Motoring: Auto Biography: The Fiat Cinquecento in 0-60 seconds

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I COME from a family of non-motorists. My mother thought nobody survived in a car for longer than a few milliseconds unless someone walked in front with a flag. We spent years of our lives standing at bus stops, and began our summer holidays by panting up to the barrier at Charing Cross, laden with luggage, just in time to see the train's tail-lights disappear into the distance.

But . . . there had been a car. A faded photograph in a family album shows my stepfather's baby Fiat in the garage. The car hadn't found the house; the house had found the car, because for some reason the garage was less than 5ft high. They were made for each other.

This year Fiat launched the Cinquecento, its most photogenic baby since the 500 series of the 1950s. The old 500s had engines like lawnmowers and performance to match; this new one looks like a biscuit tin, and travelling in it feels like being on a skateboard with a lid. But it's a conceptual triumph just like its predecessors, another budget-priced car so eccentric and minuscule as to border on the ludicrous. Yet it has a distinctive charm - both for customers who can't afford anything else, and for those to whom it represents the price of an afternoon's shopping.

Access to an astonishingly roomy interior is made easy by front seats that both fold and tip forward. Very tall drivers will encroach on the knees of rear passengers, but not insufferably, and the headroom is very good. The long-serving 899cc engine is slow, but the gear ratios are sensible and the car is so close to the road that the impression of speed is much greater. It doesn't offer the protection of a big heavy car, but it easily meets EC crash test standards - and there are side-impact beams in the doors.

The Cinquecento sparkles in town, with fine suspension, safe and predictable handling, and such an appetite for parking spaces that you can pirouette into the gaps that everybody else has given up on. The gearshift is decidedly grim, however, and the door handles drove me bananas - but in general Fiat's new baby is as clever, pretty, deft and useful as a mini-car can get.

GOING PLACES: Old 899cc Fiat engine updated by fuel injection and electronic management. Gives a slow but unfussy performance, from 0-60mph in 20 secs, but feels quicker. Slow overtaking speeds, gearshift poor.

STAYING ALIVE: Chassis design good, with stable and reassuring handling on corners - even on soft suspension and narrow tyres. Bodywork sound, heavy and as rigid as any in the mini-car class (though feet are very close to a front-end crash). Side-impact bars in doors, brakes progressive and safe (though no anti-lock available). Steering feel excellent (though no power assistance). Visibility very good.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Not many, but they are stylish. Upholstery design suitably chirpy, though under- thigh seat support lacking. No telescopic adjustment on steering column, but enough seat adjustment for tall drivers. Acceptable rear legroom. Headroom excellent. Engine noise minimal for a hardworking unit. The load space is very limited.

BANGS PER BUCK: Not many extras: central locking, tilt sunroof and electric windows all standard on the

SX model ( pounds 5,416). Rear wash/wipe and sound system with removable switch panel standard on basic ( pounds 4,990) model. Fuel consumption frugal: 42mpg in town, 45 plus at touring speeds.

STAR QUALITY: Brilliantly eccentric design, refinement of well-travelled engine gives quiet, practical performance. Parkable on proverbial dime.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Disagreeable gearshift. Flimsy steering-column stalks. Flat, unsupportive seats.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Rover Mini Sprite ( pounds 5,250) - more expensive and not as cute or quick. Daihatsu Mira ( pounds 6,395) - too expensive, unattractive body. Kia Pride ( pounds 5,499) - reasonably priced, but rather dull.

(Photograph omitted)