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Increasingly refined anonymity has been the most consistent characteristic of the Ford Escort section of the auto-market in recent years. This has to represent added value, because the identifying quality used to be just anonymity. Bread-and-butter cars don't feel like bread-and-butter cars any more, unless they're built by Pacific Rim companies recycling the parts bin of other people's discontinued lines. Cabins are more comfortable, rides more forgiving, engines quieter, specifications more generous as competition intensifies and technology brings costs down. The quality of the contenders is high. But flair , that old elusive genie, has been hard to bottle. It isn't simply a matter of cash, but of imagination.

The Italians, true to cliche, have supplied it by the bucketload with the Fiat Bravo and Brava. These Fiat Tipo descendents are much more than just replacements for a skilled but ageing player. They are spacious, remarkably quiet, very surefooted, and feature one of the most delectable facia designs of recent times. But primarily they offer an unprecedented degree of choice from the same basic configuration, a shrewd tilt at covering just about every variable in the family-hatch shopping-list at once.

The Brava is the practical five-door hatchback, the Bravo its jauntier three-door sibling, and between them they offer six engines, four trim styles and twenty-four colour options, with subtle chassis tweaks to make their driving styles quite different too.

Neither car is exactly a sensuous beauty, but they both have a distinctive chunky confidence, and the three-slit tail-light design is so unusual that pedestrians point it out to each other with incredulous looks, as if the car had dropped in from outer space. Rap your knuckes on the front wings and you still hear the old telltale hollow Fiat clang, but elsewhere the bodywork sounds solid and supported, and more cash and effort has apparently been expended at Fiat into maximising the safety and build- quality aspects of these cars than has been usual at Turin.

The Brava 1.6 SX, the most mainstream model of the bunch, is a very satisfactory driving experience. The driver's position is good, the instrumentation wonderful, the smoothness of the gearshift and clutch relaxing, the steering firm but comfortably powered, the ride reasonably pliable without sacrificing security and control in manoevering - though it thumps on hard bumps. In 1.6 form, the engine does feel a little ponderous under load and on steeper inclines, and the gear ratios have been set up to make high-speed cruising quiet, whch results in a bit of spirited gearshift-stirring at lower speeds and in traffic. But all told, the Fiat Brava is good value. Some people will reckon it's worth it just for the sculpted, curvy built- in sound system with its dinky flip-up cassette loader. I hope Fiat have tested that gadget to destruction, because it gets played with a lot.

GOING PLACES: Excellent twin-cam 16-valve engine, quiet in traffic, engagingly snarly on hard acceleration; approximately 10secs 0-60mph, and 10.5 secs 50-70mph, pulling power fine if you're energetic with the gearshift; gearshift and clutch smooth and untiring.

STAYING ALIVE: Standard driver airbag, passenger's optional; anti-lock brakes optional only, side impact door beams, seatbelt pre-tensioners; rear visibility not as good as Tipo, but driving position excellent; steering positive in feel and handling agile.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Overall space average, boot space excellent; very good seating, supportive, comfortable and well-finished, with height and lumbar adjuster for the driver; split/folding rear seats; power steering; superb controls and sound-system; ride not quite up to the class-leaders' standards.

BANGS PER BUCK: central locking, electric front windows,electric tilt- slide sunroof, radio-cassette; average fuel consumption not great at around 26mpg overall; general value for money good however, plus one-year general warranty, three years paint warranty, major services at 12,000 miles. Price: pounds 11,424.

STAR QUALITY: One-off looks, great cabin and controls.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Engine noisy under pressure, ride lumpy.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Rover 216 Si (pounds 13,146): good performance, classy interior, but small and pricey; Ford Escort 1.4 Si (pounds 11,815): much-improved model with quieter engine, good handling and ride; Peugeot 306 1.6 XR (pounds 13,045): still the pack leader, with superb handling and ride and frisky engine, but ageing styling.