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I'M NOT sure I'd have taken the plunge and named a motor car the Charade. Maybe it's an attempt to be candid about the auto industry's pretence that it only has your best interests at heart. Still, having taken this quaint step a long time ago, Daihatsu (a company that specialises in pragmatic rather than glamorous machinery, cars that won't incinerate your chequebook in the showroom or at the pumps) has come up with a saloon variation on its successful budget hatch. It's an attractive option for those who want to keep a low profile and not worry about money.

In this small-saloon territory, there are serious front-runners in the ubiquitous Ford Escort and the Peugeot 306, so Daihatsu has to make its remodelled machine more than just a box with a lid in place of the hatch. "Big car engineering, small car size," Daihatsu proclaims. But most of the accolades in this category go to the practicality and simplicity of Ford, or to the handling elegance and road-going aplomb of Peugeot, who combine responsive engines with an agility unusual in this class. Peugeot's classiness comes at a price, however - the 306 costs around £2,000 more than the modest-looking Charade.

Even though the test car was bright red, its bland design was such that it evaporated from view as soon as I parked it. But it does convey a strong impression of willingness and fortitude in use, with a 1600cc, 16-valve engine powering a light chassis. It delivers exactly the kind of quick- reflex punch - without constant gear-shifting - that urban drivers need when that blink-of-an-eye gap turns up on the roundabout. This eagerness disappears somewhat on motorways, however, but the car's fuel economy is excellent.

In its handling, the Charade exhibits the kind of featherlight steering and flabby cornering roll that other cars from the East now manage to avoid. Space is reasonable, and the boot is capacious for the overall size. An automatic version is available for £1,000 more.

Crucially, in a marketplace like this one, the all-in specification is good; anti-lock brakes are an option, the warranty is extensive and the insurance group low. It's no head-turner, but for school 'n' shopping runs and the odd weekend away, the Charade is the kind of car you can buy and then forget about.

GOING PLACES: Nippy but noisy 1,590cc engine, but with quick throttle responses around town and good power-to-weight ratio giving impressive low-speed torque. 0-60mph in 11 seconds, but 50-70mph motorway overtaking speed slow at 20-odd seconds in fifth. Gearshift clunky but snappy.

STAYING ALIVE: Rather tinny feel to the bodywork, particularly when you slam the boot, but side-impact beams are standard, visibility is good and driving position OK, with steering wheel height-adjustable. Handling on twisty roads is let down by light power-assisted steering, mushiness and chassis-roll. Anti-lock braking optional extra; no possibilities for airbags.

BANGS PER BUCK: Very good all-round specification for a price inside five figures, reasonably spacious for four passengers, and with plenty of boot-room. Central locking, power steering, removable stereo, lights- on buzzer, split folding rear seat all included. Air-conditioning, alloy wheels and a sunroof are options. Insurance group four, good fuel economy at close to 40 miles per gallon average, three-year warranty with six- years anti-rust. Price: £9,695

CREATURE COMFORTS: That inviting boot with split folding rear seat; reassuring, high driving position; controls practical and easy to use, if dated in appearance.

STAR QUALITY: Lively, willing engine; easy town driving; plenty for the price.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Dull design; stodgy handling.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Peugeot 306 SL (£11,585) - much better handler, much better looker, not as lively as it might be for the price difference; Ford Escort 1.4L (£10,600) - much improved car after a bad launch, unfussy and practical, engine anxious-sounding; Hyundai Accent GLS (£9,599) - strong Charade competitor from the same part of the world and with similar blandness; comparable performance, and airbag standard.