ROAD TEST / This tiny roly-poly is made for big-city jams: Phil Llewellin succeeds in getting his six-foot frame into Subaru's diminutive Vivio and finds it surprisingly spacious, lively and agile

IN 1993, to be small is to be beautiful: the Nissan Micra has been voted 'Car of the Year', praise is being heaped on the chic little Renault Twingo, Fiat is preparing to launch the Cinquecento in Britain, and the Vauxhall Corsa goes on sale in April.

Set against such an array of Lilliputian competitors, the Subaru Vivio GLi's tiny size hardly constitutes a claim to fame. Instead it must settle for 'safest in the class', a status bestowed on this five-door hatchback by selectable four-wheel drive. Available at the touch of a button, it is this that makes the Vivio sure-footed on slippery road surfaces.

Cute, roly-poly styling and a high novelty value draw attention to a car that is 8in (20cm) longer than a Mini, but slightly narrower. It is surprisingly spacious inside. I am six feet tall - long in the body, short in the leg - but could 'sit behind myself' for two or three hours without feeling intolerably cramped. There were no complaints about comfort after a 350-mile drive.

The very small boot is not so appealing. The space concealed by the rear shelf measures about 12in high by 30in wide and 18in from front to rear.

Subaru's baby was designed to comply with Japanese legislation that encouraged manufacturers to build compact cars with tiny engines. Light controls, good visibility and minimal front and rear overhangs make the Vivio easy to park. It is the next best thing to a skateboard for taking advantage of gaps in traffic, where lively acceleration in the lower gears is another advantage.

Noise, however, is a drawback. The four-cylinder, 658cc engine has a sophisticated fuel injection system, and produces almost as much power (43bhp at 6,400rpm) as a 1.1-litre Ford Fiesta, but has to be revved hard to keep pace with run-of-the-mill traffic. Very low gearing is good from the performance angle, but there are times when it creates the impression of being inside a dentist's drill.

A minicar that can cruise fast enough to be a practical motorway proposition may be admirable, but a slightly bigger engine might make more sense. One reason is that very small engines are rarely synonymous with outstanding fuel economy, unless the car is driven at a very sedate rate of knots. Working hard is not compatible with frugality. The Vivio's average of only 36.6mpg can be compared with the 31.8mpg achieved by the 2.0-litre, 131bhp, 127mph Toyota Carina tested last November.

Wheels and tyres appear to have been borrowed from a Dinky Toy, but they provide plenty of grip and its four-wheel-drive mode can be a life-saving asset in bad weather. It also has agility, which is, of course, enhanced by the simple fact that it occupies such a small amount of space on the road. Its natural habitat is the big city or busy town.

Cars this small can make you feel as though you are on a trampoline, but the Vivio rides well over all but the most punishing road surfaces.

It boils down to a runabout that has considerable character and makes a lot of sense if about-town convenience is your top priority. But the Vivio has several rivals that offer such a lot more for a little more money.

COMPARISONS

Rover Mini-Cooper 1.3i, pounds 6,995. No match for the Vivio in terms of comfort or convenience, but great fun to drive.

Nissan Micra 1.0L, pounds 7,010. Probably today's best supermini. Assets include a refined, 16-valve engine and excellent build quality.

Peugeot 106 1.1i XN, pounds 7,350. Peugeot's cheapest five-door looks expensive in this company, but offers qualities that have made the slightly bigger 205 such a success.

Ford Fiesta 1.1, pounds 6,855. Britain's best-selling supermini in 1992. But the range's cheapest five-door suffers from a coarse engine and a four-speed gearbox.

SPECIFICATIONS

Subaru Vivio GLi, pounds 6,697. Four-cylinder, 658cc engine, 43bhp at 6,400rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox. Maximum speed 84mph, 0-60mph in 17.8 seconds. Fuel consumption 36.6mpg.

(Photograph omitted)

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