SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Daihatsu Sirion 1.0 S.

Price: £6995 (about R81 000 at 26/04/05).

Engine: 998cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, 51kW.

Transmission: Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 159km/h, 0-100km/h in 13.5sec, 5.0 litres/100km estimated average.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the £6995 (R81 000) Daihatsu Sirion 1.0 S has much in common with a £252 000 (R2.92 million) Rolls Royce Phantom.

Both have four doors (well, technically the Sirion has five), a CD player, air con, electric windows, carpets and seating for five.

Both can exceed the speed limit and come in a range of colours.

OK, so the Rolls has four times as many cylinders, almost seven times as much horse power and - in some quarters - a touch more prestige.

But they are both cars, with engines that burn fuel to pump pistons to provide motive force, and each is desirable in its own way.

If they were animals they would be separated by a tiny quirk of DNA, like, say, chimps and humans. Yet one costs around the same as a luxury family holiday to the Caribbean, while the other would buy you a substantial portion of the Caribbean.

And herein lies the inherent nobility of a car like the Daihatsu Sirion. Give me £252 000 per car and I reckon I could make a decent fist of building you a Rolls Royce, but I simply have no idea how they can make a Sirion (named, for reasons that escape everyone, after a river that features in The Lord of the Rings) for under £7000.

You'll pay almost £9000 (R104 000) for a bland, five-door Fiesta; £8500 (R98 500) for a five-door Micra; a hundred quid more for a Honda Jazz; nearly £9000 for a Mazda2; Citroën's titchy three-door C2 starts at £8000 (R92 600) while the cheapest five-door Peugeot 206 is £9,100 (R105 400) - and it's getting on a bit now.

The only comparable five-door that costs less than a Sirion is the £6600 (R76 400) Fiat Panda, and that's more a reflection of Fiat's witless desperation than anything else.

Crucially, nothing under £9,000 has such an impressive list of gadgets.

And let's be clear, Daihatsu is no Toy Town brand, like Perodua or Chevrowoo (or whatever Daewoo is called now it's owned by Chevrolet).

Part-owned by Toyota, Daihatsu's smaller, really quite brilliant Charade - launched a couple of years back - has wormed its way into the hearts of thousands with its even more minimalist list prices - which start at £5700 (R66 000) - admirable quality and Pokemon styling.

The base model Sirion is perfectly placed to capitalise on Daihatsu's newly-generated goodwill. The 1-litre version only has three cylinders but, as with three-legged dogs, it compensates for this apparent inadequacy with an indomitable spirit and a dollop of charm.

The engine sounds like it is giving its all nearly all of the time, but the noise is a companionable tumble drier's thrum, rather than the strained whine you sometimes get when you ask too much of a small four-cylinder.

And it certainly has enough space. Five will sit quite happily, and unusually high up, in the lofty cabin; the boot is unexpectedly big too.

The rear seats fold flat which, despite the current craze for back benches that pivot, spin and adjust to address infinite-but-needless possibilities, is about all you need, while the interior is not nearly as yucky as you would expect of a car costing this little.

Think of it as the Ibis Hotel room of car interiors. The seat fabrics look like they could give you a nasty rash and the indicator stalks feel like twigs, but there is something verging on the robust about the rest of the interior architecture - which includes some pleasingly cheeky, Smart-style details - and the gear change is sublime.

In summary then, the Daihatsu Sirion: given the choice I would probably still go with the Roller, but I do really, really like it.

It's a Classic: Daihatsu Compagno

The Italian name of Daihatsu's first four-wheeler - and, more significantly, its first export model - the Vignale Compagno ("companion") was just one symptom of the way Japanese car companies of the 1960s relentlessly aped their then superior European rivals.

The cars shared the same mechanical layout as British, French and Italian family cars and they looked unmistakeably European, too. It could easily have been a Fiat or an Austin, which is hardly surprising given it was styled by Italian design house Vignale.

Almost completely forgotten today, the original Compagno of 1963 was a pleasantly simple, unadorned two-door four-seater with silly little wheels and acres of glass.

The engine was just 797cc, but it had an all-synchromesh gearbox - not a given in those days. Despite the fact that the owner's manual advised you to tighten the wheel nuts every 100 miles to stop the wheels falling off, Daihatsu sold over 120,000 Compagnos, enough to attract Toyota who bought the company in 1967.

In its own modest way then, the Compagno changed the face of global motoring forever.