road test Fiat Bravo

Fiat might recently have modelled its cars on grocery boxes, but the Italian giant has become innovative and quality conscious in its design. The Bravo and Brava are the most eye-catching mainstream hatchbacks you're likely to see this decade.

The most beguiling of the pair is the Bravo, its slinky skin defining a shape of great muscularity and fluidity. There's a structural integrity about this car that the supplanted Tipo never quite achieved. Much greater crash safety and security, too.

On test the 1.8ELX was hard-edged when extended, but the engine was barely audible when cruising. Wind and tyre noise were well suppressed. I have sat in more supportive seats, but no five-door in this sector has more room or style. I liked the responsive power steering, the solid, all square stance on twisty roads, the firm brakes and the crisp, easy gear-change. Switches and vents all reflect painstaking attention to detail.

Models start at pounds 9,608 for the 1.4S. The five-door 1.6SX Brava, with more boot space, costs pounds 11,424. The 1.8 ELX, with anti-lock brakes, is pounds 13,293. The five- cylinder 2.0 and turbo-diesel will be available later in the year. Fiat claims prices are 3-5 per cent below the competition and even the cheapest model has a driver's airbag, power steering, central locking, engine immobiliser and purpose built audio equipment.

Roger Bell

Specifications

Fiat Bravo 1.8HLX, pounds 12,580 Engine: 1747cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 113bhp at 5800rpm. Transmission: five speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 120mph, 0-60mph in 9.7 seconds, average consumption 35.9mpg.

Rivals

Ford Escort 1.8Si three-door, pounds 12,890 Recent improvements in handling and refinement. Lacks Bravo's brio, but the1.8 version car goes well.

Honda Civic 1.6 ES1 three-door, pounds 13,250 Small, high-revving engine gives strong performance. Latest model is prettier than the old "hunchback".

Peugeot 306 2.0 XSi, pounds 13,810 One of the class bench-marks. Pretty, well- packaged car with plenty of zap, fine handling and comfortable ride.

Rover 216 Si three-door, pounds 12,195 Cute new in-house Rover 200 is smaller than the car it supplants, and not as roomy as its Fiat competitor. Lively performance, agile handling and fun to drive.

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