Motoring: Daewoo's time machine: it has nearly caught up with 1997

Once more, without feeling, new Daewoos have arrived. This one is an odd size and seems to have little character. But John Simister sees signs of hope ...

You'll have heard of Daewoo, the Korean conglomerate that sells its cars direct to the public and promises a whole new world of consumer-friendly car-buying. Its original range of two models was as crude and geriatric as the sales pitch was slick, but now these automotive white goods come in three new shapes and sizes. The one you see here is the middle-sized one, called Nubira.

Nubira. A nubile-sounding car, you might think. Or perhaps, if you heard the name out of context, you might think it was a new brand of mobile telephone, or possibly, give or take a vowel or two, a new ballpoint pen. But no, it's a car. The company's engineers refer to it as the J100, which sounds much more high-tech. A pity the marketing men didn't stick with it.

Daewoos are already seen as smart buys by those who know a good car when they see one, and who find that a Daewoo does all they want from a car (go from A to B, start first time, and so on). The mainstream motor trade will not touch them as trade-ins, true, but that is because it has closed ranks against the maverick newcomer. Either that, or the cars are unsaleable second-hand, perish the thought. To be fair, Daewoo has seen this coming, which is why the new cars are proper modern machines instead of General Motors cast-offs. Look at a new Nubira, and you see something which might even stand up on its own merits.

This car is a slightly odd size, bigger than an Escort but smaller than a Mondeo and not, as yet, available as a hatchback. The four-door saloon (there is also an estate) costs pounds 11,995 as a 1.6-litre SE, or pounds 12,995 as a 2.0-litre CDX which is the version I drove. You certainly get plenty of kit, including anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, four electric windows and two airbags, plus a stereo which is made not by Daewoo's electrical division but by Sony. It comes complete with a mobile phone, too. It's a Panasonic, as it happens.

Korean it may be, but the Nubira is also cosmopolitan. The body was styled by IDEA of Turin, the engine comes from Holden (Australia's equivalent of Vauxhall, so the GM connection is not yet dead), and the whole project came together at Daewoo's technical centre in Worthing. A three-part front grille (Daewoo's heritage starting point) and enormous rear lights give some visual interest, as does the line which extends from the top of the front wheel arch to the car's rear. But I approached the Nubira with some trepidation, for this is a car which appears to have no perceptible personality. Would I remember what it was like the next day?

Worried that I would not, I took more copious notes than usual. And trying to relive the experience now, I'm having difficulty. So, let's see some of what I wrote.

Big boot. Cup-holders in facia. No centre console - storage tray extends under dashboard. So far, so informative. Proud Daewoo crests on yellow under-bonnet filler caps. Roomy in back, but cabin narrow. Driver's seat too high despite tilt adjustment, gradations of steering wheel's height and backrest rake too coarse. Irritating chime if key left in ignition.

Yes, it's coming back now. So what about when it's actually moving, rather than sitting in a showroom? Floppy, gritty gearchange, steering woolly, rubbery and anaesthetised around the straight-ahead, car does not feel naturally stable at speed on the straight. But holds the road well, and handles bends much more precisely than you would expect from the steering. Comfortable ride. Engine quiet, punchy too (so it should be with 132bhp), but accelerator snatchy.

There's some honing to do, then, before the Nubira nudges the best Western or Japanese standards, but it is, fundamentally, a proper if unremarkable late-1990s car and it does feel more solid and better-built than a Hyundai Lantra (its main Korean rival). Easy to be cynical, but open your mind. There, the notes even contain a trace of self-admonishment.

I wouldn't want a Nubira but, given the warranty and free servicing package (three years for both), I would entirely understand if you did. Who knows, one day Daewoo might even have a history if the Far East's economic collapse doesn't prove terminal.

Daewoo Nubira 2.0 CDX

pounds 12,995. Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 132bhp at 5,400rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 122mph, 0-60 in 8.8sec; 25-30mpg

Rivals:

Chrysler Neon 2.0 LX: pounds 13,795. Like the Daewoo, a lot of car for the money but little sophistication. Neat looks.

Fiat Marea 2.0 ELX: pounds 14,647. More power, more flair than Nubira. Well made, fun to drive. Relative of Bravo/Brava.

Hyundai Lantra 1.8 Si: pounds 12,899. Less pace and perceived solidity than the Nubira, but steers more sweetly.

Proton Persona 1.8 SEi: pounds 13,365. Malaysian-built, Mitsubishi-based, feels cheap, much better to drive than you'd expect.

Subaru Impreza 2.0 GL: pounds 13,610. Basks in glory reflected from rally-winning Turbo version. Four-wheel drive, fine value.

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