MOTORING: ON YOUR MARQUES

The 75th Motor Show is under way and with more than 750 cars and 12 world debuts, it's bigger and better than ever. John Fordham picks his own front runners
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The Independent Culture
I REMEMBER DRAGGING my mother to the Motor Show when I was 10. I wouldn't contend it gets into the tragically heroic top six of the Premier League for parental sacrifices, but I reckon it wasn't in the relegation zone either. I ricocheted like a pinball around Earl's Court Olympia, whooping. She trailed resignedly behind, probably contemplating daughters. We were agreed, however, on the star of the show, which was a maroon James Bond Aston Martin with beige leather furnishings. I knew I'd buy one one day.

This episode planted what became three Lessons for Life:

(a) Tempus fugit. Most of the proudly glittering vehicles on show that day looked ridiculous only a few years later, and were probably burned out, scrapped, dumped or coughing smoke not many years after that.

(b) It's harder to get rich than I thought.

(c) Objects of desire can be a lot more fun and a lot less trouble in a good light and just out of reach. My mother, I'm sure, knew all of these things but was too hopeful of the motivating power of illusion to pass them on at the time.

Though the memory of the old Motor Show still just about survives in the bi-annual Motorfair at Earl's Court, it's nothing like the blockbuster version that happens in alternate years in Birmingham. That is called the British International Motor Show, inevitable acceptance that the UK doesn't do as much car-building as it did. But maybe the lessons haven't changed much. In fact, despite all we now know about the automobile's effects on the fabric of life, motor industry embarrassment isn't noticeable in the grandiloquence of this occasion.

The 1998 show, which is currently running at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, is the biggest ever - more than 800,000sq ft of floor space, more than 750 vehicles, 12 world debuts, plus a transport- history display celebrating the 100th birthday of the Michelin man, Concept Cars of the 21st Century, off-road mud-slinging exercises, and an Adventure Zone of interactive games - driving ones, unsurprisingly, being high on the agenda.

This extravaganza is the 75th to be organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the first having been at Crystal Palace in London in 1903. Even then, the secret of the Motor Show wasn't hard to discern. There were only about 8,000 private cars on the roads in those days, but 10,000 people turned up for the event. You didn't have to own one, or even stand much chance of owning one, to be seduced by the motor car's confident, aspirational promise.

By 1923, there were half a million vehicles on Britain's roads and three times as many eight years later, and the Motor Show expanded accordingly, albeit with car sales in mind. In changing its emphasis from being a glorified salesman's forecourt to a multi-themed occasion with something for all the family, the planners have recognised that the public expects more for its money, that motoring is now a subject that comes with a many-layered debate attached, and that last August's sales figures and a recession around the next bend probably mean the industry needs all the profile-raising it can get. But all that means it should be quite a show. Even Mother might have enjoyed it.

! The British International Motor Show is on now at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham (0121 780 4141) until 1 November. Open 9.30am to 7pm daily (closes 5.30pm on last day). Junction 6, M42; Birmingham International BR. Parking charge pounds 6. Advance tickets 0121 767 4455. Tickets available both in advance and on the door at a cost of pounds 10 for adults, children/OAPs pounds 5. Family tickets for the last day are available, in advance only, at pounds 25 for two adults and two children

JAGUAR S-TYPE

In the Sixties there was a series of mid-range Jaguar saloons, with 2.4 and 3.4-litre engines, that were among the most desirable automobiles the company had ever built - restrained enough to avoid their bigger siblings' wide-boy image, but fast, comfortable and elegant. That classic range promises to be nostalgically recalled with the unveiling of the S-type at the 1998 Motor Show in Birmingham.

The new saloon is closer to VW Passat or BMW lines than to Jaguar's traditional styling, although it does have a variant on the traditional oval slatted grille, and a choice of V6 or V8 engines. For those clutching for a figleaf of old times in a globalised auto economy, the new S-type has been conceived and developed by Jaguar's engineers in Coventry. The price is likely to be between pounds 25,000 and pounds 32,000 and the principal targets will be BMW's 5-series and the Mercedes E-class.

Improvements on existing Jaguar saloons should be found in the cabin (the headroom has been enhanced) and the boot. Luxury sports saloons have to strike a delicate balance between ride comfort and stability, and this will be the battleground on which Jaguar takes on BMW in particular.

Expect the characteristic silky flow of a Jaguar saloon's ride over rough surfaces, but coupled with even greater cornering tautness and poise. But devotees of those vistas of polished walnut housing the instrumentation may have to get used to a sparser late-Nineties facia - less wood, more plastic and chrome.

MERCEDES A-CLASS

The baby Mercedes has come to Britain trying to live down those quease- inducing newspaper pictures showing it almost overturning in hazard-avoiding "elk" tests.

