Motoring: Hard times, but the show must go on: Will it be a jamboree, will it be a wake? Roger Bell on the brave face of next week's Birmingham motor show

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BEHIND the razzmatazz of the NEC motor show, open to the public on Saturday, is the brave face of an industry gripped by recession and uncertainty. Consumer confidence is low, wallets tight shut, year-end sales likely to be more than 700,000 below those of 1989's 2.3 million record. Europe's motor industry is in crisis, facing its biggest challenge in decades. Yet the NEC show goes on, more glitzy and entertaining than ever.

It is not all bad news, either, especially for cash-ready bargain hunters. Dirty non-catalyst cars (no longer made) are especially cheap, even though their sell-by date has been extended by the Government to clear huge stockpiles. New-car prices are bound to rise, however, as the cost of new equipment - airbags, non-skid brakes, emission controls and other fashionable (or mandatory) accoutrements - is passed on to customers. The message is clear: buy now if you can.

Against the trend, a few NEC exhibitors have grounds for optimism. Among those to increase sales and market share this year are BMW (spearheaded by the popular 3-series), Citroen (ZX and diesels to the fore) and Vauxhall (at the expense of Ford and Rover). Other winners include Peugeot, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and International Motors (importers of Hyundai, Isuzu and Subaru). Some of Europe's most glamorous names - Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Lotus, Porsche, Rolls-Royce - are among the free-fall losers.

Compounded by deep recession, the motor industry is undergoing dramatic change. New markets and manufacturing bases are opening up in Eastern Europe, China is set for a spending spree, unlikely liaisons are being formed between manufacturers seeking cost-cutting deals. And the Japanese are set for a major onslaught on EC markets. With Hondas from Swindon, Toyotas from Derby and Nissans from Sunderland - all made more competitive in Europe by sterling's devaluation - Britain's new-age car makers are in better shape than most. NEC visitors may not be able to see the stars for the dazzle. In the following guide, we expose the motor makers' secrets for survival.

ALFA ROMEO: Riding Fiat's coat-tails is a mixed blessing for Alfa, still struggling for a foothold in Britain. The flawed 75 has gone, displaced by the Fiat-based 155 - trading character for mediocrity and unlikely to lure image-conscious BMW buyers. New 1.8 and all-drive Cloverleaf models join the 2.0 and 2.5-litre V6s. Outstanding new 164s (here next May) expose Alfa's other models, including the old 33s, as dullards.

ASTON MARTIN: In 1963, Aston's 198mph DP215 coupe racer was faster on 4.0 litres than the Virage Vantage promises to be on a supercharged 5.3. Progress? Bulldog Aston's 550- horsepower leviathan undercuts rival hypercars, and offers more comfort and civility. A cheaper Aston - by Ford and TWR - is still two uncomfortable years away.

AUDI: Welcome relief from the lookalike saloons of VW's upmarket wing comes from a mid-range ragtop. The Audi Cabriolet is no sportster, with a modest 2.3-litre engine, but the headgear is ingenious and snug. A new 80 estate will supplement the bigger 100 estate, now challenging established family holdalls. Expect more V6 engines in Audi's line-up, strong on quality but lacking sparkle.

Family holdall: Audi's new 80 estate

BENTLEY: The pounds 91,000 Brooklands is no long-term saviour for cash-strapped Rolls-Royce, makers of Bentleys for more than 60 years. As a cut-price derivative of the

archaic Silver Spirit, the imposing Brooklands is stronger on craftsmanship than technology. Talk of a BMW takeover has evaporated; Rolls-Royce will remain British, says chairman Peter Ward.

BMW: New 7-series V8s (the 730i and 740i) are fast, smooth, comfortable and quiet, though Toyota's Lexus beats them on refinement. The V8 engines destined for some 5-series models fill in between the old 'sixes' and an improved V12. A new 850 CSi flagship gets a whopping 380-horsepower V12 engine and gadgets galore. Coming 3-series derivatives, after the coupe, include an M3 hotrod and a convertible. BMW diesels - a sign of the times - follow the Touring estate.

CHRYSLER: Remember the Jeep? Watch out for Chrysler, smallest of America's Big Three manufacturers, back in Europe next year. Land-Rover and its Japanese rivals from Daihatsu, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suzuki and Toyota are targets of the Wrangler and Cherokee, new recruits to the off-road sector.

CITROEN: Once the maker of oddballs for eccentrics, Citroen is now a pillar of the establishment on account of its accomplished Euroboxes. Sales rocketed when idiosyncrasies gave way to commercial expediency. The facelifted AX and outstanding ZXs - including new three-door, turbo-diesel and 16-valve models - spearhead Citroen's attack. The coming all-new BX has the opposition worried.

