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Archive 1
six superminis assessed in 1998

Superminis can now offer comfort, ease of driving and generous equipment, as well as the low running costs.
Stuart Bladon assesses six top contenders.

or 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 figures.
   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 running.
   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 purchase indeed.

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

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 accommodation.
   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

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 gentle use.
   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 well.
   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

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 quiet car.
   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 surfaces.
   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 central locking.
   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

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