Citroen's flair is overtaken by Ford's nimble hare

Will the sensible Saxo win more friends? John Simister decides: CITROEN SAXO 1.4 VSX
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Has Citroen tripped over its own chevrons in creating a new supermini that lacks flair? Probably not. In losing Citroen traditionalists, the Saxo will win new friends.

There is nothing bold or adventurous about Citroen's new Saxo supermini, nothing to beguile or perplex. It is not a car that will polarise opinions, like so many Citroens of the past have done with their innovative design and quirky habits. In turning its back on oddball cars of great character, Citroen has abandoned its maverick ways and joined the conformists. It seems a pity that survival these days depends on toeing the line, on pandering to the majority.

If the Saxo looks vaguely familiar, it is because it is based on the 106 of PSA partners Peugeot, the driving force behind Citroen's resurgence as a mainstream manufacturer of conventional cars. As the Saxo owes much to Peugeot and virtually nothing to its eccentric ancestors, only the popular Xantia and slow-selling XM, both suspended on unique gas/oil springs, now uphold Citroen's tradition for being technically adventurous.

The Saxo crossbreed clothes 106 underpinnings with a rather anonymous Citroen-tailored suit. Peugeot's face-lifted 106 - commercially a head- on rival - is stronger visually. So is the Fiat Punto, VW Polo and Ford's revamped (and rejuvenated) Fiesta, the market leader in a division that Citroen joins with authority, if not great flair. Plugging the gap between the small, budget-priced AX - still selling well to price-conscious private buyers - and the lower-medium ZX, the Saxo is an important new player in a crowded sector of the market.

Initially, there are four three-door models in the Saxo line-up: a pair of 1.1s and a brace of 1.4s, costing from pounds 7,350 to pounds 9,390. Later this year, the Saxo range will be expanded with 1.6, diesel and five-door models. The coming 120bhp quickie is said by Citroen to redefine the sports hatchback.

There is nothing particularly sporting about the pounds 8,520 1.4i VSX other than a mild joie de vivre that's been inherited from the chic 106. Performance is competitive, no more, the ride and handling (a PSA speciality) outstanding, the gear change slick. Steering's easy, too - but only with optional power assistance (available in the autumn) costing pounds 375 extra.

I liked the car's classy cabin architecture - there's more design pizazz inside than out - and front seats that embrace supportively. The driving position would be even better if the steering wheel adjusted. Despite passable rear legroom and a big boot (the spare wheel is slung beneath where it's vulnerable to theft), the Saxo is not so roomy as its VW Polo and Fiat Punto rivals. Although it weighs considerably more than the diminutive AX - big-car crash safety has much to do with that - the new Citroen is still very economical, particularly as a 1.1.

The well-equipped Saxo is one of those capable cars that does most things well and nothing conspicuously badly - just like most Japanese cars. It is pert, neat and pleasant to drive. Easy on the pocket, too. Other than tiresome engine boom when pushing through the gears, I found it difficult to fault objectively. Anyone expecting something extra - more character and allure perhaps - will be disappointed, however. In bowing to convention, the Saxo sheds any claim to be a traditional Citroen. Once a duffer, always a duffer? Not so. A remarkable makeover has elevated Ford's smallest to the top of the class. The Fiesta is the car to beat...

Before its latest makeover, the best-selling Ford Fiesta was a triumph of marketing over mediocrity. Inspired rejuvenation so transformed the car it leapt in stature from downtrodden also-ran to a front-runner of considerable charm and ability.

Effective cosmetic surgery, front and rear, updated the styling but failed to address the problem of restricted accommodation - its remaining Achilles' heel. Changes beneath the skin transformed the car's character and capabilities. Even the Fiesta 1.25 will match the Saxo 1.4 on performance; Ford's just- launched 1.4 derivative is even quicker, if not so economical. Both versions of this 16-valve Yamaha-inspired Zetec engine - vastly superior to the old 1.3 confusingly retained for down-range Fiestas - are exceptionally smooth and quiet, fulfilling Ford's promise of benchmark refinement. The Saxo's elderly eight-valve engine is well beaten here, if not disgraced.

The Fiesta used to corner like a pregnant sow, heaving and lurching from bend to bend. Loosely located passengers were unsettled, keen drivers denied entertainment. Not any more. Major tweaks to the suspension and steering have transformed Ford's smallest car into a nimble hare. It steers precisely, corners crisply - with the poise and balance it once conspicuously lacked - and grips tenaciously.

The Fiesta's transformation from dunce to paragon is completed by a new- look interior and dash that gives the cabin the feel and opulence of a car a couple of classes up. Seats that once tipped you out on corners now firmly embrace - though rear legroom is still cramped and the boot is a fraction smaller than the Saxo's. For refinement, up-front comfort and driver appeal, the Fiesta sets class benchmarks. THE VERDICT If Citroen's innovative spirit lives on, it is not evident in the Saxo. Even so, it is set to win many friends as a capable all-rounder that rewards spirited driving with crisp handling and firm grip. Performance is nippy, economy excellent, the cabin pleasantly trimmed, if not especially roomy. That the Saxo feels more solid than its AX sibling says much for class-leading safety. Prices are made all the keener by decent equipment and - as a special launch offer - free delivery and a three-year warranty.

Dynamically, the Fiesta is superior. Its 1.4 litre engine is livelier, quieter and smoother. The alternative 1.25 (forget the old 1.3) is even sweeter and more economical. Good though the Saxo is on twisty roads, the Fiesta is niftier. Comfort up front is first class. In the back, legroom is cramped, headroom poor. It's on price that the Fiesta gives best to the Saxo, even though power steering is standard. With a decent discount, the Fiesta wins. Pay full price and the Citroen shades it.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Fiat Punto 75 ELX 3-door, pounds 9188 .............................................................................fa hion- leading space capsule

Mazda 121 ZXi 3-door, E9485 ......................................................................UK- built Ford Fiesta 1.25 in Mazda drag

Peugeot 106 I.XR 3-door, pounds 8765 ....................................................................facelift imminent for Saxo's elder cousin

Renault Clio 1.4RT 3-door, pounds IO,445 .........................................................................price includes power steering.

Vauxhall Corsa 1.4iLS 3-door, pounds 8500 .....................................................................great looks, disappointing to drive

Volkswagen Polo 1.4CL 3-door, pounds 9645 .........................................................the supermini to beat for all-round merit.

Volkswagen Polo CL

Fiat Punto Sporting

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