FERRARI: Upstaged, but unbowed. If you cannot afford pounds 415,000 for Jaguar's XJ220 or McLaren's pounds 500,000 F1, despair not. Ferrari's 512TR, nee Testarossa (redhead), is almost as quick, a third of the price and nicer sounding. Coming new models include the open 348 and a big, front-engined V12 456 coupe.

FIAT: Trying hard, aims to do better in Britain. The baby Cinquencento, on sale next year, is roomier and more refined than it looks. Its nostalgic name, recalling the 500 Topolino and Nuova 500 precursors, is misleading; the injected engine is a 41-horsepower 800. Expect nippy performance and jazzy decor from Fiat's Polish-made runabout. Do not expect an Uno replacement until 1994.

FORD: After a bad patch, Ford is returning to form with a revised Escort, facelifted to distance it from the original pounds 1bn Mk 4 flop. The launch of a handsome Granada estate has rectified another mistake. The Sierra Cosworth's demise was hastened by high insurance costs and the wacky new Escort Cosworth, with four-wheel drive and anti-theft security. For cheaper thrills, try the Fiesta RS1800 or the Escort RS2000, slashed by pounds 2,150 to boost sales. The all-new Mondeo, the Sierra's front- drive replacement, debuts next year along with an off-roader and the American Probe coupe, successor to the Capri.

HONDA: One notable absentee from the NEC will be Honda's new Swindon-made Accord, now on sale in Germany. High-specification 2.0-litre models will be in UK showrooms next May, starting at around pounds 16,000. Within five years, Honda could be making 200,000 cars in Britain. The NEC spotlight falls on two coupes - the flawed Prelude (great handling, silly dashboard) and the imaginative new CRX coupe (its good looks lost in going roofless).

Good Korea prospects: Hyundai's Scoupe Turbo

HYUNDAI: Korean costs and Japanese technology are Hyundai's winning formula. Sales and market share continue to rise. All Hyundais get more side-impact protection, the mid-range Lantras more power, the Scoupe coupe an in-house turbocharged engine.

JAGUAR: Lay-offs and losses have marked a bad year for Jaguar. Theme variations on the appealing XJS coupe are no long-term panacea. Improved XJ6 saloons are joined soon by a V12 derivative. The new mid-range saviour, with Ford-financed engines, is still years away.

A Lancia that's fancier: the improved Thema

LANCIA: Like stablemate Alfa Romeo, downtrodden Lancia struggles in Britain despite dominating world championship rallying. The latest Themas have improved engines, traction control and minor cosmetic improvements -

but what's to protect them from hideous depreciation?

LAND-ROVER: Resourceful Land-Rover has broadened the appeal of the Discovery, the bestselling off-road vehicle in Britain. Automatic transmission is now a new option for the petrol V8; anti-theft security (with engine immobiliser included) is standard. Land- Rover's range is topped by a lengthened version of the 4.2-litre Range Rover Vogue LSE with new traction control and air suspension.

LOTUS: Car magazine described the Lotus Elan as 'the best British sports car since the E- type'. Now it is gone, killed by a combination of factors - high costs and poor sales among them - that add up to a debacle. Whither Lotus now? Upmarket, with the ancient midengined Esprit that would be all the better for an engine with six or eight cylinders, not four.

Bad news for Porsche: the Mazda RX-7 coupe

MAZDA: Upbeat Mazda keeps turning out winners. It has launched four new cars this year - the 626 saloon (good but less exciting than claimed), the globular MX-6 coupe (svelte, fast, smooth), the Xedos 6 (aiming at BMW's jugular) and the rotary-engined RX-7 sports coupe (bad news for Porsche).

MERCEDES-BENZ: In Germany, falling sales and huge job losses dog Mercedes. Here, sales and market share are up - like BMW's. Even the old 190, to be replaced next year, is selling quite well. Uprated engines debut at the NEC for the 200/300 series. Other new models include the 320CE cabriolet and two new S-class coupes, the 500SEC and 600SEC.

Sigma without stigma: Mitsubishi's new estate

MITSUBISHI: Enter the Australian Sigma estate, with 3.0-litre V6 engine, costing pounds 21,500. Restyled Lancer Liftbacks will be NEC debutantes, too. The suave but soul-less 3000GT supercar joins the Japanese ranks of Porsche- bashers. There will be a new Galant next year.

NISSAN: Internecine war over (with its sacked wholesalers), Nissan's fortunes are set to rise with the launch of the Sunderland-made Micra, globular in style rather than chic. Expect three- and five-door models, 1.0 and 1.3 engines, manuals and automatics. There's also a new mid-engined people-carrier called the Serena - from Spain. Nissan will soon become as 'European' as Ford and GM.

PEUGEOT: Facelifted 405s, including a new 2.0-litre all-drive Mi16, star at the NEC. Diesel and five-door models are set to expand the range of delightful 106s. The next major launch will be the 306 next year, styled by Pininfarina.

