Hobbit forming

DAIHATSU HAS CHOSEN an interesting name for this little runabout. To Bible readers, it's a breastplate. To The Lord of the Rings fans, 'Sirion' is the elvish word for a river or stream. To me, 'Sirion' sounds like something that should be served with chips, a green salad and pepper sauce. Bingo! All things to all men.

The elvish connection fits, for the Sirion embodies Daihatsu's principle: 'We make it compact'. The car looks small at 3.6-metre-long, 1.55-metre-tall and 1.66-metre-wide, but the runabout doesn't seem hobbit-sized. You get an interior height of 1.27 metres, width of 1.4 metres and 86cm between front and rear seats. So you don't whack your head on the roof every time you fix a child's seat, remove a wriggling pet or extract your golf clubs.

The interior is easy-clean plastic, simple and stripped down with useful, deep door pockets, cupholders and those string vest-style pockets on the chair backs that children love to fill with toys. The split rear seats slide backwards to make a large platform. After a few minutes of messing around with seats, headrests and a flimsy rear shelf, you can create enough room to move a double bed or a wakeboard.

The Sirion could save you a few scrapes in Hong Kong's tight parking spots. The turning circle is a mere 4.7 metres, almost polo pony standard, making even the worst designed car park accessible. The Sirion's rear doors open to about 80 degrees, and are perfect for getting children and less agile people in and out. The doors open in three stages, so drivers don't have to experience that heart-stopping moment when the door seems to acquire a life of its own and nothing short of a concrete post, or another car, will stop it.

The Sirion comes in nine 'vivid' colours, but I strongly suggest avoiding the Gollum Green.

Something seems to be missing on the instrument panel, however, as the tachometer is in a central pod on the dashboard. Now, this feature does look dinky in the VW Beetle/Smart car style, but it's impractical and surely this clock should be the priority on a dashboard? Watching revs and speed simultaneously would require a second set of eyeballs. The speedo is clear, but has a terrible integrated fuel digital indicator and clock that looks like an early version of Pacman.

The adjustable steering wheel is so light that you can drive with a fingernail. The balance of the car is great, with the front and rear suspension rigidity increased for better stability. Drive steadily on the road bumps, or you may find yourself in the queue for the chiropractor, however, but visibility's excellent with the model's higher driving position.

The 1,300cc K3-VE engine delivers 100.3 brake horsepower, enough to avoid humiliation at traffic lights. Hills can be a challenge, however; Frodo would have struggled to get the ring into Mordor if he'd relied on the Sirion, even with a heavy foot on the accelerator. On an earthly plain, we struggle up Wong Nai Chung Gap, but there's some kick down, once you get used to it. The gear stick is quite low and I have to lean down to reach it, but this combines waist exercises with driving, so I am happy.

The Sirion requires minimal effort to drive; you aren't going to burn up Route Twisk at 6am, but this tiddler will get you, your family and your worldly goods in 225-630 litres of space, from A to B, efficiently and economically. The engine noise inside the cabin is minimal, so the MP3- and WMA-format-compatible stereo system is effective without having to listen to it at full blast. This isn't enough for some people though. I pass another Sirion and the bass of the music is so loud the tissue box on his rear shelf is vibrating. Impressive.

We have a sticky moment as a delivery man spills a case of fruit in front of us in Shau Kei Wan, but the Sirion's standard ABS with electronic brake force distribution prevents a skid brilliantly, and we glide to a halt without creating apple puree. This incident highlights a downside to having a plastic steering wheel; you do tend to stick to it in moments of excitement. Now I understand why many Sirion owners' websites feature steering wheel covers. Rear parking sensors are standard, too, although the hatchback rear window gives good visibility and its windscreen wiper earns its keep in the rain-lashed test drive. Front-bumper towing hooks are reassuring in the torrential rain, but I know that, in the worst-case scen-ario, Daihatsu dealers Crown Motors (tel: 2565 6566) have a good service centre with decent coffee.

The 2000 Sirion, with its four SRS airbags, seatbelt pretensioners and front and side collision protection, scored a reasonable three out of five stars in the Euro new car assessment programme, and three out of four stars in the pedestrian-safety tests. That's worth thinking about in the melees of old dears outside wet markets.

Daihatsu has gone green, and labelled parts to make recycling easier, and the innovative Intelligent Catalytic Converter has a regenerating function, so it performs more effectively over time than conventional converters, the marque says.

The Sirion is a practical runabout. It's not grand luxury, but it's not pretending to be. Driving is a doddle and the engine is nippy enough to enjoy. You feel you're driving a much larger car without the environmental impact. What's more, you can impress The Lord of the Rings fans by casually mentioning that your car is named after a well in the eastern face of mountain range Ered Rethrin. Who in Middle-Earth, or Mid-Levels, could ask for more?

At a glance

Daihatsu Sirion

What drives it? A 1,298cc, four cylinder, 16-valve engine with a four-speed automatic gearbox on 12-inch alloys with rack and pinion steering.

How fast is it? Tops: 169km/h; 0-99km/h: 11.3 seconds

How safe is it? Dual, front and side airbags, anti-lock braking, brake assist, front-seat belt pretensioners and force limiters and a 'collision safety body structure' prove Daihatsu matches European safety standards.

How thirsty is it? A cheap date, at 15.6km/litre on a 40-litre tank.

What this car says about you: You don't need a brand to make you look good, and lead a no-nonsense life below May Road.

How much? $109,080 at Crown Motors (tel: 2565 6566)