MOTORING / Stealing the Show: This year's hopeful debutantes go on display at the Motor Show in London on Thursday. Roger Bell picks ten of the most interesting, from Fiat Punto supermini to Saab 900 hatch to Aston Martin DB7

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ASTON MARTIN DB7

Purists question the pedigree of Aston Martin's 165 mph DB7. The seventh DB (the late David Brown, custodian of AM from 1947 to 1972, produced the first six) owes more to Jaguar, also owned by Ford, than to any previous Aston. Engineered by a TWR team, and to be made at the plant that produces Jaguar's ailing XJ220 supercar, the pounds 80,000 DB7 (cheap by AM standards) uses Jaguar underpinnings and a Jag-based supercharged engine. An output of 330 horsepower may not impress buyers of the new 326hp Toyota Supra, which is just as fast and less than half the price. But then no Toyota has the DB7's priceless heritage or scarcity value.

FORD PROBE

Ford's new Probe is certain to face strong opposition when it is launched into an already crowded coupe sector next year. The US-made successor to the ground-breaking Capri - 'the car you always promised yourself' - borrows from Ford's Japanese affiliate; some underpinnings and the V6, 24-valve engine are shared with the Mazda MX-6. The Probe certainly possesses the glamorous looks of a winner, but does it have the dynamic qualities that grace VW's benchmark coupe, the Corrado VR6? GM's Calibre V6 and Rover's 220 Turbo have failed to match the class-leading VW in driver appeal. The early reports on Ford's challenger suggest that the Probe does, too.

LEXUS GS300

1Lexus - posh name for posh Toyotas - has become the scourge of Europe's luxury car makers, particularly in America where it's the import to beat. In the vanguard was the formidable LX400, short on character but unrivalled in refinement, its 4.0-litre V8 engine a paragon of smoothness and peace. Earls Court sees the launch here of the LX400's kid brother, the Italian- styled GS300 (below). Powered by a straight-six engine (like that in the Toyota Supra but without the turbos), the auto-only GS is smaller, lighter and, at pounds 31,950, cheaper than the LX it echoes in refinement and equipment. BMW and Mercedes take it very seriously.

PEUGEOT 306 CABRIOLET

Chic, n' est-ce pas? Peugeot's 306 cabriolet is the prettiest of the new-wave convertibles. On sale next spring in time for the rush to go al fresco motoring, it will face stiff opposition from VW's new lidless Golf. Expect two models - a 1.8 with unassisted headgear and a faster 2.0 with powered hood. The same 123 horsepower 2.0-litre engine powers the new 306 SXi - one of two go-faster additions to the range. Its S16 sibling doesn't perform like a car alleged to have 155hp.

MERCEDES-BENZ C-CLASS

C-class for third class? Hardly. Mercedes-Benz's problems - over-production, insufficient buyers - are not reflected in its 190 replacement. Solidly built, meticulously engineered and ultra-safe, the new 'small' Mercedes (above) should recover some of the ground which has been lost to BMW's highly successful 3-series. In order to attract buyers of all ages and tastes, Mercedes has introduced a choice of four different interior finishes (a departure from tradition) as well as a range of engines - four and six cylinder petrols, four and five cylinder diesels - and transmissions. Pricey but good.

SAAB 900

Although loss-making Saab now draws on the expertise and parts-bin of its GM masters, the new five-door 900 hatch (above) inherits the lines and character - even the idiosyncrasies - of its forebears. The sluggish 2.0, gutsy 2.3 and turbo flier have four-cylinder engines drawn from the outgoing range. The 'Six' (Saab's first, ignoring a prototype with two siamesed three-cylinder engines) uses GM's British-made V6 found in uprange Cavaliers and Calibras. Chasing BMW and Mercedes, Saab may yet rue its decision to eschew diesels and four-door saloon bodywork in a bid to double UK sales to 6,000 next year. From pounds 15,995 to pounds 21,795.

FIAT PUNTO

Watchout Fiesta, Corsa and Micra, there's a Punto about. Fiat's classy Uno replacement (above) inherits the Latin character of its predecessors, but not their tattiness. Build quality and finish are to German and Japanese standards, with safety and environmental issues seriously addressed. Expect roomy, space-efficient hatchbacks with three and five doors, a soft-top cabriolet, and 1.1, 1.2, 1.6 petrol engines, as well as a high-performance 1.4 turbo and a super-frugal 1.7 turbo-diesel. Fiat hopes to make the pert Punto Europe's numero uno supermini in 1994.

VAUXHALL TIGRA

Dress the smartest supermini in town in coupe drag and what do you get? Vauxhall's Corsa-based Tigra (left). Powered by a 109 horsepower, 1.6-litre twin-cam engine, like that in the nifty Corsa GSi, the 120 mph Tigra is at this stage no more than a showpiece prototype designed to gauge press and public reaction. It was so well received at the Frankfurt show that Vauxhall/Opel is expected to announce production plans for its baby sizzler soon. The Corsa coupe could well be in showrooms by 1995, priced at around pounds 12,000.

PORSCHE 911

No car in history has undergone such prolonged evolutionary development as the Porsche 911 (left), which is 30 this year. The survival of sales-starved Porsche, victim of a global recession and Japanese competition it failed to anticipate, now hinges on what's said to be the last incarnation of this classic; all-new models on which Porsche is pinning its future are still two or three years away. The latest wind-cheating 911 Carreras have 3.6-litre, 270 horsepower engines, new rear suspension and improved brakes. Turbo and Cabrio variants are expected later.

BMW 325TD DIESEL

The world's best diesel? BMWs 325td (above), now on sale in Britain at pounds 19,000, is a strong contender for this accolade, its quiet, sweet-six engine, bereft of clatter and lumpiness, displaying petrol-standard refinement. Performance is lively, particularly mid-range where strong torque - the turbo-diesel's forte - gives peppy pickup without down-changing. Snags? Indifferent economy, the diesel's raison d'etre, when extended. Now that image- conscious BMW has joined the derv club, fostering respectability, expect diesel-car sales to soar beyond the one-in-five market we recorded in August. Other new BMWs include the formidable 160mph M3, a cabriolet in the latest 3-series' clothes, and a new 840i, 4.0-litre V12 version of the big V12 coupe.

(Photographs omitted)

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