Motoring: A little of what you fancy

The verdict; This week, readers squeeze into Fiat's dinky Seicento.

f you're into football you'll know it as the Jordi

Cruyff syndrome - when the offspring of talented parents follow in their footsteps with lamentable consequences. And the same can often be said for cars. A decade after they pulled the dust sheet off the successor to the Jaguar E-Type, the XJS, people were still stifling their laughter. In terms of driver dynamics, the first VW Golf will always be the best, and as for Citroen, well, you can chart its decline from the moment the last DS swooped off the production line in 1975.

But one manufacturer has long bucked the trend - at least as far as its small cars are concerned. Fiat is a Titan of the titchy; no one, not even the Japanese, does small with quite such brio, with each generation better, in design terms, then the one before. From the Topolino of 1935 to the new Seicento, Fiat has led the way with cars so compact you could almost imagine them being sold in pairs - one for each foot.

Its last, the Cinquecento, was the best in its class in terms of personality and poise, and many manufacturers would be content to have fine-tuned that for a few more years (it's a future cult car, I'll wager). But while the Seicento features the same engines, a similar truncated silhouette, it is an all-new design, bigger, more curvaceous and, at pounds 6,495, pounds 300 cheaper than its predecessor.

Crucially it doesn't feel cheap though. The styling helps suggest robustness of course, curves always do, but the funky Fisher-Price-style interior is made from tangibly better-quality plastics. And having spent many decades pioneering space-efficient motoring, Fiat now finds itself in a position to perfect the details - hence the plastic rub-guards on the tips of the wing mirrors, and the effortless way the front seat tilts forward to allow access to the rear.

Aesthetically, I'm not sure the Seicento appeals to the heart as other Fiats have - am I the only one who thinks the slender black grills under the headlights make the car look like it has two black eyes? I can live with the bland looks though. The brakes are another matter. Those in the base "S" model that we tried were far too spongy and required too much effort to halt the car quickly; and grip from the tyres was less than prodigious, making it too easy, albeit fun, to provoke tyre squeal on roundabouts.

The 899cc engine also disappointed. Where Fiat's small motors once had a reputation for free-revving eagerness, this one's sounded like a Hoover. Though ultimately good for 87mph (and, with five gears, companionable on motorways), the whole purpose of a car like this is to be able to squirt through fleeting gaps in urban traffic but, as with the Mini, the Seicento has to be driven with the right foot pushing down at all times to maintain momentum. I'd say the 1100cc engine in the pounds 7,495 "Sporting" model is a must, as is power steering (a clutchless gear-change version, the Citymatic, is also available).

As with many Italian cars, the Seicento is brilliant but flawed - the main defect being lack of character. But it may well prove to be Fiat's finest small car yet and many buyers will be content with what it does offer: value, space and refinement. In spades

Peter Illatschko: 29, from Johannesburg, South Africa, living in north London, curtain-maker

Peter was the most positive of our testers, calling the Seicento "very sporty, very teenage", and he thought it would suit his lifestyle and the demands of his work quite well. "I look for something small in a car, something easy to park. This is comfortable, despite its size; everything's very visible. It's a bit space age inside but the quality is pretty good. Outside it's too boxy for my taste, a bit of a sardine can." On the move Peter complained of a rubbery gear change and that the pedals were both too small and too close together. "And it doesn't seem to have much oomph."

Stephen Bucknill, 32, and Amanda Bucknill, 31, solicitor and housewife, from Henley upon Thames. Pictured with their children, Rosanna, three, and Ben, 15 months. They currently drive an Astra

The Bucknills saw potential in the Seicento as a second car:

"We really need two cars in the country, so this might be good for nipping into the office," said Stephen, "but it's a bit small for longer journeys." Amanda noted immediate impracticalities:

"It's like a ladybird. You'd never get a pram in, it's got no back doors so it'd be a bit of a nightmare getting children in and out of a baby seat. You couldn't get a buggy in the boot, and there's no rear leg room. I suppose I could see it as a groovy granny car, or a car for merry widows maybe."

Simon Lynes: 31, from Poole, Dorset, partner in classic small Fiat dealer, Autotoys of Battersea. Currently drives a 1965 Fiat 600

An aficionado of baby Fiats, Simon could see an immediate family resemblance: "The size of this is definitely in keeping with Fiat tradition, but ultimately it's very different because it's front-engined. The styling doesn't really appeal. I think the interior is going to date quickly, but it seems comfortable and for this size of engine the acceleration is not bad." Simon pronounced the build quality "no more tacky than others in its class. And I like the bumpy ride, you can really feel the road, the steering's nice and precise. I don't the brakes are very good for a modern car though."

Hugh Craig: 42, from Northern Ireland, personal trainer. Currently drives a Mini

Hugh found it hard to see how a Seicento would be an improvement over his Mini. "I'm not very into cars but this seems really different from my Mini. It's very slow on the uptake, very old-ladyish. A Mini is far sexier too, more aesthetically pleasing. I look for a car that is small and functional, which this is, I admit, but I think the interior is a bit childish. The dash is moulded out of one piece of plastic and looks like one of those tiny Japanese hotel rooms. No, this isn't sexy at all."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you currently drive. Participants must be over 26 for most vehicles and have a clean licence.

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