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The Citroen Saxo 1.1 SX in 0-60 seconds
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You could hardly fail to notice that Citroen is introducing the nation to a new supermini called the Saxo. A pretty blue image of this cute machine loomed elegantly from billboards on what seemed like every corner throughout May, and the proposition from the copywriters is that the Saxo's strengths run deep. Since it's up against the formidable Volkswagen Polo, the refined and spacious Vauxhall Corsa and the imaginatively revived Ford Fiesta, they need to.

The supermini category is one of the most crowded thoroughfares in Nineties motoring. Citroen had wrung most of the change they could get out of the modest and frugal but now dated AX, and this is a newcomer with altogether more charm, flair, performance and strength. The company had to make its new supermini lively but quiet, and agile but safe to take on the front-runners. The Saxo is pretty convincing at all these things, but if something had to give it was the aesthetics. It looks rather disappointingly like a cross between the company's AX and ZX models, and since both of those designs have been around through most of the decade, the new car certainly doesn't make the bold visual impact of a Polo or Fiat's Bravo.

This might turn out to be a serious shortcoming for the Saxo in attracting the uncommitted punter rather than diehard Citroen buyers, but it's economical and good value, rides well, and has a remarkably silky and responsive power unit, which doesn't get the hump or lose its chirpily optimistic hum even in 1.1-litre form on a challenging incline.

But what does the Citroen ad mean by "inner strengths"? - and did the company end up resorting to this line because it belatedly realised that the outer strengths of the car weren't exactly irresistible in that conservative design? They don't just mean the strengths associated with cabin rigidity and safety features, because the Saxo doesn't feature a passenger airbag in standard form, and anti-lock brakes are only optional, though the body shell is stronger than that of the AX. Citroen means the qualities that are more than skin deep - like the car's ease of use, spaciousness, versatility and comfort. And in all those areas, it's definitely a major contender.

The available engines are well-tried Citroen standbys, but they've been improved by alterations to the piston shape and the pre-heating of the fuel, and to the electronics. The result is extremely smooth power delivery, a feature that even your non-mechanical passengers are likely to point out without knowing what they're pointing at. Gearbox ratios are shrewdly balanced against the power availability, and though you have to do quite a lot of shift-shuffling on hills with the 1.1-litre engine, the action is purposeful and crisp, and the low-down torque good enough to urge the car without making the occupants reach for the radio. There's no power steering (that and automatic transmission are forthcoming features) but the Saxo's handling is relaxed and reassuring at all speeds.

Quiet operation and cabin refinement are this car's strongest cards. The Saxo came out ahead of the Fiesta and Corsa in independent tests on its interior noise levels, and the floorpan was designed with noise suppression and safety prioritised in parallel, since the rigidity of the car has kept any tendency to vibration and boom to a minimum. This and space will sell the deft and clever Saxo. It's definitely worth a long look.

GOING PLACES: Very flexible and willing engines, quiet even on hard acceleration, giving 0-60mph in just over 14 seconds, 30-70mph in approximately 15. Quiet power transmission generally, good gearshift, well-chosen ratios.

STAYING ALIVE: Driver airbag standard, passenger's optional; anti-lock brakes available as an extra; door beams designed to maximise rigidity and energy absorption on impact; seatbelt pre-tensioners, strengthened floorpan, high-level brakelight, good handling and visibility.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Spacious (it's at the large end of the large-mini category), class- leading boot room, long passenger compartment, folding rear seats (split/fold seats as an extra); comfortable, smooth ride, quiet at speed.

BANGS PER BUCK: Driver's airbag, tilt/slide sunroof, central locking, electric windows, four-speaker stereo, keypad immobiliser, tinted glass; fuel consumption 45mpg on motorways, 32mpg in town. Pre-August launch package includes three-year warranty, free delivery. Price: pounds 7,900.

STAR QUALITY: Handling, refinement, safety.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Dull appearance

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Fiesta 1.25 (pounds 9,335) - massive Fiesta improvement, fine handling, but cramped interior; Volkswagen Polo 1.0 (pounds 7,194) - brilliant newcomer, safe, solid as granite, good ride and performance, standard-setter; Vauxhall Corsa 1.2 (pounds 7,300) - nice-looking, spacious, practical but ponderous on the road.