Road Test :

It's called a Rover, but don't be fooled. The Metro is back, says Roger Bell

Rover is fighting a rearguard action with its ancient supermini. A budget facelift and a change of identity have turned the 14-year-old Metro, launched before Ronald Reagan became US president, into the Rover 100 series. Don't be fooled by the name

(which brings the Metro into line with Rovers 200 to 800). Behind the cheery new face are telling legacies from the early Eighties, including a boxy body carrying unsightly roof gutters and non-flush windows. The driving position is not of this decade, either. Such anachronisms date a car that's fallen behind in looks, packaging and roominess, if not in safety, quality, character or price.

In certain respects, the test 111 GSi five-door shows the door to younger, trendier rivals. Take refinement. If any competitor is mechanically smoother and quieter, I cannot name it. The Rover-designed K-series aluminium engine (soon to spawn a V6 derivative) packs a soft punch but hums through the gears with turbine smoothness. Economy, not vigour is its forte, witness returns of 40mpg in the urban cycle, and 60mpg at a steady 56mph. Few petrol-powered cars can better these figures. Even when cruising at the legal limit - little more than a quiet canter - the abstemious 111 gives close to 50mpg. The alternative 1.4 sacrifices some of this commendable frugality for a bit more zap.

Performance is especially feeble when lugging in top; to get the best from the 111's free-revving engine you must exercise your left limbs and stir the gears - no chore as the shift of the Peugeot-derived gearbox is as quick as a switch. Steering's also easy, even without power assistance, so the 111 is undemanding to corner and park. It's modestly entertaining, too. Despite the paucity of power, the car's agility and nifty responses make it an endearing chum. Even in suburbia - the 111's natural habitat - the car's spirit is quite infectious. Pity its ride is marred by an underlying jiggle on all but the smoothest roads.

It is just as well that Rover is aiming the 100 at younger buyers, mainly women; awkwardly high sills make getting in and out tricky for the elderly, and the heavily sprung doors tend to slam on your legs. The car's age (and Mini influence) are further betrayed by a knees-up driving position that handicaps the tall. Knee-room in the back is particularly cramped. Although Rover shrugs aside this problem - it asserts that most journeys are made with vacant back seats - the fact remains that the short-wheelbase 100 is not nearly so spacious as modern rivals such as the Fiat Punto, Vauxhall Corsa or VW Polo.

There's nothing wrong with the 100's fit and finish judging by the well- equipped GSi; quality has no doubt benefited from Rover's association with Honda (which continues, despite the BMW buy-out, with the Civic-based 400 replacement, out later this

year). Side impact beams are now rifted to the doors, and a driver's airbag is a £245 option. New seats, wheels, trim and security (there's an alarm and a passive immobiliser) are included in a raft of improvements that will probably see the 100 through to its all-new replacement near the turn of the century. If space is not a priority, the Metro - sorry, Rover 100 - still has something to offer as a commuter car. It is hard to imagine anyone disliking Rover's latest number, dated though it is in looks and packaging.

SPECIFICATIONS

Rover 111 GSi five-door, £8,095: (100-series prices from £6,495). Engine: 1120cc K-series four-cylinder with eight valves; 60bhp at 57OOrpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 13.7 seconds, top speed 96mph. Economy: an easy 40mpg on unleaded.

COMPARISONS

Citron AX 1.1i Echo, £7,710: Keenly priced lightweight with good performance/economy. Disguises age well. Since effective update, feels less flimsy, better made. Handles well, fun to drive - but lacks Rover's quietness and refinement. New model less than a year away.

Fiat Punto 55SX five-door, £7,424: For style and accommodation, the car to beat at this keen price. More powerful 75 from £8,O74. Punto is much roomier, trendier than dated Rover. Compared with previous small Fiats, quality high and rust-proofing outstanding. Ride and handling indifferent.

Ford Fiesta 1.1LX five-door, £8,570: Since effective Escort makeover, Fiesta is weakest model in Ford's range. Styling dated, inside and out compared with latest superminis. Performance poor, handling indifferent. Lacks 100's spirit and poise, outranked by younger competitors. Strong on passive safety - driver's airbag is standard.

Nissan Micra 1.OLX five-door, £8,115: Don't be fooled by Noddy-car looks. British-made Micra vies for class leadership with accomplished ride and handling, benchmark quality and refinement. Performance of 1.0 indifferent. Go for 1.3. CVT has the best small-car automatic transmission on the market.

VW Polo 1.3L five-door, £8,149: Old Polo was desperately dated. New one sets standard for looks, packaging, refinement, big-car ride. Carry-over engine disappointing (1.0-litre alternative worse). Car's appeal lies in its comfort, maturity and quality. The supermini to beat, except on performance.

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