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IF YOU test- drive new cars often, two things stand out. One is that engineering and safety standards have risen sharply in the past five years. The other is that, in the drive to win customers in a highly competitive market (but for what is usually a pretty conservative purchase), cars are becoming harder to tell apart.

For these reasons, it's unusual to climb into one and be convinced you're sitting in anything that's more than merely competent. Few cars come across as self-evident leaders of the pack before you've even negotiated the first bend.

Plenty of people are finding the new VW Polo just such a car. It's in the supermini class, along with such strong contenders as the Peugeot 106, the Fiat Punto and the Vauxhall Corsa. They're all attractive and well-built machines, but when you close thedriver's door of the Polo, it feels as if it's been borrowed from a Mercedes or a Saab. In its solidity and rugged construction,this car scores a palpable hit with an increasingly safety-conscious public before the occupant has even turned the key.

The Polo is a quirkily glamorous variation on the nose-down, tail-up body design now characteristic of this class of car. It's very roomy inside, and its cabin isn't as drab as some other VW products.

The company has also been shrewd in what it is offering for the money. Having conceived of a small car of remarkable refinement, even by the fast-accelerating standards of minicar design, VW then developed several models for less than £9,000 with a long list of desirable extras thrown in. This is a car that looks set to fly up the sales charts, and even threaten the prominence of its sibling, the Golf.

Does Volkswagen's new stunner have a downside? It's hard to think of one. The fuel gauge descended surprisingly quickly in town use, perhaps the price to be paid for that chunky body. And people who like racing away from traffic lights and having their pictures taken by Gatso cameras might find its performance rather dull. Apart from that, the new VW Polo is a hands-down winner. Even the logo on the boot is perfect.

ce GOING PLACES: Smooth- revving but modest 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, but torquey at middle and lower revs. Because of its excellent, crisp gearshift and sensible ratios, it doesn't feel slow, particularly in town. Approx-imately 12 seconds to 60mph, unstrained at motorway speeds in fifth. The general tautness and lack of vibration throughout the engine and transmission contribute to extremely relaxed driving.

ce STAYING ALIVE: Very high standards of body construction and rigidity, with pre-tensioned seatbelts, big side-impact bars and driver's airbag. Anti-lock brakes available, standard on GL class and beyond. Superb handling for its performance range, very sensitive steering, excellent control of pitch and roll, brilliant ride comfort on rough roads. Brakes a little soft in feel, but contributing towards the sense of progressive control. Very secure in operation.

ce CREATURE COMFORTS: Power-steering, height-adjustable steering wheel, very good driving position, even for tall drivers. Excellent cabin space, a five-seater without too much squeezing. Split folding rear seats and reasonable-sized boot, though sunk low and with a very high rim. Good ventilation, and a much airier cabin than is usual for VWs. Exceptional quietness of operation for a small, slightly underpowered car.

ce BANGS PER BUCK: Excellent value-for-money spec, including anti-theft immobiliser, driver air-bag, electric windows, mirrors and central locking. Good stereo with removable security panel. Fuel economy not so good for the size at approximately 30 milesper gallon in town, 40mpg at motorway speeds. Price: £8,700.

ce STAR QUALITY: Superb engineering. Quiet, rugged and relaxing to drive. A supermini that has shot to the top of the heap.

ce TURKEY QUOTIENT: Quite thirsty; performance modest; anti-lock brakes should be standard.

ce AND ON MY RIGHT: Fiat Punto 75 (£8,475) - more spacious, very imaginative but less reassuring on the road. Peugeot 106 (£8,595) - great to drive, a bit noisier, not so comfortable. Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 (£8,100) - very nice-looking, luxurious interior, fussy engine, less responsive handling.