PORSCHE: For all its woes - boardroom strife, declining sales and heavy redundancies among them - fallen icon Porsche still makes some of the world's best performance cars. The new 944-derived 968 has wonderful handling, but faces intense competition from Japan. New models include a 174mph 911 Turbo.

RELIANT: Yet another reprieve for Reliant's nifty, under-rated sports car, now called the Scimitar Sabre (nee SS1 and SST). Bean Industries, who made cars between the wars, saved it from the scrapheap by buying the company. A new baby Bean is rumoured for the NEC show.

RENAULT: Goodbye 25, hello Safrane. Renault's new luxury hatchback is not as French as Francophiles had hoped. Expect 2.0- litre four-cylinder models and 2.8-litre V6s, with other variants later. Facelifted 19s are joined by a cabriolet - one of several new ragtops in a growing market sector. The new Twingo city car should revive Gallic flair soon, but it may not be sold in Britain.

French polish: the luxurious Renault Safrane

ROVER: Rover advances on one front with partners Honda (next year's 600, the Montego's replacement, has been developed alongside the new Swindon-made Accord); on another, it goes solo with in-house theme variations. The handsome 800 coupe (not as good as it looks), 200 convertible (could be tauter), 200 coupe (150mph for pounds 18,300) and Maestro turbo-diesel (rough but frugal) are recent efforts. Others include Metro automatics and Peugeot-powered diesels. The MG's return is presaged by the pounds 26,500 RV8 - a muscular V8-powered retrocar based on the old B roadster. Mini and Metro ragtops are on their way.

Retro Rover: the RV8, based on the 1960s MG

SAAB: Under General Motors' wing, troubled Saab has simplified its confusing range of models and restrained its price increases. Its new low-pressure turbos are either called LPTs (900s) or Ecopowers (9000s). More confusing. The new 225-horsepower 9000 Aero, replacing the Carlsson, has better mid-range acceleration than a Ferrari Mondial.

SEAT: What VW does today, VW-owned Seat does tomorrow - or even yesterday. The Toledo got VW's 1.9 Umvelt turbo-diesel engine ahead of the Golf and Passat. Six-cylinder derivatives are expected; a go-faster 'four' with tweaked 2.0-litre engine is already here.

SKODA: The cheap, no-joke, front-drive Favorit continues to attract cash-strapped buyers. Bucking the trend, Skoda has increased sales and market share this year.

SUBARU: With the voluptuous, Jaguar-rivalling SVX coupe, Subaru shakes off its mud- plugger image. Powered by a Porsche-like flat- six engine, the SVX is an impressively refined sophisticate. Now comes the pint-sized Vivio - a five-door, 660cc micro-hatch - to underline that Subaru is still the farmer's friend.

Aimed at Jaguar's jugular: Subaru's SVX coupe

TOYOTA: The roomy Derby-built Carina E (for Europe), soon heading for UK showrooms, promises high quality but low charisma. It should do well - and needs to if Toyota is to make 100,000 a year - with its super-green 1.6 lean-burn engine. Quota restrictions prevent the seventh Corolla incarnation, 1.3/1.6 hatchbacks/saloons, from selling as well here as elsewhere. Also at the NEC will be a facelifted Lexus LS400 - the luxury car that Europe must beat - and an improved Land Cruiser.

TVR: The rumbustious Griffiths is TVR's response to mainstream supercars costing much more. Look out for a cheaper variant at NEC. Accessible oomph is TVR's stock-in-trade.

Affordable oomph: the lively TVR Griffiths

VAUXHALL: New-look Cavaliers foreshadow the fierce fight expected from Ford's upcoming new Mondeo. A 4x4 Turbo version will use the 150mph Calibra's drivetrain. Also on GM's agenda: lower prices; safety airbags; automatic transmission for the Astra; quieter 16V engines; and a cat-cleaned Carlton diesel. Coming next year: an all-new Nova (coupe included) and an Opel-designed, British-built V6 2.5 engine for top Cavaliers.

VOLKSWAGEN: The Jetta has gone, displaced by the Vento - a big-booted saloon, strong on safety, slotted between the Golf and the larger Passat. Prices range from pounds 12,400 for the 1.8, to pounds 19,250 for the 2.8 V6. Golf and Corrado models, powered by the same VR6 engine, are outstanding 1992 stars. The delayed 2.0 Golf GTi is due next spring, and airbags on some models are imminent.

Strong on safety: Volkswagen's Vento saloon

VOLVO: The new 850, the 200's successor, looks like a traditional Volvo but doesn't feel or sound like one. Keen, fluent handling and a five-cylinder engine (to be used by Renault, too) are welcome novelties. Estates will be on sale next year.-

(Photograph omitted)

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