Road Test: Seat Arosa 1.0 - A Tardis that tangos

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Seat predicts a big future for small runabouts as congestion and pollution increase. Its new Arosa aims to provide in a cheap, minuscule package the ambience of a family saloon a size or two bigger. Up-market accoutrements such as power steering, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning and automatic transmission are all on the menu.

Like it or not, Seat's pert new baby, the latest model from the burgeoning VW group, is the shape of things to come. For Arosa, read Lupino - the junior VW Polo to be made alongside its Spanish counterpart at Wolfsburg in Germany. Cosmetics apart, the Arosa (Spanish more in name than origin) and Lupino (due in Britain soon) are twins. Smaller than Ford's Ka, bigger than the Fiat Cinquecento, these intriguing new compact superminis are among the most significant of this year's debutantes.

To begin with, Seat will be importing just two models - a 1.0-litre manual costing from pounds 6,995, including standard-issue power steering, and, for pounds 900 more, a 1.4 automatic, which is slightly quicker and longer legged, but significantly thirstier (in the combined cycle, the auto does only 36.7mpg, against the 1.0's 49.6). The model range will be expanded later with a 1.4 manual (probably worth waiting for), a 1.6 quickie and a 1.7 diesel. All will be stub-tailed, three-door hatchbacks about 3.5 metres, (11.6ft) long.

If the Arosa feels bigger than appearances suggest, that is because it is wider and taller than the competition. Up front, you really do have elbow-room to spare - about six inches more than in a Cinquecento. The downside is that the Arosa is too wide to tuck into gaps that would be accessible, say, to Rover's evergreen Mini - which is still the archetypal urban runabout if price and comfort are removed from the equation. Making the Arosa tall not only increases headroom (which is generous) but legroom as well, by dint of more upright seats. Even so, the Arosa is cramped in the back unless the front seats - height adjustable at extra cost - are pushed forward. Small though it is, the boot is big enough for the average weekly supermarket takeaway. Pay extra - pounds 750 for air conditioning which on the 1.0 blunts acceleration when the power-sapping pump cuts in - and you can equip your Arosa with central locking, extra security, electric windows, ABS and a driver's airbag.

There's nothing very special about the way the Arosa drives. The 1.0 and 1.4 auto came across as competent little cars rather than sparkling ones. Light, user-friendly controls make for easy driving and parking, but Minis, even Cinquecentos, have more zest. I found the seats rather firm and short on embrace, though by small-car standards, the ride is unusually smooth. This may in part be due to a Ka-equalling weight - the penalty paid for class-leading crash safety, Seat asserts. Of the two cars I drove, the 1.4 (higher geared and therefore less frenetic than the rather sluggish 1.0) was the calmer, more refined performer. Its Japanese automatic gearbox shifted particularly sweetly

Although simply furnished and trimmed, the Arosa has about it the feel of a well-made, quality car, as befits a product of the VW group. Apart from being cheap to buy, the base 1.0 should also cost very little to run: a minor 10,000-mile service will set you back pounds 16.86, and depreciation is predicted to be unusually low - an important consideration for private buyers who will account for most Arosas sold here. Seat, with 175 dealers in Britain, is currently 20th in the UK's sales league and VW (with 320 dealers) seventh, so the Lupino will eventually become the more familiar car. For those who cannot wait for a VW badge, Seat's nameplate is just as good.



Price: from pounds 6,995. Engine: 998cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 50bhp at 5,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 15.9 seconds, top speed 94mph. Fuel consumption: 49.6mpg combined.


Fiat Cinquecento SX, pounds 6,859. The budget-priced city slicker to beat. Cute looks, endearing character. Smaller, more cramped than Arosa but slots into gaps the Seat can't reach. Go for pounds 7,344 Sporting, which is more fun and nippier.

Ford Ka2, pounds 8,860. Not so much a city runabout as a Fiesta in fancy dress. Smart, trendy, comfortable, refined, very nifty on the corners - but Ka2 (with power steering) nearly pounds 2,000 more than Arosa. Terrific if you can live with the looks, inside and out.

Rover Mini 1.3i, pounds 8,995. Crazy price for ancient runabout now seen as a trendy means of self-expression, not utilitarian transport for the impecunious. Brickbats: gut-jarring ride and awful driving position. Bouquets: quick steering, tenacious roadholding, bags of fun.

Other rivals to consider: Citroen Saxo, Daihatsu Charade and Move/Cuore, Kia Pride, Nissan Micra, Peugeot 106, Suzuki Alto.