Stirling Moss used to say that when he was driving for Mercedes he never risked joking they should try square wheels as a development option, because he was sure they'd put the idea through exhaustive testing before rejecting it. But that obsessiveness about meticulous engineering came through in the end. They threw every hi-tech development they could think of at the A-class, to root it so firmly to the ground a tornado would have trouble overturning it. The result is a wide-tracked, dull-steering, rather firm- handling machine but with less bodyroll than before, standard electronic skid-control and much stiffer springs.

Is it desirable? A lot of people already think so - UK dealers report an 18-month waiting list. As a car that looks like a 21st-century fashion accessory it will, experienced traders believe, become a must-have for the school-and-shopping run and the Friday night dash to the country alike.

Brilliantly conceived, the A-class is shorter than a Ford Ka, yet the legroom is good; it is economical on fuel, and can swallow most of the load of a Megane Scenic or a VW Golf. Driver, passenger and side airbags are standard, a clutchless gearchange is available, its interior is as stylish as the Ka's and the driving position is excellent. Prices, however, start around pounds 14,500 and will run up to pounds 20,000.

FORD FOCUS

Ford has dominated the car market for so long that its best-selling models are mainstays of popular culture. When the Mondeo replaced the Sierra, it almost made the Six O'Clock News, and the same goes for the Focus, which is arriving to replace the cheerful and noisily indestructible Escort.

The Focus is another bug-shaped, teardrop-windowed small hatchback, with a front-end that betrays an unmistakable design link to the Ka and the Puma with its tight-lipped grille and slanting eyes. However, the Focus is no standardised product, and reflects the boldness and engineering radicalism that has hauled Ford out of the anonymity of the station car park and the rep-run, and given its products an edge that turns the snootiest enthusiast's head. Insiders maintain that the Focus is nothing short of a revolution. In the car's spaciousness for its class, its quietness, its safety and handling, running costs, the attractiveness and user-friendliness of its controls, they may well be right. Three and five-door hatches are available, five engines will be eventually, and a saloon and estate are due.

ROVER 75

Another car with a name that still catches the faint vibrations of British motoring history. But where the Rover 75 of the Fifties was a big, stately, pillar-of-the-community machine that seemed to be facing backwards and forward at the same time, and looked as if it was designed to accommodate drivers who kept their trilbys on, the new version (to be unveiled at the NEC) is a low, sleek, Passat-chaser, with a good many BMW bits under the skin to help it keep up.

The 75 replaces the rather drab Rover 600, which was built from Honda Accord bits, so the notion of a "real" Rover is long gone. At prices between pounds 18,000 and pounds 25,000 however, the 75 will be a serious contender in the middle-to-upmarket sector, with BMW-standard electronics, traction and braking equipment, yet the luxurious wood-and-leather traditionalism that keeps Rover buyers in the fold. The rear seats are bucketed, and climate control and navigation systems will be featured.

LAND ROVER DISCOVERY

When they transform a car without you being able to notice the difference from the outside, you know they're sure of their market. The Land Rover Discovery is a firm favourite with those who can lay hands on a pair of wellies at a phone-call's notice, but since the inspired smaller Freelander entered the lists, the Discovery has become eligible for an upgrade, moving it closer to Range Rover territory - in performance, quality and price. But it looks just the same, unless you take a tape-measure to the dimensions, and a photo of the old fittings to the revised tail-lights.

Going upscale means you can't buy a new Discovery for less than pounds 25,500 now, and the top-range bells-and-whistles versions could tip pounds 40,000. For that kind of money, buyers expect a class act - and though the Discovery's image has balanced Land Rover's rough-and-ready origins and luxury roadcar evolution pretty well, its build quality has raised an eyebrow or two in the past. The new version is the antidote - reconceived and reconstructed in every superficially identical panel, structurally more rigid, given immeasurably more poise and agility by a gizmo called Active Cornering Enhancement, and almost as refined in diesel form as the petrol version.

In this price range, and with so little external alteration, Land Rover probably won't reach many new buyers with the new-old Discovery, a reflection of its belief in the stability of its market. But its BMW parent, with an eye on the elegant- looking M-class competitor from Mercedes, apparently has other plans for the future of the range.

SAAB ESTATE

Due in February, Saab's first estate car in two decades is evolved from its biggest saloon, the excellent, deftly handling and refined 9-5. This was the model that began a journey back to success for the Swedish company, which had lost its way after the brilliant and long-serving first 900 series, so this is a secure basis for a leap into marketing space Saab hasn't risked for a long time.

Prices should range from pounds 23,000 to approximately pounds 30,000, with models coming on-stream early next year. The design strongly suggests a 9-5 with a bolt-on box at the back, but the combination of space and performance should appeal to potential estate-car investors as well as existing Saab owners. A sliding boot-floor tray will ease loading, and the mechanics and trim will follow the specifications of existing 9-5s.

