R O A D T E S T And the car's not bad either

John Simister is astonished at the Daewoo Espero's consumer-friendly sales package

Day who? Right, we'll try again. Daewoo, pronounced Day-oo. This unlikely name is that of a Korean industrial megalith, the sort of organisation around which so much of the industrialised Orient is based. Ships, aircraft, earthmovers, cars - you can find all these with a Daewoo logo lurking somewhere on the structure. Now the cars, at least, are coming to Europe.

You can choose from two model ranges: the Nexia, which is based on the old-model Vauxhall Astra, and the Espero tested here, which uses the underpinnings of a previous-model Vauxhall Cavalier (the 1981-88 variety) clothed in a body designed by the Italian styling house, Bertone. This explains why the Espero has a hint of Citroen XM and Xantia in its looks, for Bertone had a hand in these as well.

It looks, then, as if we are talking about another second-rate, tinsel- clad cast-off typical of a second-league Eastern power. But there is rather more to this Daewoo thing than that. First, the UK sales package is extraordinary. Having chosen your car from the Daewoo car centre, advised by a sales adviser who earns no commission, and having paid a non-negotiable list price (which includes number plates, a year's road tax and delivery to your home), you can then enjoy not only a warranty but also free servicing, and AA membership for the next three years or 60,000 miles. Your car will be collected from and returned to your home or workplace as required, and a courtesy car will be left in its place. Indeed, you need never visit a Daewoo operation at all.

A telephone call is sufficient to bring a shiny new Daewoo demonstrator to your house for a test drive, and you will be allowed up to half a day's driving - unaccompanied by a salesman - to help you make up your mind. No pressure, no haggling, no worry abot not getting a decent discount, no queuing in busy service reception areas - it all sounds rather blissful, particularly if you view your car as you might your washing machine. Car ownership can surely hold no less pain than this.

But, before you rush to find the telephone number of your nearest Daewoo- owned sales outlet ("we cut out the middlemen"), you might want to know a little more about the cars themselves. And here, too, a feast of consumer- friendly features begs your attention. Power steering, anti-lock brakes, a driver's airbag and, yes, a mobile telephone are all standard, even on the cheapest Nexia at pounds 8,295. Look to our Espero CDXi 2.0, and you find air-conditioning, alloy wheels and a CD player. You will not find these on any other 2.0-litre car at pounds 12,195.

It is all a bit shell-shocking. Is this whole glitz-blitz simply a ploy to distract you from a Daewoo's desperate dynamic deficiencies? I am pleased to say I do not have to be so cynical, for the Espero is not without innate merit despite the ageing provenance of its mechanical entrails.

We have Daewoo's German chief engineer to thank for this, Dr Ulrich Bex, who used to mastermind the mechanicals of Porsches. That old Cavalier used to shudder over bumps and steer as though navigating a road surface of suet pudding, but Dr Bex has managed to apply a little engineering hindsight to this unpromising base. The result is a car which soaks up bumps with a sometimes Citroen-esque suppleness, surprising as that may seem, yet manages not to float and wallow to excess.

Things can get a shade soggy if you attempt to go briskly on a twisty road, a feeling which the light, anaesthetised steering complements perfectly, but most drivers will find the Espero acceptable for most of the time. It advances no new standards, but it does make passing reference to current ones.

That said, if you have ever driven an old Cavalier, the Daewoo will fill you with deja vu. The engine sounds the same, a distinctively Vauxhall note which is hard to reconcile with the messages your eyes are receiving, and it moves along as briskly as a good Cavalier ever did. (The cheaper 1.8 and, especially, 1.5-litre versions are less lively.) Even the accelerator pedal's action is identical with its stiff movement and ultra-short travel, while the gearchange has grown no less sloppy for its Far Eastern transplant.

Unlike the old Cavalier, however, or the new one for that matter, the Espero has remarkable space for rear passengers within its light, airy, glassy cabin. It is a pity that the interior aesthetics lag some way behind those outside, with expanses of slightly ripply vinyl and dated tweed-effect cloth lowering the tone just as surely as the equipment tally raises it. There is little wrong with the way the switches and controls work - some of them are Vauxhall clones - but the overall tone shows exactly why the Espero is cheap for what it seems to offer.

Well-equipped, low-priced cars basking in the halo effect of Japanese quality seem to have it made, even if the technology is sometimes tarnished. The popularity of Protons is proof of this and Hyundai, too, is gathering sales pace. Buyers of these cars are not enthusiasts; usually they are not even car-literate. And it is for such folk that the Espero, and the painless acquisition thereof, is intended and no doubt they will be very happy together. It is just as well, then, that the Espero is a half-decent car despite its aged underpinnings. If you detect an element of surprise here, you are right.

SPECIFICATIONS

Daewoo Espero CDXi, pounds 12,195

Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, 105bhp at 5000rpm; 0-60mph in 10.6 seconds. Fuel consumption: 31-36mpg.

COMPARISONS

Citroen Xantia 1.8i LX, pounds 12,850

You can tell this car and the Espero came via the same styling house, but the Citroen has better credentials. Hydropneumatic suspension makes for a fluid ride, while the refinement and finish are thoroughly up to date. The extra money buys a better car, but less equipment.

Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX, pounds 12,700

More modern engineering than the Daewoo, greater comfort, more driving pleasure, higher price, less equipment. Rear seat space is a Mondeo weakness as - arguably - is the fact that you see so many of them on the roads.

Hyundai Lantra 1.8 CD, pounds 12,999

The Espero's main Korean rival has smaller cabin and a noisier engine, but the tauter suspension makes it more fun. Equipment levels are high, reflected in the price, but some of the fittings are flimsy. New model is coming soon.

Renault Laguna RT 1.8, pounds 12,355

If you can manage without air-conditioning, alloy wheels and CD player, you will find everything else here. The 1.8 litre engine makes performance quiet but leisurely, but flowing handling and supple ride make for dynamics better than anything in the class.

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