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Archive 3
six sub-superminis assessed in 1998

 In a fruitful year for new model launches 1998 has
brought a rash of superminis, Stuart Bladon assesses
half-a-dozen of the most interesting ones.

New models have tumbled off the production line at such a rate this year that it has been hard to keep pace with them and the pressure has been especially strong in the small car sector. Part of the explanation for this is that while the firms importing from Japan were held down by quota limits, they wanted to bring in the most expensive cars they could sell. There's less profit to be made on small cars, so while the sun shone, big was beautiful.
   Not so good now, and with increasing competition some manufacturers have found it difficult to sell the quota, so they have gone for volume instead. As a result we have wider choice, with the arrival of such small cars as the Mazda Demio, Daihatsu Cuore, and Suzuki Jimny. There has also been the arrival of the much publicised Mercedes-Benz A-Class, though here small doesn't necessarily mean cheap.
   Making the choice of what to cover for this group was not easy, but I felt it would add to the interest of the feature if I cast the net a little wider and included some cars which may not come to the market for a few months yet, such as the Volkswagen Lupo and the smart City Car. Indeed, the management of smart has not yet decided whether to build it in right-hand drive form. I hope that they will, because it's an intriguing small car. By the way, the small 's' for smart is not a mistake - it's how they like to put it, though it seems silly to me, and probably will soon be changed.
   An interesting topic was raised by Mr Searle of Ringwood and discussed by the Editor in Car Clinic in the last issue, questioning the validity of quoting acceleration time from 0 to 80 mph in these comparisons. Well, one can't get away from the fact that acceleration is important in any car, reducing the time spent on the wrong side of the road when overtaking. It's not possible to give a figure for 'gentle acceleration' so inevitably the figure quoted by manufacturers is the best that the car can manage when driven skilfully and perhaps even a bit brutally.
   It doesn't mean that the ordinary owner should do this, any more than saying that a Jaguar XK8 has a top speed of 150 mph means that drivers should check it out down the high street! What it does do is give a very fair and important indication of a car's capability. I tend to quote 0-80 mph, rather than 0-60 mph, as this is more representative, being fast enough to take account of aerodynamics and sustained performance, diminishing the effects of brutal gear changing. However, for this group I accept that 0 to 60 mph is a more appropriate value.
   By the way, in the 26 years that I spent testing cars for Autocar at MIRA, usually one every week, I never once damaged an engine or transmission. So fears of abuse in standing starts are perhaps more imagined than real. Now on to our batch of cars to appeal to those who are looking for compact, economical motoring.

To an Englishman, the name of the previous small Fiat, pronounced Chinquechento may have sounded better than Seicento, but all other aspects of the new small Fiat bring considerable improvement. It's more of a grown-up car, fun - and even quite sporty - to drive within the limits of an engine which is inevitably a bit marginal for power. With only 899 cc and peak power of 39 bhp, the Seicento is not going to set the harvest alight.    It also roars a bit when working hard and you have to wait for it all to happen when calling on it for acceleration; but once settled to a motorway cruising pace it bats along surprisingly willingly and without sign of stress. However, timing showed the speedometer to be every bit as optimistic as I thought, an indicated 80 mph being a true speed of no more than 72.7 mph.
   The five-speed gearchange is a bit notchy, and rather too heavily spring-loaded towards the third/fourth side of the gate. Reverse is opposite fifth.
   There was no power steering on the test car and turning the wheel becomes rather hard work at low speeds, lightening up well once the car is on the move. Power assistance is now available as an option. Steering accuracy is good, but the handling is not and there is severe understeer mixed with a tendency to roll-oversteer and tail swing on tight corners. The car also feels a bit 'darty' and uncertain in its stability on the straight.
   The brakes call for fairly heavy pedal loads and then they work well, and it's good that anti-lock brakes are now optionally available (as from October 1998). One expects a fairly lively ride in a very small car with short wheelbase and in the Fiat Seicento it is a bit bouncey but acceptable. Tyre roar is the dominant noise.
   A floor release opens the rear hatch, which is self-locking, and space there is adequate for small shopping or compact luggage. A full-size spare wheel nestles beneath the floor.
   This three-door hatchback has some features you might not expect to find, such as electric front window lifts, divided and folding rear seat and central locking; but these are attributes of the SX version. Complete with a wind-up tilting glass sunroof, they add up to a package of extras which makes the SX worth the 300 extra which it costs above the S model.

