Motoring: Daihatsu's urban assault

The Sirion `super mini' fits Labour's think-small ideology.

New Labour will love the new Daihatsu Sirion. At just 3.6 metres long the Sirion does not take up more road space than it really ought to. The Sirion also is environmentally friendly - the new 1.0 litre engine being one of the most fuel efficient on sale and its exhaust emissions are amongst the world's cleanest.

The Sirion also cares about its occupants with more safety features than any other car in its class. There is even a pleasing pro-European chicness about its styling.

This is the sort of car the Government would want you to drive. It seems likely it will even reward you for buying something as small, green and efficient as the Sirion which will qualify for the Chancellor's lower road-tax rate of pounds 100. Never mind if New Labour thinks we should own a small car like the Sirion, the important question is, will we actually want to buy one?

Marketing bores will call the Sirion a B-class car. Car buyers will call the Sirion a small hatchback, or super mini. That means the Sirion will be competing against tough opposition from Nissan Micra, Peugeot 106, Citroen Saxo and Vauxhall Corsa.

Luckily, the Sirion looks the chic super mini part, thanks to some pleasing styling. Obviously Daihatsu thinks chrome is making a comeback, but after years of spartan small cars this is something of a relief. What you do notice apart from the distinctive front-end styling is the high-roof line which is in proportion and for once means that rear-seat passengers get a fair deal in terms of headroom. Shoulder room is another matter. Rear legroom for the taller passenger is always going to be a squeeze. The Sirion is properly packaged with a decent-sized boot, standard five-door body, plenty of oddments storage in the well laid out dashboard, not forgetting the obligatory cup holders.

Just as sitting in a Sirion is a pleasant experience so is driving one. The frugal three-cylinder engine accelerates well at low speeds and especially when linked to the automatic gearbox. Just don't expect too much on the open road in terms of refinement if you are cracking along on a motorway. But then a Sirion is not designed to do that. This is primarily a town centre and urban-assault vehicle, tasks to which it is ideally suited with a small turning circle and eager engine. Compared to the mass-market competition the Daihatsu feels less grown-up.

While light in build quality and a touch more raucous, you have trouble spotting that it has only three cylinders. However the battle of the showroom is seldom won on the test drive, it is more often decided on the bottom line. Standard equipment is impressive with driver and passenger airbags, electric mirrors, rear-wash wipe, adjustable front seat-belt anchors, engine immobiliser, headlight levelling, remote hatch and a fuel-flap release.

Or opt for the Sirion+ complete with side airbags, air conditioning, central locking, electric-rear windows and ABS brakes. At pounds 9,395 on the road it undercuts most rivals.

Compare a Sirion+ to a Nissan Micra 1.0GX and you find power steering. However a passenger airbag, ABS brakes and air conditioning add more than pounds 1,000 to the cost of a car which already retails for pounds 300 more than the Sirion+. Against a Peugeot 106 Zest - although power steering is standard - ABS, electric mirrors and air conditioning are not on the options list. A Citroen Saxo only has a passenger airbag, power steering and ABS as cost options. A Vauxhall Corsa GLS, the most expensive car in this comparison at pounds 10,670, charges for passenger airbag, ABS, air conditioning and electric mirrors, although automatic transmission is not an option. Not only that, the combined fuel consumption for the Sirion is 51.3 miles to the gallon.

Until the end of July Daihatsu is offering automatic transmission, worth pounds 795, as a no-cost option on the Sirion or Sirion+ models.

So what's the catch? At resale time the Sirion may take a little longer to shift as buyers won't know what it is. Daihatsu does not have to sell as many Sirions as Corsas, or Micras.

The company puts this year's target at 1,000, rising to 4,000 by the year 2000. So when you resell, possibly the only people interested will be Daihatsu dealers who want to sell another Daihatsu.

If you are planning to motor into the millennium with a vehicle-hostile government snapping at your heels, a Sirion may be an option. The fact is most small-car buyers are only interested in value for money and equipment. The Sirion has this and a three-year warranty. I'm sure the staunch old Labour "pound in your pocket" Prime Minister Harold Wilson would have approved.

Specifications

Price: pounds 7,995 (Sirion) or pounds 9,395 (Sirion+). Engine: 989cc three cylinders, 54bhp at 5200rpm. Transmission: Five-speed gearbox or four-speed automatic front-wheel drive. Performance: 90mph, 0-60in 15.2 seconds; 51.3mpg (manual) 44.8mpg (automatic).

Rivals

Vauxhall Corsa GLS: pounds 10,670. Shape is still cute, but the running gear is crude. Extras don't come cheap.

Nissan Micra 1.0 GX: pounds 9,755. Smooth engine, great manual and automatic gearbox. Limited interior and stowage space. Well built though.

Peugeot 106 1.1: Zest pounds 9,370. Comfortable and fun to drive. Cramped inside and not as sturdy as a Micra or Polo.

Volkswagen Polo L: pounds 8,265. Superb-build quality means low specification is forgivable. A long-term prospect. Holds value brilliantly.

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