hard it returned 44mpg, with a top speed of 93mph.
This new engine was first introduced in May 1997
in the three-door Corsa Sting, which also came in for a number
of changes including to the suspension, but had Lotus made
the ride better? I was disappointed by it - bouncey over undulations.
The Corsa has now lost its Sting, and the 1.0 is available
for Merit or LS models.
Corsa is a pleasant and lively car to drive,
with precise gear change and light controls. This applies
also to the steering, which is always light except at parking
speeds. Since August last year, the Corsa has been available
with the new type of power steering, using an electric motor
to generate the hydraulic pressure for assistance. It wasn't
fitted to my test car, and with the lightness of the three-cylinder
engine there really seemed little need for it.
As with all Vauxhalls, full marks are earned
for the neat display on the facia showing time, outside temperature,
and date - the date changing to radio frequency when the radio
is switched on.
For equipment, the Merit is fairly basic, lacking
central locking, and having manual windows, interior lever
adjustment for the mirrors, and a one-piece rear seat, so
the tip and fold facility for extra load space can be used
only when there are no rear seat passengers. A winding sunroof
with tilt or slide action is now standard on some models (not
Merit) and air-conditioning can be ordered instead £350.
A good feature of all Corsas since the model
was launched in 1993 has always been the generous space in
such a small car for passengers and luggage.
Vauxhall Corsa Merit 1.0 12v £8,445
Extra for 5-door 1.2 Merit £400
Power steering £440
0-80mph 38.1 sec
Fuel consumption 44mpg
Insurance Group 2
FORD FIESTA 1.25LX 3-door
Not often does a new small car make such a favourable impression
as did Ford's Fiesta when reintroduced in 1995 with the remarkable
new 1.25-litre engine. It is a vigorous, quiet and free-revving
unit, and the car proves exceptionally comfortable and stable
on the road, with outstandingly good cornering.
Noise reduction measures were taken much farther
than on previous models, and in all conditions it's a very
Improvements were made to the five-speed gearbox
to reduce gear change effort as well as to make it more durable;
and the CTX varying ratio automatic transmission is also offered,
but costs £1,375 extra.
Thanks to extensive revision of the suspension,
the Fiesta also gives a comfortable and absorptive ride. The
brakes respond well, and anti-lock control is available at
£515 including traction control to limit wheelspin on slippery
Inside the Fiesta, there's a well-planned facia
layout with clear instruments and an excellent radio built
into the console. The central block of pushbuttons is removable
to discourage thieves. Even when the optional passenger air
bag is fitted, there's a generously roomy compartment beneath.
A wide range of equipment is offered, which includes
a pop-up glass sunroof, air conditioning, electric height
adjustment for the driving seat, electric windows, and remote
A special anti-theft system prevents the engine
from being started without the correct key, which has a built-in
transponder. Efforts to enhance safety include front seat
belt tensioners and structural foam bolsters in the door panels
for better side impact protection.
Space inside the Fiesta is good, though not as
generous as in some small cars. Proof of the Fiesta is in
the buying: it was top seller in the UK again last year, with
a figure of 119,471 sold.
Ford Fiesta 1.25LX 3-door £9,945
Extra for 5-door £450
Power steering £415
0-80mph 24.7 sec
Fuel consumption 43.9mpg
Insurance Group 5