Fiat Seicento SX 3-door - 6,795
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - TBA
0-60mph - 18.0 sec
Fuel consumption - 44.8mpg
Insurance - First year free

Lots of consumer research was carried out, and the consortium formed by Mercedes-Benz and the makers of Swatch watches to build an extraordinary little car is confident that it has found a market niche. 25-40 year-olds who want something distinctive and different, no doubt as a second car, are the potential buyers who are hoped to snap up Smarties like children in the sweet shop.   "We are creating a new market segment," says Lars Brorsen, president of the Micro Compact Car AG, which builds this new baby car. But will it come to Britain? Yes, I was told; next year. But evidently much depends on how well it sells on the Continent.    It's certainly a fascinating design, with a rear-mounted transverse petrol engine of 600cc, boosted by turbocharger and inter-cooler to produce 55bhp. There's also a less powerful version of the same engine with power reduced to 45bhp. Most surprising of all is that semi-automatic or fully automatic transmission is standard.
   Like everything else about smart, driving it is a bit different. The key goes into a slot between the seats, and the engine starts promptly, chuntering away quietly at the back. Then, two things are necessary: put a foot on the brake - otherwise nothing happens - and move the gear lever over to the left. Then, a touch forward selects first gear, and '1' lights up on the gear selection indicator.    Press the accelerator and away we go, touching the lever forward or back to change up or down. If you're in the wrong gear, the gear number changes to an arrow pointing up or down, advising the driver to get the gears sorted. You soon get used to it.
   As an optional extra the buyer can specify the self-changing option, in which the transmission becomes fully automatic on the press of a button on the side of the gearshift. There is no clutch pedal on either version.
   Forward visibility is good. To the rear, the view is limited, with quite a blind spot to be overcome at angled junctions. Although of tinted glass to let light in, the roof panel is not removable.
   The performance is a bit leisurely because the automatic clutch cuts the power when making gearchanges; but one gets more adept at making smart get a move on.
   There are limitations, of course. The car is a bit 'darty' and inclined to wander at speed. The other limitation is the handling, which brings back for older drivers memories of many cars of the past which had to be hauled round corners. There is no power assistance for the steering, and one is aware that on every corner smart wants to go straight on. The ride is bouncey over bumps.
   If there are more children than one then smart is not for you, or at least, it will not be suitable for school runs or similar trips. The presumption is that for many buyers it will be the second car, serving as economical individual transport for two, like a motor cycle but without the discomfort in winter and the potential danger.

smart City Coupe - approx. 7,500
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - N/A
0-60mph - 17.2 sec
Fuel consumption - 58.8mpg
Insurance - N/A

