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Car choice: Can a safe car be stylish?

Anna wants a reliable and spacious car that's also interesting. So, can she have it all? James Ruppert weighs the options

Anna Falaschi, 45, is a car nut who has always been a fan of Italian cars and their driving dynamics. However, because she has worked in sales and has obviously done quite well at it, Anna has had to work her way through cheap Euroboxes up to big German diesels made by Mercedes, Audi and BMW – in the interests of reliability, obviously. A new job now means less miles overall, but with some travel to Europe, so she's looking for a car that has the ability to take three kids and a husband away. There is a family MPV in reserve for holidays. Anna has £13,000 to spend and would ideally like something interesting – hence a temptation to buy Italian. But she is wondering about reliability issues.

Anna does have a problem here, and it's her family. She obviously loves them enough to want to fit them into her new car, but should she worry about this? It's going to be Anna's car most of the time, so why shouldn't she have exactly what she wants?

Indeed, has she considered the small and perfectly formed Fiat 500? The 1.4 Sport is more than a match for the Mini One and is likely to undercut it on price too, costing around £11,000. As with the Mini, though, buyers are encouraged to load it with extras.

The drawback is that there are just four seats. Unless Anna is feeling spectacularly selfish, maybe she should think about buying something a bit more family-friendly. Plus, the Fiat has struggled with reliability. The website www.reliabilityindex. co.uk shows that no Italian car is in the top 10, because seven are Japanese, but Anna has told me that she doesn't want a soulless Far Eastern car. I wonder if we can persuade her otherwise?

A car for the head

I don't want Anna to think I've gone mad – but what about the Vauxhall Corsa? The new one is not as small as they used to be and doesn't feel like a supermini. It has plenty of space, has big-car refinement on the road, and is really nicely finished.

Going for the mid-ranking Club specification brings curtain airbags, making it very safe. And there are some great deals around; with a little bit of pushing, buyers have been able to get several thousand pounds off the asking price. That means a 1.4 Club could be bought for around £10,000 brand new.

Another great small car is the Suzuki Swift. It's arguably more funky-looking than a Corsa and can be just as good value.

Going up a size, there's the Volkswagen Golf. If that's a bit boring to look at, maybe the Mazda 3 is the answer. It has distinctive styling and is great to drive, which Anna should appreciate. A 1.4 TS sells for just under £13,000, but she should be able to get £1,000 off that. I've mentioned only new vehicles here because of the guarantees, and Anna will have no worries about reliability on her drives around Europe.

A car for the heart

Ithink that all of the above "head" cases could also qualify as cars for Anna's heart, as they are all great to drive and easy to live with. Still, it is certainly tempting to get Anna into an Alfa Romeo, such as a 147.

One marque that she did not mention is Volvo. The S40 saloon is a very classy package, and it makes such a change from the usual German offerings. Best of all, the S40 is great value. For the distances Anna may be doing, she needs her car to be comfy. The S40 is certainly that, as the suspension has been designed with relaxed journeys in mind, whatever the road surface. The 2.0-litre diesel will manage 50mpg. There are lively petrol engines, such as the 2.4 and 2.5T, but consumption is heavier at just over 30mpg. There's plenty of width in the body, so three children in the back isn't a problem, but if their legs are growing there won't be that much room. Still, it is a full five-seater.

I found a 2004 S40 diesel at a dealer, with 21,000 miles on the clock, for £12,399. At a Volvo dealer, a 2006 1.8S petrol with just 9,000 miles was £12,450, proving what good value these cars are – and this vehicle would still be under warranty.

Please write to Car Choice, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email James Ruppert at carchoice@independent.co.uk, giving your age, address and phone number, details of the type of vehicle you are interested in, and your budget.