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The Independent Culture
I USED to be obsessed with magic when I was a child. Well, of course, childhood's like that, isn't it? No, I don't mean romantic, fairytale magic. I mean practical "how-do-they-do-that?" magic. The instructions on the packaging of mail-order magic sets always suggested that it wasn't what you did that mattered, but what people thought you did. You may have made a silk handkerchief vanish from the palm of your hand by the vulgar expedient of having a piece of elastic haul it into your distinctly earthbound armpit but that was showbusiness, wasn't it? It was up to you to convince people about the magic part. That was showbusiness, too.

Alfa Romeos have always been magic. The word is written into motoring folklore, designed into the snort of an Alfa's exhaust. For a while, though, the Italian marque has lived in the realm of "it's not what you do but what people think you do". Take the Alfa 145, for instance, the model on which the 146 tested here is based. Though it looks quirkily innovative (intriguingly suggesting a VW Golf at the front and a pizza delivery van at the rear), it lacks the kind of attention to detail that makes a truly magical car. Its ride, handling, gearchange and driving feel were problematic, but the 145 sported a bold and clever cabin design the doors seemed huge, and the interior very light with its boldly conceived door furniture and ventilators, and dramatically scooped glovebox and passenger-side facia.

The Alfa 146 is more pedestrian, but addresses the 145's shortcomings well. It's a practical, five-door, family saloon that just happens to bear the noble "red cross" Alfa badge. To survive in a hard world, parent company Fiat now has to show that it can make sales in this formerly no- go territory of family motoring. So it has stuck a boot on the flawed 145, evened out the futuristic flows of its interior, and put it up against the Ford Escort.

The 146 is still indubitably an Alfa to look at and to drive, too, with its sporty-sounding engine (not entirely endorsed by the performance figures), closely grouped pedals and deft steering. On open roads the 146 takes bends swiftly and accurately, though poor urban surfaces make its front wheel twitch a little, and the suspension doesn't massage out the small bumps. The brakes are a shade soft, though an anti-lock system is standard not yet routine on cars at this price range. The scooped- out passenger-side facia gives plenty of legroom for the nearside rear passenger because the front seat can slide so far forward, and the boot isn't bad. Interior fittings rattle a bit, and an Alfa Romeo in this motoring bracket is still a difficult thing around which to bend your prejudices.

The 146 isn't perfect, but it's certainly worth a look. If you go for one, though, make sure you get the central-locking remote control that needs specifically pointing into the cabin. The multi-directional one that came with the 145 I earlier drove accidentally unlocked the car if I jangled the keys in my pocket when walking in the opposite direction.

GOING PLACES: Lively, sporty sounding, 1.6-litre engine. Sharp throttle responses, but a bit limited in power 0-60mph in 11.5 seconds, 50-70mph in 10.5 seconds in 4th. Nice, crisp gear ratios maximise performance.

STAYING ALIVE: Good at flowing over straightish A-roads, a bit inclined to roll on anything tighter, and knobbly on urban drives. Steering excellent, with extremely nimble negotiation of tight corners, helped by good grip. Standard driver's airbag, anti-lock brakes, reasonable build quality.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Innovative passenger-side facia design giving exceptional nearside space, front and back; electric front windows and mirrors; remote central locking; split/folding rear seat; stereo set too low; driving seat height adjustable, but sill inflexible; no sunroof.

BANGS PER BUCK: Anti-lock brakes, driver's airbag, immobiliser standard. Fuel economy 27mpg (urban), 35mpg on motorways. Price pounds 12,655.

STAR QUALITY: Nice-looking; bold interior; enough Alfa charisma to count; imaginative attempt to get into the bargain basement with a legend.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Ride and performance flawed.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Escort 1.6i (pounds 12,475) much improved car, though charismatic isn't the word for it, and still a bit stodgy; Citroen ZX Aura (pounds 11,900) very good handling and ride comfort, one of the class leaders; Rover 416i (pounds 12,995) little luxury car, superb suppleness for the money, more powerful, a bit blander on corners.