Road test Fiat Seicento, by Roger Bell
The creche is getting crowded. Buoyed by the Government's small- is-beautiful edict, sales of budget-priced babes look set to escalate as gridlocked Britain grinds to a halt.

New kids on the block include Seat's titchy Arosa, precursor of the sub- Polo-sized VW Lupo; Daiwoo's three-cylinder Matiz, coming soon; Hyundai's Atoz (troubled South Korea is big on small cars); Suzuki's oddball Wagon R, and a gang of dinky Daihatsus led by the Cuore. The city dodgem they all have to beat is the new Fiat Seicento (600), which, if nothing else, is easier to pronounce than the Cinquecento (500) it replaces.

The Polish-made Seicento is seriously small. Fiat describes it as "Europe's most compact" car though the Mini - once wheels for the impecunious, now a pricey fashion accessory for the well-heeled - is shorter. So is the Cuore. However, Ford's smallest car, the Fiesta-based Ka, looks gargantuan alongside a Seicento, which is under 11ft long and upright with it - all the better to cram in four adults, those up front with ample room for elbows and legs, if not big feet on tiny pedals.

The guillotined rump conceals a ledge-like boot, which is no more than to be expected of a car that will slot into parking spaces others can't reach. As if to reflect its cheeky nature, the Seicento wears a saucy grin.

Loud hues and a bold shape - the speedo's a Cyclops eye and switches are chunky - give the colourful cabin a jaunty mien, more Mickey Mouse than mainstream. Carry-all bins reflect Fiat's devotion to efficient packaging and practicality. There are no frills, though up-range models get electric windows and central locking. Later options will include power steering and a Citymatic clutchless gear change.

Fiat 600s once had 600cc engines. The Seicento comes with a choice of two four-cylinder petrols when it goes on sale next week at prices close to those of the outgoing Cinquecento - pounds 6,800-pounds 7,500. The S and SX hum to the tune of a puny 900cc, 39hp engine which, despite modern exhaust cleansing, is almost as old as the Ark. Marginal motorists who want some pizzazz should opt instead for the livelier Sporting, powered by an 1,100cc 54hp engine capable of 50 miles to the gallon.

To tag the Seicento a city car is to discredit its role as an inter- city one. Even the sluggish 900 cruises tolerably quietly, despite low gearing. If the Seicento is flawed as an urban funabout, it has less to do with zap - entertaining in the Sporting - than with agility. About town, the steering lacks bite and the ride's a bit agitated. From such a pert little car, I'd expected more brio.

SPECIFICATIONS

Fiat Seicento Sporting, about pounds 7,600. Engine: 1,108cc, 8 valves, 4 cylinders, 54bhp. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 93mph, 0-60mph in 13.5 seconds, 45.5mpg (EC combined).

RIVALS

Daihatsu Cuore, pounds 6,500. Bland-looking utilitarian powered by three-cylinder 850cc engine. Nippier than it looks, economical, available with five-door bodywork. Related mechanically to wacky Daihatsu Move.

Ford Ka 1.3, pounds 8,000. If you can stand its glowering face and ugly rump, the Ka's a cracker. Quiet, refined, smooth riding, sharp-handling.

Hyundai Atoz, pounds 6,999. A tall tiddler with a long wheelbase giving a roomy, five-door monospace cabin. Power steering and central locking standard. So is excessive noise from the 999cc 12-valve engine.

Seat Arosa 1.0, pounds 6,995. Conservative three-door micro-hatch, bigger than Seicento, smaller than Polo. Foreshadows VW Lupo clone. Nicely made, modest ability. Better with 1.4 motor and five speeds.

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