Motoring: Hop in and take your prejudices for a drive: Would you choose a Ford Escort over a Porsche 968? Gavin Green sets out to puncture some vehicle reputations and establish others

'HE HAD but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two.'

Just as Nicholas Nickleby may have looked askance at Wackford Squeers (justifiably, as it turned out), so British car buyers have their prejudices. These still dictate that anything German is best (if expensive), anything Japanese reliable (if frequently unoriginal), anything Italian will fall apart (although they're stylish), anything French is eccentric (but they're getting more mainstream), while British cars are great (when they go). But in motoring, stereotypes are often wrong.

This selection sets out to kill a few prejudices. It is not a list of the 10 best or 10 worst cars on sale. Rather, it is a summary of those cars that are the most overrated, and most underrated.

OVERRATED

IF YOU'RE after a family car, stay well clear of the new Honda Civic. In hatchback form, it looks cute and drives nicely, but is ruined by its small rear seat and a tiny boot that has crazily impractical access. The plastic trim used to swathe the Civic's cabin is also of packing-crate quality and at variance with its high price.

Tacky cabin fittings are just one of the many failings of the Alfa Spider. It is also surprisingly slow for a sports car, sloppy to handle, badly made (probably the worst assembled new car on sale in Britain today), and miles behind cheaper open-top sports cars such as the Mazda MX-5. Mind you, I still love it. Pity it's such a disappointing car to drive.

Other than the fact that they're overrated, the Volvo 740 and the Alfa Spider haven't got much in common. What irks about the big Volvo is that people assume they're good cars. They're not. They're slow, noisy, ride badly and use cheap and nasty cabin materials.

The Audi 80 has a beautifully furnished cabin, and its body is one of the most cleverly styled and meticulously finished of any car. Shame about the second-rate suspension and four-cylinder engines.

No one pretends that the Porsche 968 is a bad car. No, the 968's problem is that it's yesterday's car trying to compete in today's market. Despite what the Porsche salesmen try to tell you, the 968 is just a reworked version of a 16-year-old design. It is let down particularly by its cramped cabin, its poor ride and its four- cylinder engine, which just can't compete with newer six-cylinder motors.

One sports car that the 968 need not fear is the Mazda MX-3. Mazda has some fine sports cars - especially the open-top MX-5 - but the MX-3 falls down because it is not fun to drive.

The Eighties was the decade of the hot hatch. Recently, there have been a few disappointments in this sector. I've picked the Vauxhall Astra GSi, a pretty enough car boasting a fabulous engine riding on an amazingly incompetent chassis, and the Volkswagen Golf GTi, once the sacred cow of the class but now one of the slowest and least refined cars in the sector. It has become too heavy and fat to be entertaining - rather like many original GTi owners.

If hot hatches are on the way out, and I certainly won't be among the mourners if they do die, they may be replaced by genuine coupes. If so, let's hope they're not like the Rover 220 Turbo Coupe, which is ruined by having an engine that is simply too powerful for this modestly competent car.

Finally, a car that is not merely overrated but plain dreadful. The Suzuki Samurai - the little Jeep-like off-roader beloved by the young and fashionable - is probably the worst new car on sale today. It is noisy, slow, unstable, uncomfortable . . . the list goes on and on. If the owner of one ever tells you a Skoda joke, laugh in his face.

UNDERRATED

CITROEN is one of the fastest-growing marques in the UK, thanks to its excellent, if anodyne, ZX range. But just below the ZX lies a stormer of a small car, often overlooked. Just over a year ago, the Citroen AX got a modest facelift, and a new cabin. More important were massive improvements to build quality. The AX's virtues include its smallness, space efficiency and frugality. It's also fun to drive.

One class up, I'd recommend the Fiat Tipo. It's not the best car in the class - go for the Citroen ZX - but it has many strengths, not least its roominess. It is also well priced and pleasingly different to look at.

Most Volkswagens are overrated, unless your sole criterion is solidity. An exception is the Volkswagen Vento VR6. It is almost a match for the BMW 325i, and its V6 is the smoothest and most sonorous six-cylinder power plant on the market. Its dull looks will deter would-be BMW owners, but are a positive boon when it is parked in areas where youngsters like to make their mark on your paintwork.

From the same family comes the Seat Toledo. VW bought the Spanish maker a few years back and has greatly improved build quality and engineering standards. The Toledo is a nicely made and roomy family car that is better to drive than a new Golf, yet considerably cheaper.

If Volvo means tank to you, then the new Volvo 850 will come as a surprise. It is enjoyable to drive (a first for a Volvo), brisk, handles tidily, and yet still has all those old-fashioned Volvo virtues, such as solidity and distinctive (read ugly) looks.

I've chosen two executive-class cars, from different parts of the sales charts. The Ford Granada has been Britain's best-selling big car for most of its life but, like many successful Fords, sells despite being unloved. I've always found the Granny a fine car. In its latest (Cosworth-tweaked) V6 form, it is fast and

refined.

At the other end of the sales charts comes the Lancia Thema, just about this country's rarest new car. This is unfair. It is a handsome, roomy, refined and an altogether pleasing executive express.

The new Ford Escort Cosworth has been eulogised by just about every motoring scribbler who has driven it. It is a marvellous drive - the fastest and most exhilarating Ford ever - yet is also curiously misunderstood. Take away that garish biplane-like rear wing and the puerile boy-racer image and you're left with one of the most composed sports saloons on the road.

A Ferrari that's underrated? In the case of the Ferrari Mondial, it's true. Whereas everybody drools at the two-seater models from Maranello, the four-seat Mondial gets overlooked. Which is a pity, for it's actually the nicest Ferrari to drive, if not the fastest or (and this is its real problem) the most eye-catching.

Finally, I've chosen the Bentley Brooklands. Most people assume that all cars made by Rolls-Royce are Edwardian relics that have been surpassed by the new techno-wonders from Germany and Japan. Nonsense. There is no saloon more refined, more comfortable and more desirable.

(Photographs omitted)

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