Slightly

dated in appearance when parked alongside the droves of newcomers - imported

and locally manufactured - that currently contest the local market, they nevertheless

offer most of the features you'd find in a more pricey entry-level "modern".

One of the stalwarts in this category is Fiat's Uno, now offered only in

1100 Mia form, with a choice of five-door and three-door bodyshells. In fact,

right now the Mia twins are South Africa's cheapest new models, the three-door

selling at R44 953, with the five-door that is the subject of this test slotting

in at R46 873.

It's over a decade since the high, boxy little Fiat débuted on our

market, and very little about the 1,1-litre version has changed. Some seven years

ago a redesigned gearbox with slightly different ratios was adopted, and the Mia

designation for the basic trim level was introduced about three years back. (This

was originally offered alongside the more upmarket Tempo spec, which has since

disappeared, along with the 1,4-litre engine to make way for the Palio model range.)

The test car was fitted with 155/70 R13 Firestone F560 tyres, a slight change

from the 155/60 R13s fitted to the last 1100 Uno we tested, back in November 1995.

Practical unpainted bumpers and steel wheels covered by full-diameter plastic

covers testify to the Mia's budget-car character. Though the high, chiseled

lines have dated, they still have a crisp elegance, especially when finished in

strong, solid colours, such as the Ferrari red of the test car. Unos are lightweight

machines (the test vehicle tipped the scales at 785 kg with our equipment installed)

so the doors, for example, feel a trifle flimsy when slammed. But the payoff is

zippy performance and impressive economy.

Inside, the furniture remains pretty much the same as it always was, apart from

the use of a modern, bright-patterned fabric on the upholstery. The front seats

are upright, with high, flat cushions, and work with the generous glass area to

provide driver and passenger with a good all-round view.

Foot-room at the rear is tight, but headroom is good. The rear seatback folds

forward, increasing the 256 dm3 capacity of the standard luggage compartment to

a handy 816 dm3. And the boxy shape enables the car to accommodate surprisingly

large articles.

Although unfashionably rectangular and formed in cheap-looking shiny black plastic,

the facia is refreshingly practical. There's a neat oddments shelf along

the top, and the instruments (a 180 km/h speedometer and large fuel and temperature

gauges, all featuring white symbols on a black background) are grouped under a

cowl in front of the driver. A usable glovebox is provided on the passenger side,

and the rotary controls for the ventilation system are housed in the vertical

section at the centre. As we've found with earlier models, ventilation

is not the Uno's forte, and the test car seemed to deliver the same amount

of air, at the same level, regardless of how the controls were manipulated. The

steering column is fixed, and carries stalk controls for lights, indicators and

wipers. The narrow, high windscreen is cleared by the familiar single blade.

Twist the key and the carb-fed FIRE engine takes with a throaty roar. Made in

a fully robotised factory, the little s-o-h-c four is virtually unchanged from

the unit used at the time of the Uno's introduction. Slightly undersquare,

it displaces 1 108 cm3 and has useful peak outputs of 41 kW at 5 500 r/min and

87 N.m at 2 900. Good torque at low revs, combined with low body weight, make

for great drivability and flexibility.

As we've said, the Uno is also a zippy little car, and this latest version

proved to be the quickest accelerator yet, getting to 100 km/h in under 15 seconds.

But that was after two abortive trips out to our test strip during which the test

car dumped its coolant on the roadway, the liquid emanating from the block rather

than any of the cooling system plumbing. After two tow-ins and two attempts at

repair, it finally completed the test programme with no hiccups. Having tested

many Unos over many years, we can confirm that this show of unreliability is untypical.

Test results were generally better than those recorded in previous tests of Uno

1100s, but the differences were small, and within accepted levels of statistical

variation. For example, although the latest test unit out-accelerated its predecessors

in all our standard through the gears and overtaking tests, it was some 4 km/h

down on top speed compared with the 1100 five-door we tested in 1995. There was

also a small improvement in emergency braking times. And the 2001 car proved slightly

more economical than its predecessors, reaffirming the 1100 Uno's position as

the leader on CAR's 'as tested' fuel index list. That figure now stands at 7,38

litres per 100 km, which equates to a range of 569 km on a 42-litre tank of fuel.

Steady-speed consumption at 100 km/h was measured at 5,27 litres per 100 km.

Away from the straight and narrow, the Uno still impresses with its dynamics.

Younger designs could take a leaf out of its book when it comes to lightness,

accuracy and feel in the steering. And the car's nippiness on twisty roads is

another strong suit, though the cornering limits are defined by plenty of body

roll and terminal understeer. Ride is sporty, and very acceptable, though there

is less compliance than, for example, the Uno's more modern sister, the Palio.

And we would have liked more side support from the seats during enthusiastic cornering.