It's the little things in life that make all the difference, finds Sean O'Grady on a rattling test drive

Years ago, quite a few years ago now I come to think of it, there was a television ad for the Volkswagen Golf that went something like this . . . A young chap (yuppie, obviously) and his partner are driving around in their VW and being driven mad by a tiny squeak. They take the car apart looking for the source of the irritating noise but, of course, in the end the squeak was not from the impeccably built VW, but from the woman's earring. Moral: VW abolishes the squeak. Go buy.

It was about right. Whatever problems the latest version of the Golf has in attracting customers, by the middle 1980s VW's efforts at quality control effectively banished the squeak in any new car, bar the cheapest and nastiest. Virtually everyone caught up with VW, eventually.

So I was all the more surprised to be treated to an incessant squeak from the back of the Mitsubishi Colt I had been testing. And no, before you wonder, it was not one of my earrings that was making the noise, because I don't wear them. Nor was it my rickety old joints. The sound was quite audible going over speed bumps and thus, in suburban London, virtually non-stop, and was caused by, well, something in the rear of the cabin or the rear suspension.

In the 1980s I also remember that Mitsubishi had a formidable reputation for producing well screwed together bulletproof cars, not as durable as a VW, but comparable. That, however, was in the days when all their products were made in Japan.

Now some, such as this Colt, are made in the Netherlands, at a factory in Born, where once upon a time they made the sweet Daf. I suspect that geography may be something to do with this squeaking thing. It is a Dutch squeak, you see, like a Dutch uncle or Dutch courage, only this time all too real, and all too damaging to a corporate image.

The Colt is, in fact, the second Mitsubishi to be built in this plant. The previous model was the Carisma, a flop not helped by the most inappropriate moniker given to a motor car since the days of the Frisky, a three-wheeler micro-car that was anything but. As you might have seen from the marketing effort put into this car, it really is a very important model for Colt.

"Make or break" is a cliché bandied around a lot when it comes to new models. But here it is true. Mitsubishi Motors is the sick man of the Japanese auto industry, its only loss-making firm and embarrased by cover-ups about product recalls. Mitsubishi desperately needs a global mainstream success to build on the niche 4x4 Shogun and the Evo saloon supercar.

DaimlerBenz was once the bridge to a brighter future. And while it still owns 37 per cent of Mitsubishi, it has said that it will not put any more money into the Japanese maker. The fact that the DaimlerChrysler Group's Smart Forfour is built in the same factory and shares the same engines and some other components as the Colt is a leftover from a happier time in the two companies' relationship. If the Colt and the Forfour succeed, then their two parents may be fully commercially reconciled; if the Colt fails, then it is bad news for Mitsubishi, for Smart and for Born.

So what can I say to help out? Well, it might have squeaked but the Colt did not break down and was actually quite fun to drive, at least as far as the 1.5-litre Sport version that I sampled is concerned. The handling is surprisingly good, given its unpromising origins and relatively lofty stance, but the acceleration was not too startling, with a 0-62mph time of 11 seconds.

The power steering is via an electric motor rather than an hydraulic pump - a modern approach that saves energy and provides a fluid feel to taking a bend. It was spoiled by an engine that sounded coarse, though, and the Colt did not fulfil my expectation that it would be a smooth operator.

Worst of all is the Colt's front windscreen pillar, which for me produced an awkward blind spot. This is because, as with many modern cars, it is very thick, presumably to help rigidity and crash worthiness, and - again as with many new designs - it features a steeply raked windscreen.

The Colt's height does not hinder access at all, but it does mean that I could not see very well to turn right. And with a design flaw like that, I doubt this Colt will be enough to save Mitsubishi's ranch.

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