LATER this month, the fastest of several hip-high supercars will cover about 3,000 miles en route to victory in the 24-hour race at Le Mans. All things being relative, my wife and I set an equally tough target for the Fiat Cinquecento, which went on sale this week. The idea was to give the tiny hatchback a real test by driving 1,000 miles in not more than 24 hours. The 3.5-litre engine in the Peugeot 905 that averaged 125mph to win Le Mans in 1992, and was fastest in practice for this year's race, produces about 700bhp. Fiat's figures for the Cinquecento are 899cc and 41bhp.

'You must be mad,' was the predictable reaction, but there was a sound reason for doing the marathon. When war in the Middle East 20 years ago sent fuel prices soaring to unprecedented heights, there was no shortage of stories predicting the end of motoring as we knew it.

'Will we all be reduced to driving cars as small and low-powered as the 594cc, 23bhp Fiat 126?' was my reaction to the crisis. 'If so, let's see if it's possible for two adults to survive a really long, hard journey in one.'

Starting in Oswestry, Shropshire, we followed a 1,000-mile route that went as far north as Inverness, then headed back to the Welsh Marches by way of Edinburgh, Newcastle and Birmingham. Although my wife likened the cramped, noisy, spartan Fiat to a clockwork fart - a surreal but appropriate comparison - the rear-engined tiddler won its spurs by completing the journey with a few minutes to spare, averaging 42mph and 38mpg.

Built in Poland, which helps account for its very competitive price, the cute, front-wheel-drive Cinquecento underlines how far small-car engineering has progressed since the Seventies. It is only seven inches longer and one inch wider than the trendsetting Mini but gave the impression of being a bigger and more sophisticated car when we belted ourselves into the SX model's cloth-trimmed seats. The only complaint about them after 1,000 miles was the location of the fore-and-aft adjustment lever. Raising it an inch or three would reduce the risk of slip-

ping a disc or nipping a nerve.

Surprisingly low noise levels and a reasonably smooth ride helped make the long day's drive much less of an endurance test than expected. Being able to converse in normal tones while cruising at motorway speeds is an important anti-fatigue factor.

However, there were times when maintaining 70mph up quite gentle gradients depended on abandoning fifth gear in favour of fourth. The hardest struggle was through the Highlands on the A9, where the Fiat did well to average 38mpg despite running into a strong headwind. At the other end of the scale, we recorded 48mpg from Carlisle to Inverness. Although the five-speed gearbox is a useful, fuel-saving feature, points were deducted for the quality of the shift. Even after 1,000 miles I would not have bet on getting into fifth gear at first try. This lack of precision was irritating and potentially dangerous.

We had expected the Cinquecento to be much better than the 126, but the improvement was far greater than predicted. The newcomer is no racer, but it completed the route almost seven hours faster and used less petrol. The door-to-door averages were just more than 57mph and just under 43mpg.

The rear compartment is big enough for the Cinquecento to be called a genuine if cosy and intimate four-seater in adult terms. I had enough room for my 6ft frame to 'sit behind myself' with my knees touching the back of the driver's seat while my head just brushed the roof.

Driving the compact and agile newcomer in London endorsed Fiat's talk of 'urban mobility' being one of the main attractions. It also focused attention on the Cinquecento's role as a motorised shopping basket.

The boot is small, but almost 50 per cent bigger than the Mini's. Unfortunately, even the well-equipped SX lacks the convenience and versatility of a split-fold back seat, which would enable luggage space to be extended while retaining a perch for a passenger. Fiat deemed central locking to be more important for the British market.

Central locking, electrically operated front windows and a glass sunroof with a very inconvenient blind are features that account for the SX's price being pounds 425 higher than the base model, which is listed at pounds 4,990.

Size and price are the two most important factors to consider when judging the Cinquecento. Do you need a hatchback as big as a Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa or Rover Metro? If not, Fiat's new arrival represents excellent value for money and is, on this evidence, the best mini-car currently available in Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

Specifications

Fiat Cinquecento SX, pounds 5,415. Four-cylinder, 899cc engine, producing 41bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox. Maximum speed 85mph,

0-60mph in 17.6 seconds. Average fuel consumption 42.6mpg.

Comparisons

Citroen AX Debut, pounds 5,795. One of the best buys in the supermini class. The price is explained by a down-to-earth specification that does not include such features as a five-speed gearbox.

Rover Mini Sprite, pounds 5,295. Fun to drive, but you are constantly reminded that the Mini is now 34 years old. Minimal luggage space and none of the versatility provided by today's hatchbacks.

Nissan Micra 1.0L, pounds 6,890. The 'Car of the Year' draws attention to a supermini that is almost two feet longer than the Fiat. Price is the main drawback in this company, but buys a 16-valve engine

along with excellent build quality.

Subaru Vivio, pounds 6,697. Assets include bags of character, a five-door body and selectable four-wheel drive. But the boot is small and the lively 658cc engine becomes thirsty when worked hard.

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