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The Independent Culture
IT WON'T turn heads (unless to wonder if a heavy object has been dropped on its nose), its suspension is lumpy, its interior functional, and you couldn't exactly stage a barn-dance in the back seats. But for all that the Seat Toledo has something. Like Skoda, Seat is a name with an outdated message hanging on it, something about a poor nation's doomed efforts to keep up with a European industry dominated by Germany, Italy and France. But like Skoda, Seat of Spain has changed - and for the same reason. Volkswagen economics and technology have transformed the company.

VWs are better looking, of course, in a conservatively chic kind of way, but underneath the skin the Toledo feels and drives like a peppy VW in disguise. It resembles the Vento, one of the German company's least beautiful vehicles, but it comes at an attractive price. It is not exactly a status symbol but as a practical and economical purchase, it's well worth a long look.

Like most auto-builders, Seat have headlined the safety issue lately, and the current version of the Toledo turbo-diesel (one of the most competitive diesel hatches on the market) now includes a model equipped with driver's airbag and anti-lock braking - and all for not much more than £13,000, which is a fair deal considering its performance handling and voluminous boot space. It rumbles a bit on start-up, but the engine is quick and refined on acceleration, and the pronounced turbo whistle gives the car a feisty charm. Most striking is its handling on demanding roads. Despite a little roll, the car has immensely reassuring grip, good brakes and an exhilarating sensation of tautness - as if its every tiny movement were determined by your decisions at the wheel. This is what's supposed to happen but is hard to achieve; in this respect, the Ford Mondeo has made the running in this section of the market but such qualities seem beyond the capabilities of several of the vehicles still competing in it.

GOING PLACES: Considerably refined version of Volkswagen's fine diesel power-plant, this one delivering an acceptable 0-60mph in just under 15 seconds. Sparky overtaking acceleration thanks to torquey engine and quick, if slightly clunky, gearshift. A bit rumbly at low speeds, but noise levels all but indistinguishable from petrol versions once cruising.

STAYING ALIVE: Steering wheel not as subjectively precise as some in the class, but handling very good on difficult roads. Anti-lock braking, driver's airbag (passenger side optional) rugged bodyshell, collapsible steering, stiffened bulkhead and seat frames, and side-impact beams in all doors.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Voluminous load-space, but when you sit in the back you discover why. Much improved driving position, with improved steering adjustment and driver's seat height. Instrumentation cramped, with tiny warning lights squashed into indecipherable cluster, and design rather crude, but controls otherwise accessible. Cabin design and furnishing a bit cheap.

BANGS PER BUCK: Value for money is the name of the Toledo's game. With its recent safety enhancements and reaction to criticism that the driving position was flawed, its eager turbo-diesel version of a well designed engine, and load-space you could stock a shop from, the Toledo has become a serious contender for anybody who wants a quickish, reliable, highly economical car and doesn't give a monkey's about image. Fuel economy in the upper-30s on urban drives, bordering on 60 mpg on motorways. One-year warranty, six-year anti-corrosion guarantee, one year's free AA membership. Price: £13,375.

STAR QUALITY: VW know-how, refined and responsive diesel engine, high safety standards, excellent handling.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Boring appearance, dull interior, cramped info display, limited rear legroom.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Peugeot 405 GT XD Turbo-diesel (£14,475) - faster, a little sharper on the road, better finished, more expensive. Ford Mondeo 1.8 GLX TD (£14,480) - class-leading vehicle for all-round execution, but diesel version crude by comparison; Citroen Xantia 1.9 TD SX (£14,570) - state-of-the-art diesel car, prettier and more refined, but it costs £1,000 more.