Motoring: Picking the perfect car about town

What's your definition of the perfect town car? Is it small, economical and spacious? Is it Mini-shaped? If it is, that's no bad thing. After 35 years, one of the most innovative and successful cars that the British motor industry has produced can still hold its own around town.

However, small cars might sound great in theory, but in practice there are plenty of other vehicles that for all sorts of reasons are perfectly suited to the cut, thrust and cramped car park of London traffic.

So here are practical suggestions for the motorist with an open and laterally slanted mind looking for the perfect town centre assault vehicle.

Land Rover, the farmer's friend. Built like a tank. Drives like a tractor. Looks like a lorry. Perfect. The Lord of the Manor driving position sits you at roof height to other cars, giving a grandstand view of the road so you can avoid the queues.

The imposing slab-sided architecture frightens off anyone foolish enough to even think of cutting you up. And you no longer fear aggressive taxis and maniac van drivers.

Don't worry that a Land Rover is going to be too large to handle, compared with a Ford Escort a short wheelbase model is more than a foot shorter and an inch narrower, yet it still manages to sit three abreast. You can also park a Land Rover and not worry that it won't be there when you get back.

This is bottom of the 4 x 4 pinch list and the more battered it looks, the better. Besides, any careless parker who happens to run into a Land Rover will come off much worse.

OK, so fuel consumption will barely scrape past 20mpg and the height restriction might rule some car parks out of bounds, but cheap, tatty, Land Rover is king of the central London Jungle.

A more subtle and stylish approach could be a Citroen 2CV. This uncompromisingly Gallic car has plenty going for it. Usually seen sporting a 'Save the Whale' sticker, it makes a statement about the sort of New Age veggie you might be.

But even fascist carnivores will appreciate the fact that it is narrow enough (just two inches wider than a Mini) to dart between traffic gaps, yet seats four in comfort.

The seats can easily be removed so that the interior takes on Tardis-like dimensions. Mechanically a car could not be simpler while the retro 1940s styling could not be more trendy.

The 2CV's low weight and tiny engine gives 40-50mpg. However, in pure performance terms the 2CV is painfully

slow, but obviously more than adequate to deal with the snail's pace of rush hour. The 'cons are the flimsiness of construction and the cost and complication of some repairs.

Of the British oddballs an underrated contribution to city traffic jams is the Reliant Robin. Butt of a thousand motoring jokes, that three-wheel layout, hardly appropriate on the open road, is perfect in town.

One wheel at the front makes for a usefully tight turning circle. The glassfibre body won't rust, it is tough and makes for a lightweight vehicle that will do a creditable 40mpg-plus. No one will ever want to pinch it. Even vandals will feel sorry for you and leave it alone.

Several thousand taxi

drivers cannot be wrong and won't tire of telling you so. That's why FX4 taxis can be fun. The Duke of Edinburgh has one kitted, Stephen Fry is another celebrity owner, and countless central London businesses have bought their own to act as surrogate vans/taxis.

Old taxis make sense because they are an anonymous way to get around. Lost in a sea of other black cabs it may be possible to take the same sort of licensed liberties - although legally you can't use bus lanes and turn without signalling.

On the practical side, taxi turning circles are very small, interior space is huge, they are solidly built to take high mileages and, best of all, can be bought cheaply. A good buy, provided you can cope with people leaping in and shouting 'Victoria, and drive like hell]'

Which brings us back to the quintessential town car, the humble Mini. Although roundly outclassed by the latest generation of superminis, dimensionally it is still the smallest car you can get. At 10ft 1in by 4ft 7in, a Peugoet 106 is a full seven inches wider and 1ft 7in longer.

When squeezing into a resident's parking bay those extra inches make a big difference. Of course you won't have the convenience of a hatchback, but there is plenty of room for the shopping and four adults.

Mechanically the Mini is

noisy and there are just four gears to play with, but in town that hardly matters. You can afford to own one for the city and have something bigger and more sophisticated for longer journeys. That's because Minis are cheap to buy (pounds 250 upwards), service and insure (Group 2). The perfect town car combination. And if everyone drove a Mini wouldn't the traffic jams be shorter?

WHERE TO BUY YOUR URBAN RUNABOUT

2CVs: Polygon Garage 071-720 7207; Tudor Price

081-540 7242

Taxis: Stewarts Garage 071-385 0743

Minis: London Mini Centre 081-788 6036; Mini

Centre (Kent & SE) 0322 665141; Catford Mini

Centre 081 461 1633

Land Rover: AJD Land Rovers 081-364 4874

Reliants: Romford Market Garage 0708 727878;

Collin Collins 081-861 1666; Wood Lawn Garage

081-894 1951

(Photograph omitted)

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