MOTORING / Now, tomorrow's world on wheels: Futuristic people carriers, tiny electric runabouts, clutchless gear changes and 230mph supercars are among the surprises at this week's Motor Show in Birmingham. Roger Bell tracks the trends

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KOREA GOES WEST Look to South Korea, not Japan, for no-frills Eastern promise. Hyundai is well entrenched in Britain, Kia digging in, Asia Motors seeking a foothold with its budget off-roader. The next Korean wave comes from Daewoo and SSangYong (meaning twin dragons). All five are bent on global expansion, four of them through UK connections.

Former Talbot boss George Turnbull set Hyundai going in 1974. It now sells more cars here than Mitsubishi, Proton, Saab or Lada. New models include the V6 Sonata and Escort-sized Accent (replacing the blue-rinse X2). Kia is still struggling (sales are down) but its bland new Mentor is keenly priced and nicely made. British consultancies helped with its design and development.

Daewoo's new UK head office is the former premises of International Automotive Design in Worthing and new models are taking shape; the Cielo and Espero are imminent. Ken Greenley, Royal College of Art course director and consultant to Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, heads SsangYong's design team, responsible for the Mercedes-powered Musso - a stylish 4 x 4 on sale soon at Subaru and Isuzu dealers.

BREAKING THE MOULD Ford defends the new Scorpio's controversial styling despite widespread criticism. Readers of Carweek magazine, for example, gave the Granada replacement's oval-mouthed, bug-eyed smirk the thumbs down. Ford is unfazed: its Cortina replacement, the Sierra, went on to be a best seller after surviving a poor start.

Anyone who can't tell a Ford Mondeo from a Toyota Carina or Renault Laguna will welcome Ford's initiative to make its cars more distinctive. It is not alone in breaking the jelly mould of anonymity; brand character is on the way back.

Alfa Romeo, still struggling for UK sales, has given its 145 a bold new look. With styling that is more bread-van than hatchback, it could also have administered the kiss of death to the old 33's replacement - at least until the booted 146 saloon variant arrives. There is talk of Fiat's Alfa subsidiary withdrawing from Britain, as Lancia did, if sales - a paltry 118 in September - don't pick up. The striking GTV (see Sports of Sorts) could be a saviour.

Mazda's racy-looking 323 model provides more styling cues for the future; the five-door version looks like a cross between a conventional hatchback and a sleek coupe.

SPACE CAPSULES TAKE OFF People carriers (or MPVs) are all the rage. Renault's pioneering Espace is still Europe's front runner, but the opposition is intensifying. Fiat, Peugeot and Citroen have collaborated to produce an MPV called the Ulysse, the 806 and the Evasion respectively. Ford has linked up with VW to make a Passat-based contender in Portugal. Ford's version is the Galaxy, VW's the Sharan. Expect V6 power in both companies' flagships when sales start next spring.

Growing demand for MPVs was the trigger for cost-cutting joint ventures; more are being hatched. The need to keep the lid on chronic over-capacity - too many vehicles chasing too few customers - was another.

Mercedes' upcoming large, front-drive MPV has links with VW too; Vauxhall's is to be part of GM's global onslaught (Americans buy over a million MPVs annually); Honda's Odyssey will be here next year. Inspired by the Renault Twingo, the French and Germans are looking at smaller versions based on existing hatchback platforms. Citroen's teardrop Xanae prototype, with its versatile swivel seating (see main picture), crosses a conventional saloon with an MPV; this could, perhaps, be the shape of things to come.

WHERE THERE'S MUCK According to Land Rover's luminaries, the new boss, BMW's Bernd Pischetsrieder, is impressed with the new-look Range Rover. He should be. It took six years and pounds 300m to give one of Britain's most successful indigenous vehicles its first new suit. Besides, the diesel has a BMW engine -chosen long before the German takeover. Land Rover's cheaper Discovery is still the best-selling 4 x 4 in a sector that continues to grow (by 10 per cent in August) even though fancy off-roaders have become prime targets for thieves.

Some highly publicised crashes, two of them fatal, have cast doubts over the safety of 4 x 4s. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advocates special training for drivers of big off-roaders; Land Rover says it's not necessary. The latest Range Rover is very stable at speed, if not so sure-footed as the low-slung luxury saloons that Land Rover sees as its main competitors.

Land Rover's projected small off-roader, aimed at the burgeoning leisure market frowned on by environmentalists, is still two years away. As sales of off-road sports vehicles rise - expect to see some of them metamorphosing into MPVs - those for 4 x 4 cars decline. Vauxhall has dropped its all-drive Cavalier Turbo.

DAY OF THE DIESEL Nearly a quarter of all new cars sold in Britain are now diesels. By the end of next year, the ratio could be one in three. It is not just the promise of exceptional economy that fuels demand (sales were up 13 per cent in August).

Levels of smoothness and performance unknown ten years ago have also helped.

So have prices, which have come much closer to those of comparable petrol models; diesels don't need expensive catalysts, whereas petrol cars do.

On the debit side, there are indications that diesels are not holding their value as well as they used to. As more used ones come on to the forecourts, depreciation increases.

Best newcomer of the year is undoubtedly BMW's 325tds, capable of 130mph and 40mpg. Its six-cylinder engine, which is virtually indistinguishable (except when idling) from a petrol 'six', sets new standards of refinement and quietness. As with most turbo-diesels, however, fuel consumption begins to soar if you exploit the performance. Even the die-hard petrol-heads at Honda have a diesel in the offing. Ditto Saab.