"What a hoot" - that's what people are likely to say when they see the Hyundai Atoz; but for the owner, the reply might be: "The laugh's on you, mate. I have a five-door car with more headroom than in a Rolls-Royce, that will cruise at about 75 mph, has a five-speed semi-automatic transmission and air conditioning, and does around 40 mpg - and it cost only 8,000."
   In fact, that would be over-stating the case a little, as the standard transmission is a conventional five-speed manual gearbox. Options are a three-speed fully automatic transmission for 700 extra, or the format as tried in the test car - five-speed semi-automatic for only 470 extra.
   In this form, there is no clutch pedal, but a conventional gear lever has to be moved at the right times - it just saves the footwork. At first, it seems a little difficult to drive the Atoz smoothly with this transmission, and getaway from rest is particularly tricky. But with familiarity one becomes more skilled at managing it, and changes can then slip through so smoothly that a passenger scarcely notices them.
   On starting the little 1-litre four-cylinder engine in the morning, it tends to rev very hard at first as it warms up. Move the gear lever into first or reverse, and although the engine is revving away, nothing happens until the driver presses the accelerator - then the clutch engages, sometimes with a bit of a surge. The best technique, when the engine is cold, is to press the accelerator down only a little way and wait for the car to move off. When reversing, the Atoz is again prone to move off a bit abruptly, but any experienced driver soon becomes accustomed to it and appreciates the easier, less tiring driving in city traffic.
   With single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder, the engine is vigorous and develops 55bhp. It roars a little when working hard, but gives lively response, reaching 60mph from rest in 17.4 sec, and going on to an impressive top speed of 88mph.
   On poor roads, the ride is lively, with sharp reaction over big bumps. This is not a car to recommend to anyone who has back troubles, but by the standards of most small cars it is acceptably resilient, and the seats are comfortable. A lot of understeer is noticed on corners, but the power assisted steering is accurate and makes it easy to pull the front of the car through a tight corner. The turning circle is also compact, and with the shortness overall, and lack of almost any overhang at the rear, parking is very easy.    Atoz comes in two versions: the standard model, at 6,999, or the Atoz+ which costs 1,000 more and adds driver's airbag, radio/cassette (instead of radio), central locking by key, electric front window lifts, air conditioning, front fog lamps, and - yes - even alloy wheels!
   The Atoz is a surprisingly roomy little car, jolly to drive, and as well as being a practical runabout it can also tackle long journeys without complaint.

Hyundai Atoz+ - 7,999
Extra for 5-door - Standard
Power steering - Standard
0-60mph - 17.4 sec
Fuel consumption - 39.9mpg
Insurance (est.) - Group 2

Since testing the Arosa in petrol form, the range has been extended to include a version with the 'atmo' (non-turbocharged) 1.7-litre diesel engine, as the Arosa SDi. SEAT claim that this one, offering 78.9mpg, is Britain's most fuel-efficient car. So there are now four Arosas available: 1.0, 1.4 with manual and automatic, and 1.7SDi Diesel.
   The example tried was interesting in having four-speed automatic transmission as standard in the price of 8,395. Incidentally, it's commendable that the Arosa 1.0 still costs the same as it did at the launch in June 1997.
   It gets a bit noisy even at as low a speed as 60mph, but does not become much busier at higher speeds - it seems to settle down and cruise along happily. The automatic transmission is responsive, and the selector is unusual in having no check points all the way from N to 2 (neutral to second gear). There's no problem here, since the movement is positive and you can't move the lever out of Park position unless a foot is on the brake pedal.    Light and positive steering holds the Arosa well on course on a windy day, and there is vertical adjustment for the wheel; but the turning circle is not very tight, making heavy weather of parking.
   A rather firm and bouncey ride results from the firmish suspension and there's also a lot of wheel thump and excessive tyre roar. Arosa is not a quiet car, but the result of the taut suspension is that it handles delightfully.
   Upholstered in cloth, the seats are rather hard and unyielding, but a ratchet lever at the side gives useful height adjustment - this is an option, available also for the passenger side.
   This three-door hatchback offers divided and folding rear seats and the front seats tip easily forward and stay there to give access to the back seat. There are many signs of the VW influence which has helped to make SEAT cars so much better now, but don't expect too much in the way of equipment. There's no sunroof, central locking, electric mirrors or window lifts. But it's still a car that offers a lot for the money, especially for someone seeking a moderately priced small car with automatic.

SEAT Arosa 1.4 - 8,295
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - Standard
0-60mph - 16.2 sec
Fuel consumption - 34.9mpg
Insurance - Group 2

