Rhianna Davies is 40, works in PR and has a small child. She recently divorced and is looking for the most practical, reliable new car she can get for about £7,000. It is mostly for use in London.

Rhianna will be pleased to hear that there has never been a better time to buy a small car because there is a huge choice of very capable, characterful and stylish vehicles that are ideal for use in town. However, a town car needn't be a small car, even though the £7,000 budget would seem to dictate that.

There are some value brands around like Kia, who offer what is a full-sized family hatch in the shape of the Rio at £5,995. However, it doesn't have power steering and the 1.3L costs £6,895. Sometimes you do only get what you pay for, and the Rio is capable, but not very inspiring or well-equipped.

Slightly better is the much smaller £6,595 Daewoo Matiz, which is getting on a bit now, with a tiny economical engine, but it is no longer state of the art. The same could be said of the £6,650 Ford Ka, which is great to drive, but may be too small for Rhianna and her son, especially if friends and luggage go along for the ride.

The Hyundai Getz at £6,995 is fairly roomy even in three-door guise. This is what Rhianna needs -- a well-equipped, spacious hatch that is easy to live with.

A car for the head

The name Charade is no joke and it isn't important, because what lies behind the Daihatsu badge is a very capable small car. Crucially, no Daihatsu Charade model exceeds the £6,995 price barrier.

For that Rhianna can get herself a 1.0SL which has alloy wheels, electric front windows/mirrors, air conditioning, central locking and a CD player. There is also lots of safety kit, with driver, passenger and side airbags, plus ABS brakes.

The high level of standard kit is just one of the good things about owning a Charade -- get inside and there is an impressive amount of head, leg and elbow room. Even the unusually tall (and Rhianna's child is only going to get bigger) easily fit inside. Even the three-door model has large, wide-opening doors for excellent access as the front seats also tilt and slide forward. The boot is not exactly huge, but will take the weekly shop, and the rear seats also split and fold.

As for driving, Rhianna will find that the gear change is light and the engine lively which makes it great around town. Running costs are reasonable not least because she should get almost 50mpg in London and only have to worry about minimal servicing costs as Daihatsus rarely break down.

A car for the heart

There has never been a shortage of small cars you can love, but not all are properly packaged, practical buys, except for the Fiat Panda.

In just a few months the Panda has been crowned Car of Year and melted the hearts of every motoring hack who has been let behind the wheel. It seems certain to become one of Fiat's biggest hits as they return to their strengths, building great little cars.

This Panda has a high room, which means plenty of room, and there is also a very decent boot. It also drives like a grown-up car, soaking up the bumps around town and being generally well refined.

Prices start at £6,295 for the 1.1 although the 1.2 is a better performer and more economical overall -- the Dynamic model costs £6,895. Standard kit includes central locking, driver and passenger airbags plus front electric windows.

Unlike the Daihatsu there is no air conditioning, alloy wheels, ABS brakes or side air bags, although they can be ordered which would comfortably take the price over £7,000.

At the moment, though, there are no significant discounts available on this new model so Rhianna must be patient or choose what extras she wants carefully.

* WHICH CAR: Please write to Which Car, Features, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or e-mail James Ruppert at whichcar@independent.co.uk giving your age, address and contact number, and details of the type of vehicle you are interested in.

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