Motoring: Arosa by any other name

The verdict: Our readers test-drive the VW Lupo - essentially a Seat Arosa with a cheeky smile.
Friends and family are always asking my advice on what car they should buy. It's a fairly thankless task; I used to only hear anything when I got it wrong - when my mother's next-door neighbour hated the trim in her new Fiat, for instance, or an aunt couldn't get to grips with the stereo in her Audi. Needless to say, I have learnt my lesson. Where once I might have suggested an Alfa Romeo to a sporty uncle or a Ford Ka to a funky grandma, these days I simply take a quick flick through the Volkswagen catalogue. Though the VW option will always be more expensive, it's worth it for peace of mind. My peace of mind, that is - if I recommend a VW, I can be fairly sure that future family reunions won't end with me being cornered by a herd of vengeful blue rinses.

And now I have another VW option to choose from. This is Volkswagen's new sub-Fiesta city car, the Lupo (Latin for wolf, they'll be made at Wolfsburg you see). Essentially, VW's cheapest model is the same car as sister company Seat's Arosa with a very du jour cheeky, smiley nose grafted on. It is designed to fill the vacuum that has formed as the Golf and, in turn, the Polo have swollen in size - Lupo prices start at pounds 7,890 rising to pounds 9,500 for the 1.4-litre, 45mpg version we tried, and on to a whopping pounds 10,350 for the bells and whistles range topper (more than an entry-level Polo).

Though Arosa prices start at just pounds 6,995, the VW premium is well worth it. No other small car feels quite as well put together as the Lupo. From the hefty way the doors shut, to the quality of plastics used to sculpt the dash, to the sublime way those little grab handles on the ceiling glide smoothly back into place (making the spring loading on all other cars seem inexcusably brutal), the Lupo lets you know it's just as well made as its bigger siblings. A 12-year guarantee is a pretty good sign that a manufacturer is confident in its product, too.

Though the Lupo's curvy front isn't really in harmony with its angular rear, its unashamedly human face does at least charm other road users, which means you can further exploit the 1.4's brisk acceleration (beware: the one-litre is more slothful) and compactness to get away with murder in traffic.

But before we apply to the Vatican for beautification, there are a few flaws you should know about. Though VW claims the Lupo seats five, I advise heavy sedation of the passengers if your journey is not to be disturbed by their groans of discomfort. And tell them not to bring any luggage either because the boot can take no more than about two squashy shopping bags. While the Lupo's ride is excellent around town and surprisingly refined on motorways, twisty roads can upset its composure. That's when the car's chief flaw, its brakes, really begin to aggravate. Small VWs have always suffered from a dead centre pedal and the Lupo is no different.

But with optional extras like heated leather seats and an electric sunroof; and with four-wheel drive and 94mpg economy models on the way; the Lupo looks a winner. If all small cars were this good, the congested city could be a much more welcoming place

Grant Berthold, 34, computer consultant, from Sydney, Australia. Currently drives a Vauxhall Omega

"The interior is pretty uncluttered and I'm surprised by how much headroom there is. I'm over six foot so I expected to be driving it with my knees around my ears, but I didn't. It's very easy to drive, very responsive - the steering is ultra-direct. It feels a bit more substantial than other small cars, which can be a bit tinny. The gear change is firm but the blue lights on the dash might need a bit of getting used to - they could be distracting at night. This is like a small Golf, so I'd expect it to hold its value well. For young people it'd be a great little car, especially in the city, but I do a lot of long journeys across Europe and, although it's refined enough, the issue might be where to put the luggage."

Linda Karlsen, 50, head teacher, from Clapham, London. Currently drives a Saab 900

"I felt instantly at home and secure, even though I normally drive a Saab. It's nice and smooth, very easy to drive, but I couldn't imagine doing long motorway journeys in it. It corners nicely and the controls are very easy to find. It looks very beefy at the front, I wouldn't call it cute but it's stylish and without affectation. It's also very sporty, the ride is nice and firm. If I could have two cars I'd have this for urban driving, but you couldn't go to Sainsbury's in it as the boot is too small. And the name is awful."

Helen Gallantry, 27, and her sister Fran Gallantry, 26, both teachers, from Romford, Essex. Both drive Ford Fiestas

Fran: "It's easy to just get in and drive and the acceleration is like a Lamborghini compared to my car. It's quiet too and I like the fact that the brakes aren't too vicious. It's dinkier than a Polo but there's lots of headroom."

Helen: "It's very, very nippy, I felt totally confident on the motorway. It's smooth and comfy and there's plenty of room in the back. It's much nicer than a Ford Ka, very cute. It'd be a good first car. For a small car it's well made but I'm not too keen on the white dials. Having no glove box is a bit of a downer too."

Paul Mcpherson, 32, freelance graphic designer, from Blackheath, London. Currently drives a Mercedes C240 sport and an MGA roadster

"I would say it's the ideal city car, it would suit my mother down to the ground. It's pretty nippy, but the brakes aren't very responsive. It is a girl's car or a new driver's car - second-hand they'll be snapped up, I would think. I like the front styling, it seems to smile, though some might think it a bit twee or a bit design-for-design's- sake. Those sort of lights are in fashion now but might date. It feels quite solid but I'm not too impressed by the all-black-plastic interior - it's a bit like sitting in an Airfix car - and the dials are horrendous, they look like Mickey Mouse. They'd put me off actually, after all you do have to look at them a lot."

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 drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.