Sean O'Grady assesses their chances as Rover and Mercedes fight it out in the most heavily contested sector of the market

Right. Here's the city car challenge. You need a new car and you've got £14,000 in your bank account ready and waiting.

The car you'd like is small or small-ish, good around town and capable of some longer journeys. You'd quite like a "posh" badge too.

Do you: a) spend the lot on an entry-level Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the A140 Classic, or b) economise by spending around half on a CityRover Sprite and spending the £6,000 change on other life-enhancing experiences? Opera? Going on safari? Dining at the best restaurants?

But these cars really inhabit different segments of the market. The three-pointed star has so much brand equity that there is no mistaking the aura it lends. The Rover image has not fared so well, and the interesting marketing point about this car is that it isn't a Rover but a CityRover, which must be some sort of appeal to youth.

It is an interesting exercise to ponder whether a car costing twice as much can really be twice as good. Objectively, there isn't that much in it (see table). The Mercedes is a touch shorter and a little wider, while the Mercedes is just 75 mm taller.

The CityRover's lofty stance owes much to its origins as a Tata Indica, a sturdy design built to deal with the rough roads of rural India, which demand decent ground clearance. You sit high in a CityRover, so you do get a reasonable view.

Engine-wise there also isn't that much in it. Indeed the CityRover has the superior performance to 60mph, although a slightly lower top speed.

The Rover's Peugeot-derived unit is quite willing and has a pleasant note, raucous when pushed hard, and stops revving at about 5,500rpm which I found a little on the low side. The Mercedes is more refined and smoother but also a little asthmatic. Both roll around on corners. The CityRover's compliant suspension has been tweaked for European tastes but it still has a soft ride.

When it comes to equipment there is a gap, and in the CityRover tested you have to make do with wind-up windows, an almost inconceivable indignity for most modern motorists.

The CityRover's seats are thin compared to the well-padded Mercedes efforts. You can't adjust the CityRover's over-large steering wheel either.

But the really significant difference between the two cars is safety. While the A-Class bristles with safety measures such as electronic stability control and side air bags, the CityRover is not so sophisticated .

Which leaves the subjective factors. My partner told me she knew she was a victim of the hidden persuaders when she bought her Renault Clio, but that she went ahead because the trendy image the car had managed to garner mattered.

For her, the Mercedes would be perfectly acceptable, but so would the CityRover. Perhaps this modest repositioning of the Rover image is working.

The external finish of the CityRover was very good. A cheerful shade of red had an unexpectedly rich sheen and was a much warmer affair than the steely blue cobalt A-Class. Inside, however, it was a (mostly) different tale.

MG Rover missed a trick by not having a much more thorough go at the interior before putting the converted Tata on the UK market. The indicators, for example, lack the Mercedes's solid action, and everything feels less homely. There is lots of cheap plastic and exposed screw heads.

Although I have to say that when I popped into a friend's Toyota Yaris I noticed that supposedly quality motor also had exposed screw heads.

But note the nasty gearstick on the A-Class which might easily have graced a 1987 Nissan Sunny, compared to the CityRover's smart stick. So perhaps we should leave our prejudices behind when we discuss what's usually called Rover's "Indian takeaway".

I must deliver my verdict, which is a straightforward one: £6,000 for a couple of airbags, better plastics and a three-pointed star on the bonnet is too much. I'll have the takeaway.

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