APPEARANCES are everything where bargain coupes are concerned. They're designed to turn heads, and are supposed to maintain their charm even when potential customers know they don't provide the alternative motoring experience offered by, say, a convertible. Mechanically, they're usually very closely related to a more conventional sibling - but with less space.

Getting a coupe just right is a matter of fine distinctions. If the car's expected jauntiness veers toward the immoderate, people call it (with a distinct absence of political correctness) a hairdresser's car - and there aren't enough hairdressers to sustain the investment, even in the 1990s. If it's too low-key, people call it dowdy. But when Vauxhall launched its Tigra coupe at the end of last year, it seemed to have hit the balance just about right.

The sleek, sporty two-door looked extraordinary - like a full-size Micro- Machine toy, with slit-eye headlamps, a diving nose, a ski-slope windscreen line and high wraparound rear glass. If Vauxhall's designers had done nothing else but build that spectacular body and perch it on top of a milkfloat chassis, say, they would undoubtedly have done good business.

So it's a headturner all right, and Tigra sales across Europe seem to confirm that people are prepared to go for their chequebooks and pay for it. After all this, driving it was almost certain to be a disappointment - particularly when you consider the price range, which starts at around pounds l1,000.

The Tigra is based on the Corsa, and the Corsa is a stylishly executed, comfortable supermini - but it's nobody's idea of a major contender on the road. The 1.4 Tigra, however, gets more of the assignment right than wrong. It offers good design, lively performance and a generous supply of attractive optional inducements (anti-lock brakes, twin airbags, electronic sunroof, which are also standard fittings on the 1.6 model).

Add these extras to what is already a captivating basic package, and you can see that such shortcomings as the Tigra 1.4 has in use won't be noticed by its typical clientele. These people are likely to be enthusiastic car-owners, but not necessarily enthusiastic drivers.

The interior is comfortable, if a bit dark and gloomy (like a Corsa's), though the rear seats are really designed only for children or very small adults. The driving position is limited in its adjustability, even if the seats are very supportive. Boot space certainly isn't cut out for going into the removals business, and there isn't much interior storage space either. This car is primarily a one-person, metropolitan funmobile.

The coupe's gearshift is somewhat awkward and imprecise, but the engine emits a suitably businesslike growl under pressure (this, of course, is more noise than effect). The low-build, skimpy tyres - with a Corsa suspension that's tuned to match - make the Tigra hunker down close to the tarmac, and it turns eagerly into corners with an unexpected sparkiness compared to its close relatives.

Rear visibility is fairly poor, and wrestling with the seatbelts (which are awkward to position because of the cabin shape and folding seats) can drive you crazy. But the little Tigra is a charmer all right - and this year an automatic version has appeared, ideal for those who want the youth appeal without the donkey-work.

GOING PLACES: Sparky performance for this modest twin-cam 16-valve engine, good sound effects when the revs rise; gearshift a bit of a maze, but a shrewd ratio-choice for the available power; 0-60mph in 10.5 seconds, 30-70mph in 11 seconds.

STAYING ALIVE: Fine on untaxing open roads, and sharp and stable on corners, but with noticeable understeer (wide cornering) and twitchiness on bumps; good brakes, driver's airbag (passenger's airbag standard on 1.6 model, and optional on 1.4), anti-lock brakes standard on 1.6, and optional on 1.4. Rear visibility limited. Build quality reasonable.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Comfortable, well designed cabin, if a little narrow and dark; power steering, electric front windows, radio-cassette, tinted glass, rear wash-wipe; driver's seat positioning rather limited; rear legroom passable for a 2+2; headroom on the tight side.

BANGS PER BUCK: Driver's airbag, immobiliser; fuel economy good at approximately 32 miles per gallon in town, 40mpg on motorways. Price: pounds l1,600.

STAR QUALITY: Superb body styling; a clever tweaking of Corsa fundamentals to make a much more lively car, and one that's almost unrivalled on price and style in the small coupe category.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Gearshift, handling twitch, cramped, dark interior.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Honda Civic coupe (pounds 11,335) - not such a looker as the Tigra, but less fussy to handle, and with much more space; Rover 216 coupe (pounds l5,810) - roomier, much more conventional, less body control and steering feel; BMW 318i (pounds 19,000) - a different league of coupe, but in a different price league as well; superb handling and styling, prestige.