SKODA OCTAVIA ESTATE

At the other end of the estate car market, the VW-driven Czech company Skoda is offering its practical, well-appointed and robustly performing Octavia model in both petrol and diesel versions. As the Del Boy motor manufacturers of the world increasingly disappoint saloon-bar wags by marrying into big-company money and smartening up their act, the opportunities for dud-car jokes diminish as the punter's choice

expands. So the

Octavia uses an all-Volkswagen platform (shared with the Audi A3 and the new Golf) as its basis, and has been put together in an all-new factory financed by VW. However, the design team is Czech, and though the car doesn't turn heads, it has the sober functionality and decent build quality that began to convince sceptics of Skoda quality from the Favorit and Felicia onwards.

The torquey 1.6 engine pulls well, and though quick bend-negotiation induces roll, the car is pretty agile and the ride gentle. Equipment levels are good, and the car is reasonably roomy for passengers, with rear storage comparable to a Mondeo estate's. Prices start at around pounds 14,200.

MITSUBISHI L200 DOUBLE-CAB

A pick-up truck for the builder who wants to put a little spin on the business, or an estate car for those with big egos and a sense of humour. It's not easy to see quite where Mitsubishi is aiming its Tonka-like Double- Cab, but this big gallumphing diesel is a lot of fun if you're not easily shamed by how much room it takes up at the kerbside.

The L200 Double-Cab is what it says, a pick-up with front and back seats in the cabin. Standard issue leaves the rubber-floored loadspace open to the elements, but you can buy lockable tonneaus and even full-sized canopies as an optional extra. The back is almost big enough to move house with.

Mitsubishi says the L200 has arrived to meet the needs of "an emerging lifestyle sector" - which means customers who might want to run a farm during the week and then drive their gear to a marina at the weekend. Hardly the school-run market, but the prices are keen against some pretty inflated opposition (all Double-Cab prices are below pounds 20,000), the vehicle is surprisingly manoevrable, and the view is great.

CONCEPT CARS

NISSAN KYXX & HYPERMINI

Two radical small-car concepts. The Kyxx is a sporty-looking supermini, short in overall length but wide enough to seat three adults side by side and with a more than nominal boot. Intended to be highly manoevrable for town use, instrumentation is ergonomically state-of-the-art.

The Hypermini is an electric car, with a top speed of 62mph, a range of 80 miles and 25 per cent of the energy consumption of the average conventional car.

LOTUS 340R

A pretty baldly explicit car-for-a-serious-laugh, the 340R develops Lotus 7 kit-car appearances to the 21st century - flat-screen, bug-

shape, somewhere between a fairground kart and a miniaturised Formula One racer. Lotus has developed this machine in collaboration with the enthusiasts' magazine Autocar, and it is based on the exotically lively Elise.

CITRON C3

Fascinating small town car with split rear hatch, rear doors that open backwards and pivoting seats.

TOYOTA PRIUS

The world's first full-production hybrid car, due to go on sale here in the year 2000. Petrol engine coupled to electric motor gives optional power source and reduced consumption and emissions for urban or open-road use.

JAGUAR XK180

Though the company is maintaining that this car is not for the showrooms, the XK180 is one of the most beautiful Jaguars ever made. It has dazzling looks, a thunderous 450bhp engine, a polished aluminium facia, a handbuilt body derived from an XKR, and its inspiration is the Le Mans-winning D- type racer. Lottery winners and Jaguar fans of stratospheric means will certainly be hoping that if the XK180 doesn't make it to market, something very like it will.

OTHERS TO LOOK OUT FOR

Alfa Romeo 166 (pounds 22,000+)

BMW 5-chasing luxury Alfa, refined but still growly, nice-looking.

Audi TT (pounds 25,000+)

Spectacular-looking sports coupe that looks and feels like a concept car.

BMW Z3 Coupe (pounds 40,000)

Big expense, big thirst, big image - the highly distinctive hard-top sibling of the successful Z3.

BMW New 3-series (pounds 20,000+)

More spacious, better engines, more refinement.

Fiat Multipla (pounds 14,000+)

Weird-looking multi-purpose three-row six-seater. Looks like an acquired taste.

Honda Accord (pounds 15,200-pounds 21,000)

Revised Passat-class Honda, very spacious, well-equipped, relaxing to drive and economical.

Mercedes S-class

(pounds 42,000-pounds 100,000)

Rolls-rivalling world-leader for daft dimensions and no-holds-barred expense - a luxury apartment on wheels.

Mitsubishi Challenger

(pounds 20,000-pounds 25,000)

Cherokee-challenging offroader, with Mitsubishi reliability and value.

Peugeot 206 (pounds 8,500-pounds 11,300)

A mixed reception for this rakish-looking spacious new supermini - but the retracting-roof sports coupe, destined for the year 2000, will be worth a look.

Vauxhall Frontera

(pounds 16,000-pounds 22,000)

Revamp of the stylish-looking offroader, now with automatic transmission, more space and more agility.

Volkswagen Beetle (pounds 14,000)

Cleverly reprises the styling of the old Beetle, but with contemporary comfort and refinement; cramped inside, though.

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