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Mitsubishi went into the hostage-to-fortune business in a big way when they called their latest contender in the bread-and-butter market the Carisma, although maybe by missing the "h" out they were offering the coded alibi that they hadn't actually meant "charisma" of course, ridiculous idea, quite a different thing.

Because charisma is not the first notion that pops into the mind when either viewing or driving the product of this marriage of Japanese technology and European manufacture. It's quick, well-built and equipped, good value, and benignly curvaceous in a formulaic kind of way, but sweeping you up in the cyclone of its tumultuous personality it does not do. This car will sell on a reputation for tireless durability, with generous warranties to back it up. Such distinctiveness as the Carisma does have resides in the story of its life rather than its prowess on the road.

This is because the Carisma is a joint deal with Volvo, and the car shares chassis assemblies with an impending new Volvo family model. Built in Holland, it's the first car Mitsubishi have put together outside Japan, and it isn't being sold on home turf in any form, making it a strictly European competitor, up against the Mondeos and Xantias and Vectras and Peugeot 406s - but substantially cheaper.

Does the Carisma have much more to recommend it than value for money against the agile and classy occupants of a marketing niche in which standards have rocketed in the past five years? It's brisker than most of them, both from a standing start and in the critical safety margins associated with overtaking speed. The deftness of the shift on this Renault-built gearbox helps maintain the general sense of eagerness. But the major breakthrough in this middle-market sector in recent times has been in handling, and BMW-like standards have been set among many quite modestly-pitched European cars that it takes flair to beat. Not that the Carisma does anything alarming when you hang a bend in it, but the steering doesn't return the alert sensations that the wheel of a Peugeot 406 does, and the low-speed ride over small bumps and holes is twitchy at low speeds, though relaxed on the open roads.

As you might expect in a model that, despite its name, is really designed to compete on value rather than presence, the Carisma scores high on frugality, its fuel consumption as good as anything in the class. It makes up for some shortcomings of driver appeal by being comfortable to pilot, though it isn't otherwise much more spacious than the only modestly roomy Mondeo. Though rapping the knuckles on the panelwork induces a clangy-sounding report, a driver's airbag reinforces the safety package, and a passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes are optional.

Charismatic? Not in a million years. But you get a lot for your money, and these days that's a pretty glamorous trait on its own.

GOING PLACES: willing and flexible engine, smooth and quiet if a little toneless but giving 0-60mph and 30-70mph in approx 10 seconds; slick gearshift.

STAYING ALIVE: good build-quality, though maybe a little more cheeseparing on the metalwork than some Europeans: standard driver's airbag, anti-lock brakes and passenger airbag optional; side impact beams, pre-tensioned seatbelts, good visibility; handling secure and predictable but inert; driving position excellent.

CREATURE COMFORTS: comfortable, but only moderate in interior space; tight headroom for tall individuals at the front, acceptable at the rear; split-fold rear seats, very substantial boot; facia design clear and instruments well laid-out, but materials cheapskate; ride quality inclined to the jiggles in town.

BANGS PER BUCK: excellent spec for the money, including remote central locking, electric windows, sunroof and mirrors, stereo, Philips Routefinder navigational aid (standard on 1.8, optional on 1.6); fuel consumption excellent at around 40mpg at motorway speeds; three-year unlimited mileage warranty.

STAR QUALITY: well-built, good performance, great value.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: dull handling, duller appearance.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Mondeo 1.8 (pounds 14,465), great handler, though engine noisy, equipment level not as good; Peugeot 406 1.8 (pounds 13,500), the class leader (again), superb handler, luxurious feel, but slower; Renault Laguna 2.0 (pounds 13,095): nice-looking, comfortable ride and interior, dull engine.