Rover's hot new diesel has more vroom, but a lot less room than Peugeot

The fast but frugal 220SDi challenges the French for supremacy. Roger Bell referees a close contest

ROVER 220SDi

Never mind the economy, feel the power. Performance and frugality are not incompatible in Rover's cracking 220SDi. But there's a catch. A couple, in fact.

Diesels were once bought solely for their low running costs. In sacrificing performance and refinement on the altar of economy, tedious languor and objectionable noise were accepted as the inevitable consequence of mean consumption. With fuel savings running typically at 30-40 per cent - more in countries such as France where diesel oil is much cheaper than unleaded petrol - it was worth high-mileage business users paying extra for a diesel engine. Second-car potterers and retirees stood to gain much less.

Economy is still the diesel's big attraction, but it is no longer the only one. With the better turbo-diesels - and Rover's 220SDi is in that category - you really do get the best of both worlds: petrol-powered zap with amazing frugality. Motoring's equivalent of the Holy Grail is there for the taking - at a price. What's more it comes with passable refinement and a nod of approval from environmentalists, despite the contentious issue of black-smoke emissions.

The 220SDi is no cheap runabout. At pounds 13,295, it is one of the pricier models in Rover's acclaimed new 200 series - designed and developed in- house with help from neither Honda (Rover's old partner) nor BMW (its new master). Plush trim and generous equipment, which includes an airbag, power-assisted steering and good security, reflects the SDi's standing at the top end of the range. The 220D, powered by a less powerful (86hp) version of the same 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, costs pounds 10,495.

Even the 105hp of the more sophisticated SDi is modest by petrol standards. It is on torque - the muscle behind effortless overtaking - that the drive- by-wire SDi excels. Put your foot down in fourth gear at, say, 30mph and the Rover will comfortably out-gun Alfa's 150 horsepower GTV sportster to 50mph. Without changing down or racing the engine (torque peaks at only 2000rpm), the game little Rover accelerates with something approaching GTi vigour. A diesel hot-hatch sounds like a contradiction in terms, yet it is a role the 220SDi plays with conviction, not to say a modest Group 7 insurance rating.

The engine sounds a little gruff when extended, and decidedly clattery after a cold start, but it is not intrusive when cruising. Apart from helping with economy, high gearing gives a peaceful, long-legged motorway gait. Exploit the car's strong performance - real-life performance that you can habitually use - and economy takes a tumble. Drive with a modicum of restraint and more than 50mpg overall is well within reach, even on motorways. If there's another 115mph car that can do 73 miles to the gallon at 56mph, I cannot name it.

There is more to this endearing hatchback than pep and parsimony. It is also delightful - and very easy - to drive. The (manual) gear change is crisp and snappy, the steering responsive, the handling agile, the roadholding tenacious. I like the supportive seats and classy cabin, too, though timber embellishment looks a little incongruous at this level.

The high price of the 220SDi - you can get a BMW Compact for virtually the same money - underlines its one big drawback: lack of space. Rover sees its 200 series as a lower-medium Escort-class car, but it offers little or no more room than a generous supermini like VW's Polo. If poor rear legroom is of no consequence, it is a cracking car. Any lingering prejudice against diesels will be quickly dispelled by the 220SDi.

PEUGEOT 306 XTDT

Good looks, exemplary suspension, plenty of room - Peugeot's 306 was the car to beat in its class. And Peugeot makes the best diesels, too. Or does it?

Few cars have held out as class benchmarks for as long as the mature Peugeot 306. The French PSA giant (which also embraces Citroen) has a knack of striking exactly the right suspension balance, of making its cars - and the 306 is no exception - steer, handle and ride in a way that sets them apart from less fluent rivals. Peugeot was also in the vanguard of the diesel revolution, evolving new-generation engines that were powerful and civilised, as well as economical. Many petrolheads have been lured into the diesel camp by Peugeot.

There is nothing especially nippy about the base diesel 306, priced from pounds 10,745. Strong acceleration comes only with the turbo - an exhaust-driven turbine that pumps power-boosting air into the 1.9-litre engine's lungs. Like most force-fed diesels, the 306 is at its muscular best when punching at low revs in a high gear. There's usually no need to shift down; you just floor the accelerator and let mid-range torque - there's more on tap than most petrol GTis can muster - do the rest with effortless vigour. I know two 306 turbo-diesel owners; both reckon to get 42-45 miles to the gallon in normal give and take driving. One, incidentally, much prefers his new Peugeot to the Golf GTi he traded in for it.

It is the way the power-steered 306 flows through corners that endears it to serious drivers. It is like a fluent dancer; poised, balanced, composed. As one of the roomier cars in the Escort class - the 306 comes as a three/five- door hatchback or a four-door saloon - it also makes good family wheels.

Five-door turbo-diesel prices start at pounds 12,455 but to match the 220SDi's specification, you would need to pay around pounds 14,000 for the XTDT. The best diesels may not come cheap, but they are very good. The verdict: It is fairly easy to choose between these two excellent cars - the best diesels I've driven in their class - provided you're clear about priorities. If you need plenty of space for passengers, the Peugeot is a clear winner. Although the boot of the Rover is quite generous, legroom in the back is not. It's suitable for small children, but cramped for adults. The pert Rover perhaps has the smarter interior, but there's little in it for opulence or driver comfort.

The Peugeot has the smoother, more composed ride, and handling that puts to shame many sportsters. The agile Rover handles very well, too, but not quite with the 306's benchmark fluency. Any loss here (and it's marginal) is offset by superior performance. Nifty though the Peugeot is mid-range, the Rover is even quicker. Many more expensive petrol cars can't match its lively acceleration or high cruising speed - a boon in Germany if not here. It is also significantly more economical, judging by official consumption figures which suggest an advantage of as much as 10mpg over the 306. If you don't need the room, the Rover shades it narrowly on points.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Citroen ZX 1.9TD, pounds 12,255 ................................................................ Same engine as 306, less attractive packaging

Ford Escort 1.8TD Encore, pounds 12,035 ...................................................................... Much improved car, indifferent engine

Nissan Almera 2.OGX D, pounds 12,125 ....................................................................... Capable space capsule, sluggish diesel

Renault Megane 1.9 RXE TD, pounds 12,545 .................................................................. New, chic, spacious, well-mannered

Vauxhall Astra 1.7TD GLS, pounds 13,595 ......................................................... Looks better, inside and out, than it drives

Renault Megane: chic

Citroen ZX: same engine as 306

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