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
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.
FIAT SEICENTO SX
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
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
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
Extra for 5-door - N/A
Power steering - TBA
0-60mph - 18.0 sec
Fuel consumption - 44.8mpg
Insurance - First year free
SMART CITY COUPE
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
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
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
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
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
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