John Simister explains why the young machismo male would fight shy of a drive
THIS CAR looks daft. It's simply a box on wheels - a fact which no number of feature lines and curvy details can disguise.

I have been driving a Hyundai Atoz+ (A-to-Z, get it?) painted in a vivid metallic green, and I have been letting pink Suzuki Vitaras out of side turnings on the basis that even they don't look quite as daft as my mode of transport.

A young, fashionable, machismo-conscious male colleague was scared to drive the Atoz in case any of his friends saw him. So, why did I find myself quite liking this strange mutation from South Korea?

Maybe it's because it conforms to no known stereotype - it's a sort of automotive Year Zero - and because its ambience is so wholeheartedly non-aggressive. This is a new kind of car, tiny but roomy, and styled (sort of).

There is also the Daihatsu Move, and the Suzuki Wagon R, true, but both are even squarer in shape, lacking the attempt at combining curve with cube that gives the Atoz a new direction.

All are cheap; all promise new heights of space-efficiency. There is, however, a flaw in the argument. Extra space is all very well, but if it is all in the vertical direction then it is of little real use unless you are on your way to a convention of wizards and witches.

In addition the Atoz, like the Move, is hopeless at providing decent legroom for its driver. Your road-tester is 5ft 6in tall (which, according to data from Mercedes-Benz, makes him a 50th-percentile northern European human being, if we disregard the issue of gender) and the driver's seat does not go back far enough.

The result is an aching thigh and an even more aching ankle.

The steering wheel is set ludicrously high, too. However, if the seat went back any further, there wouldn't be any room for the passenger behind.

Now, some facts. The Atoz has a little 1.0-litre engine; its body is about 9in shorter than that of a typical supermini (Polo, 106); its rear seats fold forward in a "double-tumble" to create a big load space; and it costs pounds 6,999.

Alternatively you can buy the Atoz+ version, which adds a driver's airbag, alloy wheels, a cassette player (the base version has merely a simple radio), central locking, electric front windows, air-conditioning and front fog lamps, all of which is a good pounds 1,000-worth.

Beyond that, you can have a clutchless transmission for pounds 470, or a full- blown automatic gearbox for pounds 699. Power steering is standard.

The car I have been testing is an Atoz+ automatic. Its transmission has only three gears, so the little engine is revving its head off when you're lolloping along the motorway.

A lot of road roar rushes into the cabin on a coarse surface, too, so cruising on concrete calls for full radio volume if you're to catch every nuance of plot in The Archers.

For all that, though, the Atoz is surprisingly lively, and it doesn't run out of puff on hills as readily as you might expect - even though that bluff front has a lot of air to push aside.

The next pleasant surprise concerns the ride comfort.

Unlike the Daihatsu Move, which goes to pieces if you attempt a spirited drive on an unevenly-surfaced B-road, the little Hyundai keeps its composure and proves surprisingly supple.

The steering is light and accurate, and the expected feeling of precariousness doesn't materialise. All that happens if you round a bend too quickly is that the front wheels drift outwards in an ever widening arc.

The dashboard is more interesting than the Move's, too - all curves and cowls and pods and vents, like the nozzle of a hair-dryer. There's no glovebox as such, but plenty of shelves, pockets and cup-holders. The plastics are hard and shiny, though, and their fit is approximate in places.

As a cubist car, then, the Atoz works well, apart from that driver's legroom problem. The simplest solution here would be to re-engineer the seat mountings to raise the seat's front edge, thus providing a little more support for the thigh.

In the end, though, what does an Atoz offer that a normal supermini does not?

It offers the illusion of extra passenger space, the reality of potentially greater cargo space, the ability to slide into tighter parking spaces - thanks to its brevity - and a low price, to match the minimalist mechanicals.

In some ways, it's a fine solution. To what problem, though, I'm not quite sure.

Incidentally, the Atoz is called Atos in South Korea. Meaningless in Korean, the name was deemed less than optimal for English-speaking markets.

Specifications

Specifications

Prices: from pounds 6,999 (Atoz) to pounds 8,698 (Atoz+ auto)

Engine: 999cc, four cylinders, 12 valves, 55bhp at 5,500rpm.

Transmission: five-speed manual or three-speed automatic, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 88mph, 0-60 in 14.7sec, 40-45mpg (manual), 85mph, 0-60 in 19.3sec, 34-39mpg (automatic).

Rivals

Daewoo Matiz: Price to be announced. On sale shortly. It has a three-cylinder engine, and looks a little like a five-door Renault Twingo. The cutest of this new breed of tiny cars.

Daihatsu Move: pounds 7,200. Smaller, slower, squarer and more turbulent than Atoz, but likeable for its low price and visual wackiness. A 2CV for the Nineties.

Fiat Seicento S: pounds 6,750. Cheapest of the new-look micro-Fiats, and feels it. Has many neat design details, and sufficient space and pace to work as a viable car.

Suzuki Wagon R+ GA: pounds 7,425. Move-shaped, but bigger, with an Atoz-sized 1.0-litre engine (which is about to be enlarged). Roomy and practical, but a little too van-like.

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