The best and worst of last year's cars

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The past 12 months did not see the reinvention of the car, when many say that's what was really needed. Rather, 1995 saw car makers take risks. The upshot is that, in most classes, the stakes were raised - in some cases decisively. Seven cars in this year's Top 10 are newcomers for 1995.

Small cars

Best Buy: Ford Fiesta (pounds 7,595-pounds 10,630)

What a difference a year makes! Once Europe's technical duffer,Ford experienced a revolution in 1995. Most extraordinarily, it transformed the Fiesta from class dunce into school genius.

The new Fiesta, in its best 1.25-litre guise, has a brilliant Yamaha- developed engine, rides and handles with aplomb, and has one of the most imaginatively designed dashboards ever seen. OK, it's nose is ugly (looking like a carp with mouth agape), and it's cramped in the back. But it compensates with excellent build quality. People trading up from the old model just won't believe the difference.

Worst buy: Vauxhall Corsa (pounds 7,195-pounds 11,450)

Supermodel looks married to dinosaur technology. The ride is almost billy cart-like, and the handling is well behind the game.

Small/medium cars

Best buy: Fiat Bravo/Brava (pounds 9,608-pounds 13,298)

Fiat's new Escort/Golf rival, replacing the good but dowdy Tipo; Bravo's the three-door, Brava's the five-door. The former is more the sporty sophisticate, the latter a family car with flair. In both cases, you get fresh looks (inside and out), lots of room, good build quality, and enough driving brio to make once-dreary journeys enjoyable. The new Fiat has just gone on sale in Britain. Of the models available, I'd plump for the basic 1.4, a frugal sweet revving little motor with surprising verve.

Worst buy: Daewoo Nexia (pounds 8,445-pounds 10,245)

Despite the clever ads and the unusual dealer network (there isn't one), Daewoos are just old-school Vauxhalls in drag. The Nexia is a rebodied Astra, a car that wasn't that good when Vauxhall sold it. It's no better now.

Medium cars

Best buy: Peugeot 406 (prices not yet announced)

On sale in February in Britain. Not a big step-ahead, the 406 is nonetheless a handsome, roomy, supple-riding, superior alternative to a Mondeo or Vectra.

Worst buy: Volvo 400. (pounds 11,150-pounds 16,650)

An ageing, ordinary little car made pretentious by Volvo's marketing men. Cramped, not particularly well made, and technically old hat, the 400 is about to be supplemented in the class by a new Volvo, the S4. The expectation (and hope) is that it will soon be supplanted by it.

Executive compact

Best buy: Audi A4 (pounds 15,732-pounds 24,034)

Another newcomer, the A4 narrowly pips the old favourite, BMW 3-series, by dint of its better build quality, sculptural looks, more tasteful cabin, and more benign road manners. The Turbo model is particularly tasty, while the quattro V6 is probably the best four-wheel-drive road car in the world.

Worst buy: BMW 3-series Compact (pounds 13,650-pounds 15,650).

BMW's crass attempt to go downmarket. The recipe: take the fine 3-series, fit old-fashioned rear suspension which ruins handling fluency, fit a tackier looking cabin, and graft on a hatchback rear end. It looks funny, and drives unsatisfactorily. But, of course, a cheap BMW was always going to sell to those who value labels more than substance.

Executive large

Best buy: Mercedes E-class (pounds 23,500-pounds 34,200)

This is not so much "engineering seen with fresh eyes" (the ad blurb) as an ugly snout, with four funny little headlamps, grafted on to a great car. There's nothing new about the engineering philosophy either: it's typically thorough Mercedes-Benz, which means it is the best in the world. Beautifully made, roomy, comfortable, unerringly stable and reassuring on the road. It's expensive, of course; good things usually are. If you can just stretch to an E-class, have no fear: the basic 2.0-litre E200 model, while not the best in the range, is surprisingly eager.

Worst buy: Nissan QX (pounds 16,795-pounds 25,540)

A competent but totally uninspiring attempt by the Japanese to take on Europe's best. Vast depreciation will ensure that this will be a good secondhand buy, but until then, avoid it.

Luxury

Best buy: Jaguar XJ6 (pounds 29,450-pounds 46,950)

Not quite as well made as a Mercedes, not as quiet as a Lexus, not as much fun as a BMW. But for luxury nothing beats a Jaguar. Lovely cabin, classical styling, supple ride. It's the Edwardian drawing room, versus the hi-tech office approach of the Germans and Japanese. And under Ford, Jaguars just keep getting better.

Worst buy: Honda Legend (pounds 31,655)

Lovely V6 engine, but no other saving grace. Horrendous depreciation, unlike smaller Hondas.

Estates/MPVs

Best buy: Mercedes E-class Estate (pounds 25,200-pounds 39,200)

The new E-class isn't available in estate guise yet. Never mind: the old model is still the world's best estate. It's roomy, versatile, beautifully made and detailed, and remains one of Britain's lowest depreciating cars.

Worst buy: Nissan Serena MPV (pounds 13,895-pounds 16,240)

Looks like a van, drives like a van. Miles behind the new-wave European MPVs.

Coupes

Best buy: Fiat Coupe (pounds 17,589-pounds 19,489)

A Vivienne Westwood dress on wheels, the Fiat Coupe is an amazing amalgam of scoops, slats and slashes which, to most eyes, works brilliantly. It is also fun to drive. Worst buy: Aston Martin Vantage (pounds 177,600)

Last of the old school Astons. Blisteringly fast, indulgently thirsty, absurdly expensive. More like a high-speed truck than a sports car. Eccentric and without any real role - rather like Prince Charles, who likes them.

Sports cars

Best buy: MGF (pounds 15,995-pounds 17,995)

After a host of boringly competent but technically uninspiring Honda- based Rovers, Britain's own car maker took a big dose of bravery pills and unveiled a brand new MG this year. It could have given us a tame, rebodied version of one of its hatchback models; instead it went for a pukka, rear-drive sports car dotted with new-wave mechanicals. It's the most impressive thing Rover has done in years.

Worst buy: MG RV8 (pounds 25,440)

Last of the old school MGs. Drive one, and you can see why Rover was so keen to change direction with the new model. Just gone out of production, but there are still a few around.

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