THE NISSAN TIIDA deserves a second look. In Foot Down (January 15, 2005), I said this saloon looked 'dumpy', the poor, little thing.
But the government's purchase of 32 models for the police fleet suggests the ugliest 1.5-litre ride in town can't be that bad. After all, Asia's Finest usually get the right car for the job with our money, and the law's fleet purchases can influence family and company budgets.
So, I don't mind eating my hat if this civvy version proves all right on the road. Nissan dealer Honest Motors has sportingly lent me this top-of-the-line Deluxe. It's 20kg heavier than the police's basic Luxury Tiida, but it's still no oil painting. Indeed, you can see why Nissan Australia signed Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall to sex up the car, cooing that she didn't think it would be 'so big'.
So, I take the Tiida on the Ugly Car Run, to out-of-the-way Redhill. Not that anyone would notice; after the Tiida launched Down Under, the Vogue Australia Forum posted a debate on the label of Cattrall's handbag, not the car.
But the Tiida is a furtively entertaining flit up Queen's Road, and in a surprisingly pleasurable burst past the Cricket Club, I realise this Nissan actually goes like a train, just like its ugly cousin, the Renault 'Shakin' That Ass' Megane II, on whose platform this saloon is built.
Nissan's XTRONIC continuously variable valve-timing control gearbox provides a shockingly smooth drive for $149,800, and while The Australian has a point about its suspension relaying every nook of road surface, you're not going to get a Mercedes-Benz A-Class ride for this money, particularly under Nissan's recent cost-cutting.
The Deluxe is fine for Hong Kong roads, and while more expensive cars slow on the Tai Tam Reservoir Bridge, the narrow Tiida scoots past oncoming vans, capable of unprintable speeds, courtesy of a 0.29 drag co-efficient that suggests the car is less wind-resistant than the BMW 330i (0.31), or Porsche 996 (0.3).
Cattrall had every reason to purr that the Tiida's 'really, really, really good inside', with a fine stereo, ergonomic instrumentation and a robust air-conditioning system. But it's a mature driver's car, for those of us who know what it's like to drive like the wind, end up in court, and whose backs and knees are beginning to play up. The Tiida's kind to my stud-raked, 49-year-old frame and so generous with knee and exit space that I reckon it would make an excellent, no-nonsense, comfortable commute.
The Tiida's as airy inside as a Renault Laguna, the boot's adequate for family shopping and it could get you home to Madam in a good mood. You get adaptive lighting, Keyless-Go and leather steering wheel and a plasmacluster ion air-conditioning system, in this Deluxe, too.
This plusher version is as Hong Kong friendly as the police version. US website www.greencarcongress.com  says the model's HR15DE engine and XTRONIC CVT consumes 5.49 litres/100km of fuel and emits 128g CO2/km, the equivalent of just 2.5 Smart ForTwos.
Meanwhile Mazda Europe says the rival 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre Mazda3 run at 7.1l/km and 7.2l/km and emit 169g/km and 172g/km of CO2 respectively. The Tiida makes accountants and politicians look good.
The Tiida proves as nifty as it's thrifty, however, with grunt that could surprise your teenagers, and land you back in court. I was worried I might cop it when a police sergeant shadowed me on his Honda for a couple of kilometres from Shau Kei Wan, but the Tiida controls well under surveillance, and the Sarge gave me a cheerful thumbs up at a North Point exit.
Perhaps the Tiida's plainness marks you out as a 'sensible motorist', or the Sarge already knows that these saloons seem comfy for patrols, run economically and have low emissions. Teenagers might complain about the lack of space and a decent headrest and seat belt in the middle rear seat between two adults, but they are unlikely to bang their heads on a tall roof and portals. The Tiida is perfect for families who don't have to show off, and just the car for celebrities and tycoons who want to avoid publicity. It grows on you, just like the Megane II, or your favourite truss. Indeed, Hong Kong's families and fleets could learn a lesson in car purchasing from the government. Poorer jurisdictions in the region could have been tempted to buy flash Subaru Impreza or Dodge Chargers that scream: 'You're nicked!' Instead, officials have spent our money on a car that's so unassuming that it seems invisible on the street.
The Tiida's good for fleets that just want to get the job done. Its simplicity also mocks the Mercedes-Benzes, Bimmers and Audis crawling home along Gloucester Road, at the same speed, and at twice the price. This hat tastes awful.
AT A GLANCE: NISSAN TIIDA DELUXE
What drives it? A 1,498cc petrol engine with continuously variable valve-timing control and electronic fuel injection, continuously variable transmission; front wheel drive with front ventilated discs and rear drum brakes on 15-inch alloys.
How fast is it? Fast enough for the police.
How safe is it? Adaptive front lights, dual front airbags, anti-lock braking, brake assist, parking sensors and electronic brake force distribution and collapsible steering column.
How thirsty is it? 5.49 litres/km, 43mpg on a 52-litre tank.
Hong Kong friendly? Yes. It fugs 128g
Co2/km, the equivalent of just 2.5 Smart ForTwos.
Nice touches: Keyless-Go, the ioniser, comfy seats and its lovable ugliness.
Available: $149,800 at Honest Motors (tel: 2803 5333)