Simon Robinson wants to replace his family's 3,500-mile Mini Cooper S.

Simon Robinson wants to replace his family's 3,500-mile Mini Cooper S. They love it because it is quick, has a great image and is not ostentatious. It does not cope well with the speed humps in their area, though, and they need more room for his wife Mia's yen for antiques fairs. So the replacement has to be a bit bigger, certainly quick, capable of the odd 200-mile trip, although the mileage will be low, and Simon does not mind if it is a few years old.

It is ironic that the type of vehicle that London Mayor Ken Livingstone is possibly seeking to ban is the only one that can cope with the daily assault course in certain postcodes. At Car Choice, though, we don't think it is clever to buy a clumsy 4x4 just to serve as a town-centre assault vehicle. We do like the Toyota RAV4, which is quite good at doing two very different jobs and is a decent compromise between a sporty hatch and an estate. Trouble is, I think it will still be too big and not nearly quick enough to keep the Robinsons happy.

They need a proper sporty saloon or hatch. Although a Mini by name, the Mini is still a sizeable 11ft 9 ins. I think they will have to consider a car a couple of feet longer. I'd like to recommend an old Saab 9-3, which has scorching performance, very low prices and a high-image badge, but at over 15ft long it could be too big for them in town.

A car for the head

The problem for the Robinsons is that if they want sporty they will have to endure a stiffer suspension and a slightly lower ride height.

The Seat Leon is underrated, but well-equipped, sporty to drive, good value for money and the suspension is firm. Underneath, it is a Golf GTi, but it is much cooler and actually faster; 0-60mph for the 1.8 turbo in Cupra trim is well under 8 seconds.

The Leon is a handsome little car completed by a very functional and clearly laid out interior. It may be a little tight in the back, but the boot is huge although the rear sill is on the high side. Driving a Leon is certainly fun and appeals to those who enjoy sharp, sporty responses.

The level of standard equipment is good and that also contributes to good crash-test performance and levels of security. A 2000 model with 40,000 miles will be just under £8,000 with a warranty.

A car for the heart

Simon has indicated that a Subaru Impreza may be right, but could have the wrong image. If he is thinking of the saloon, especially the later model with bug-eye lights, he may be right. There is, however, a practical hatch, or Sportswagon as Subaru calls it. This model is compact, looks different, but is as great to drive as the saloon.

The levels of grip are phenomenal and the performance is rally-car sharp. Yet in normal traffic conditions it needs no persuasion to behave itself. Subaru Impreza Turbo are three words guaranteed to lift the spirits of any enthusiast car buyer.

I can guarantee that the Robinsons won't look like hooligans in a hatchback model, provided the previous owner has not added inappropriate paintwork or spoilers.

* CAR CHOICE: Please write to Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle you are interested in.

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