SPORTS OF SORTS Sporty cars are making a comeback, led by Vauxhall's chic Tigra. Paraded first as a show study, the Corsa-based Tigra won such public acclaim that GM has put a studio whim into production. Pert, chunky styling and bags of driver appeal are the Tigra's strengths. Lack of competition and keen prices (from pounds 11,000) should guarantee brisk sales. Fiat's new coupe, also boldly styled, will cost under pounds 20,000. Alfa Romeo's striking new dart-shaped two-seaters, the GTV coupe and the open Spyder, will cost more and go harder. The top V6 does a staggering 150mph.

Rover's resurrected MG arrives next year. MG made over half a million B and BGT models before the axe fell on the best-loved marque of British Leyland, Rover's predecessor. The new MG D is a mid-engined two-seater designed in-house before the BMW takeover. Aimed at Mazda's beguiling MX-5 (recently improved) and Fiat's Punto-based Spyder sportster (coming later), the D is expected to cost from pounds 14,000. According to CAR magazine, it could be joined later by a new Healey; as a car buff, BMW's chairman confesses to a soft spot for Rover's defunct marques.

Porsche's new mid-engined 986, based on its Boxster showpiece, should break cover next year. Mercedes and BMW roadsters follow. Bugatti-owned Lotus is developing a back-to-basics sports car to replace its resuscitated Elan. AC, Caterham, Ginetta, TVR and Westfield have new sportsters, too.

PREMIUM ON SECURITY Case history (mine): last year's insurance for a Golf GTi cost nearly pounds 300, third party, fire and theft. This year's premium for fully comprehensive cover was pounds 211. The catch? Norwich Union insisted on an expensive security device.

The good news is that premiums in general have been falling. The bad is that extra security - dead locks, alarms and engine immobilisers - has forced up costs. Worse still, many new cars are still poorly protected, according to recent tests by What Car? magazine. There is also widespread mistrust of electronic immobilisers. What if they go wrong? Instructions to 'refer to your installation company' are not helpful on a cold, wet night with a dead engine. To allay fears such as this, a firm called Malvy Technology has developed an all-mechanical alternative that makes the steering wheel free-turning until it is locked into place with a fail-safe two-handed action. Simple solutions are often the best.

PERFORMANCE IS ALL Who said green issues are curbing conspicuous consumption and speed? High performance remains a strong marketing tool at all levels. At the top of the league for road cars comes McLaren's outrageous 230mph F1 three-seater, powered by a 630 horsepower BMW engine. At pounds 630,000, it is likely to remain the world's most expensive listed car. Lamborghini and Bugatti also make 200mph slingshots, and Ferrari's facelifted 512M, with 440 horsepower, is knocking on the door.

The fastest Bentley Rolls-Royce has ever made - costing pounds 147,500 - is electronically restricted to 155mph. Jaguar's new XJR saloon and Aston Martin's Ford-financed, Jaguar-based DB7 coupe, now on sale, will also comfortably exceed 150mph. Both signal the comeback of the power-boosting supercharger - a mechanically driven pump that forces more oxygen-rich air into the engine.

Turbochargers (turbines driven by the engine's exhaust) do much the same thing. Stalwarts include Nissan's restyled 200SX, a facelifted Mitsubishi GT and Audi's remarkable RS2, which has the performance of a 160mph supercar (0-60mph in under five seconds) and the accommodation of an estate. The ultimate all-purpose car? Not according to Volvo. That accolade belongs to its limited-edition 152mph 850 TR5.

GIZMOS AND GIMMICKS Hustle through a roundabout and your car will lean and lurch. Citroen's Xantia with Activa anti-roll suspension will not. Sensors and gizmos keep the body on an even keel. Active (or intelligent) suspension that minimises discomfort and improves grip has been a dream for years. Citroen is about to make it a reality for a premium of about pounds 1,000.

Clutchless gearchanging with a manual gearbox was around in the Fifties and Sixties; it didn't catch on. Modern updates have a brighter future. VW uses a clutchless system on its bizarre Golf Ecomatic, which free-wheels with a dead engine (to cut consumption and emissions) when you back off the accelerator. More significantly, Renault uses a new UK two-pedal system, designed by AP, for its Twingo and Clio Easy. Touch the gearlever and the clutch operates automatically and smoothly.

The launch of Audi's aluminium-bodied, classy and luxurious A8 has prompted the steelmakers to form a weight watchers' club. Audi pared the A8's body weight by 40 per cent; steel people are looking at ways to do the same, to boost performance without hiking power. There should be economy benefits too.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL While BMW and its Rover subsidiary ponder the new Mini and Metro, VW has at long last replaced the old Polo. The new one is like a Golf, only smaller, and on sale this month from pounds 7,000. It has much in common with the new Ibiza of VW's Spanish subsidiary, Seat. Rationalisation is the real name of the game. It's a sign of the times that Mercedes-Benz, hitherto associated with expense and luxury has a small hatch under development.

Electric cars are still a long way off. Peugeot's concept ION, an electric runabout, illustrates why: range 93 miles, top speed 65mph - but you sacrifice one to achieve the other. The Italians claim a 140-mile range for the government-funded ZIC four-seater electric. Renault has chosen ecologically friendly LPG (liquid petroleum gas) to power its futuristic city runabout, the Ludo.

(Photographs omitted)

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