Batman is held in high regard in the superhero echelons even though he has no actual superpowers.

He's just a regular bloke who wears his underpants on the outside, pumps some iron in the gym, and has learnt to use a few gadgets. But then, though rivals like Superman and Spiderman can do much cooler things like variously fly, scoot up skyscrapers or shoot laser beams from their eyes, neither has appeared in as many movies as the Batty One.

I think Batman's popularity has to do with the fact that he's attainable. Somewhere (not too) deep in our subconscious we feel that we could be him. All we need is a really good tailor, a few sessions at Virgin Active, and voila… we too could be fighting villains like the Joker - or even minibus taxi drivers -without having to go to all the trouble of being born on the planet Krypton or getting bitten by a radioactive spider.

What does all this have to do with the Daihatsu Sirion 1.5 Sport? Well, it's that, like Batman, the Sirion at first seems a humble thing with no obvious super powers, but in the end comes out a very strong contender amongst its more fancied peers.

And, with a price of R120 000 (actually five rand less), it's quite attainable.

The new Sirion 1.5i Sport, as with all other Daihatsu cars, comes standard with a three-year or 100 000km warranty from is maker and a service plan now extended to three years or 75 000km.

So no, it doesn't shoot laser beams or have steering-wheel audio controls or keyless operation like some of its rivals, but on a price-per-feature basis the Sirion performs quite heroically.

It does have button operation for all four windows, it does have aircon and power-assisted steering, two front crash bags and anti-lock brakes, a fuel consumption readout and a radio/CD with a jack point for an MP3 player. In other words, all the gadgets that make life easier and safer but minus all the expensive ones that you don't really need which could push the price beyond R150 000.

Absent are side crash-bags. The Sirion's doors do have impact bars but the important thing is that the car doesn't crumple like a cigarette packet in an accident and it achieved a four-star rating (from a maximum five) in EuroNcap crash tests, the same as most of its competitors.

Daihatsu also saved money by equipping the car with manual central locking.

The Sirion range was powered-up in October 2007 by this faster 1500cc Sport in manual and auto derivatives after being available only with a 1.3-litre engine. It also acquired some sporty body kit in the form of a gaping grille with new foglights, skirts, rear spoiler and new rear combination lamps.

Handy city car

The muscled-up body suggests more power than there really is - much like the superhero mentioned in the opening paragraphs - but the car actually packs a slightly bigger punch than you expect from a 1500cc car - mostly because of its handy power-to-weight ratio. As a result it gets going at a relatively lively pace, posting a fairly impressive 11.3sec to 100km/h at Gauteng altitude and a top speed of more than 180km/h.

This, with its small size and power-assisted steering, makes it a handy city car. It runs well on the open road without needing to be mercilessly revved.

Fuel economy is one of the Sirion 1.5's best superhero tricks - 6.2 litres/100km, says Daihatsu, and our test car wasn't far off with its still-impressive 6.8.

The ride quality is acceptable and not too choppy, along with clean and predictable roadholding. The one sticking point in the driving experience, however, is the manual gearshift, which moves as though through sticky toffee.

The Sirion is surprisingly spacious inside and the rear seat is roomy enough for two adults to sit without their limbs going numb. However, the boot's tiny so the holiday luggage will have to be hauled in a trailer unless there's only two of you and you fold down the rear seats to expand the boot.

Clever cluster

Cabin oddments space is plentiful, however, and for things such as wallets and remotes the Sirion has a wide selection of clutter-swallowing nooks, as well as cupholders.

The fascia has a neat and modern layout with controls for ventilation and the integrated sound system is mounted high for easy reach. The instrument cluster is on the steering column so moves with the height-adjustable steering-wheel.

The Sirion seems well built, even though it's a very light and compact car, and refined: engine noise grows as speed rises but it doesn't sound harsh or strained.

VERDICT

The hyper-competitive mini hatchback market has no shortage of contenders and, though this Daihatsu doesn't quite pack the punch of some rivals in terms of brand image, the Sirion's superhero stunt is its price.

Its value for money is difficult to beat.