Why call it Lupo? Well, say Volkswagen, it stands for 'Lifestyle, Understatement, Performance and Optimism.' More understand-able to us, perhaps, is that it's a SEAT Arosa in Volkswagen clothing, and very pleasing it is, too. The Lupo had its UK launch at the Birmingham Show, and will be on the UK market in February or March next year.
   It's the smallest current production Volkswagen, though the new Beetle may under-size it, and it will be available with choice of three petrol engines (1.0 giving 55bhp, 1.4 and 75bhp, and a more powerful 1.4 giving 100bhp). There will also be, as in the SEAT range, a 1.7 atmo diesel.
   Volkswagen importers hope to start the prices below 8,000 OTR, and around 3,500 will be available for sale here in 1999. High basic specification will include driver and passenger airbags; there will be a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty, and options will include a navigation system and air conditioning.
   At the launch, VW turned out some luxuriously equipped Lupos, with the optional leather upholstery which certainly gave a most pleasing aura to this small car and will appeal to the many buyers who can afford luxury but don't want a big car. As with the SEAT Arosa, four-speed auto transmission will be available for the 1.4.
   First impression was of a car with the windscreen a long way ahead, but this is a trend seen more often today as manufacturers seek low drag and for safety want to put more space between occupants and the glass. The important thing is that Lupo proved very pleasant to drive, with light and accurate power assisted steering, good directional stability, and a pleasant compromise between the need for taut suspension and crisp handling without spoiling the comfort.
   A clever arrangement of the front passenger seat allows it to tip forward and up, all in one movement, making it very easy to get into the back. The rear seat is divided 50/50 (no pretence that this is more than a four-seater), and either part folds easily down once the headrest has been removed.
   Lupo is a most promising small car, which seems bound to be in strong demand as it will come with all the attributes of longevity, high retained value, and excellent finish for which Volkswagen now have such a good reputation.

Volkswagen Lupo - approx. 8,500
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - Standard
0-60mph - 12.0 sec
Fuel consumption (claimed) - 45.6mpg
Insurance N/A - (probably Group 3)

Now that the new Ford Focus, replacing the Escort, has been launched, the Ka comes also more into focus, since it heralded the new shape for small Fords when it first appeared in September 1996. It's a familiar sight on British roads now, so people don't smile any more as they used to when they first saw Ka. It's still a remarkably original shape for a car.
   When I had Ka on test, I came to appreciate what a clever piece of design work it is. All the panels are just gentle curvatures without any complex presswork, yet the overall body shape is smooth and wind-cheating.
   It is fun to drive, and considering that its engine produces only 66bhp, its performance is lively - more so than the acceleration figure would suggest. But the real fun comes from the delightful handling of a car with a wheel absolutely at each corner, with precise steering (power assistance standard) and excellent brakes.    Inside Ka, it's perhaps even more extraordinary than outside, and the novel approach of stylists given free range to produce something different is seen even in such an odd detail as the clock with its disproportionately big triangular-shaped hour hand.
   The instruments are confined to a speedometer and fuel gauge - everything else being monitored by warning lights - and the panel sweeps round into a curvy assembly which houses the clearly marked radio and CD player, with ventilation controls beneath.
   Over on the passenger side there's an open locker with a base that revolves. Twist it over and it opens to reveal slots for carrying CDs. Roll it a farther, and there's a cubby to hold small oddments.
   Self-locking, the tailgate opens to reveal quite a reasonable size load space for a small car, with detachable shelf and full-size spare wheel in a wind-down tray beneath. The rear seat is divided and folding and offers reasonable legroom; but the seat backrest is very thinly padded, and headroom is a bit lacking for a tall occupant.    Aiming to keep it simple, Ford offer only three versions: Ka, and the better-equipped Ka 2 and 3, all with the same engine. A wide range of up-market options includes airbags for driver and passenger, air conditioning, CD player, and central locking.
   Things that impressed me about Ka, apart from the sheer fun and jolly nature of the car, are the surprisingly level and comfortable ride, low level of tyre roar and wheel thump over bumps, and the relative lack of wind noise even in blustery weather. What I didn't like is the enormous thickness of the screen pillars for such a small car, so that on tight corners I didn't know whether to lean forward and look round them, or peer through the side window instead.
   Also annoying was the weakness of the door 'keeps'. A door always trying to fall back on you as you try to get out is most annoying. Apart from these small aggravations, Ka is fun, and set to please.

Ford Ka 2 - 9,020
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - Standard
0-60mph - 14.3 sec
Fuel consumption - 43.8mpg
Insurance - Group 2

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