Motor Show `98: NEC debut for a new era of the car

The British International Motor Show promises innovation, like Volvo's bi-fuel system which can use natural gas

A DOZEN new models make their world debut at the British International Motor Show, which opens to the public at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham on Friday. Among them are the Jaguar S-type, the Rover 75 and newcomers from AC, Caterham, Jensen, Lea Francis, Lotus, Marcos and Westfield.

Toyota's first small Lexus, the IS200 - aimed at BMW's 3-series with a 2.0-litre straight-six engine - also breaks cover at the NEC. So do Daihatsu's new restyled Cuore and Move micros, powered by 1.0-litre three- cylinder engines.

At the other end of the scale comes the Mercedes-Benz S-class, lighter and sleeker than the outgoing giant. Flagship of these gizmo-laden marvels, making their UK debut, is the air-sprung S500. Among the options are fan- cooled seats that massage you as you drive.

Alfa Romeo's new 166 looks set to change the status quo in the executive class, as the 156 has done in the division below. Base model is the 155bhp 2.0 litre, and fastest is the 220bhp 3.0-litre V6, with six-speed gearbox.

Serious competition comes from Volvo's new S80 range, which includes a bi-fuel facility that runs on natural gas or unleaded. Mazda's executive car, the Xedos 9, gets a facelift and a supercharger to boost flagging sales.

Jaguar won't risk upstaging its S-type saloon at the NEC with the XK180 concept two-seater, shown at the Paris Salon. So the sports exotica is headed by Aston Martin's tweaked Vantage (600 bhp, 200 mph); Audi's eye- catching TT Coupe (not quite the sportster it seems); Bentley's Continental Sedanca Coupe (last of the true-blue Bentleys); Porsche's all-wheel drive Carrera 4; and VW's 420 showcase roadster, powered by a unique engine.

On a lower plane comes the new Cougar, playing second fiddle to the brilliant Focus on Ford's vast stand - its biggest ever, with a 350-seat arena. Among stiff opposition are revised Alfa Romeo GTVs (more power and equipment) and limited-edition Fiat Coupes (six-speed gearboxes, Recaro seats, air- conditioning).

Other streakers not to miss: BMW's oddball M Coupe; Chrysler's Porsche- eating Viper GTS; Mitsubishi's upgraded 3000GT, now with navigation system; Renault's wild, mid-engined Clio V6 tearaway; Maserati's exciting new 3200GT; and Venturi's twin-turbo Atlantique 300. On a more humble note, there is Mazda's updated MX5, which continues to outsell the MGF, and Toyota's MR2-replacing MRS, still a year away for UK buyers.

Don't be fooled by the carry-over styling of Land Rover's new Discovery, which heads the off-roaders. Underneath is a new five-cylinder diesel and fancy suspension (no roll), transmission (no slip) and brakes (no skids). Together they transform the Discovery's performance and appeal.

Mitsubishi's new Challenger, which slots in under the Shogun, is stronger on style than off-road prowess. Vauxhall's Frontera, dogged by poor quality, has been revamped. In come new engines, more refinement and better trim.

After years in the 4x4 wilderness, Mercedes-Benz delivers the goods with its new M-class, starting at pounds 31,780 for the 3.2 litre V6. At the other end of the scale is the Suzuki Jimny - a slim-hipped four-seater 1.4 designed for the urban mud-plugger. In between come the niche-filling Mitsubishi's long-cab pickup, the 4Life, and Subaru's 170bhp Forester S-Turbo, a more speedy estate than off-roader.

Down in the bread-and-spread division, Ford's Escort-replacing Focus, subject of rave reviews, heads a big cast. If the three-door's "new-edge" styling is too wild, try the plainer saloons and estates.

Another small debutante with a big impact is Peugeot's 206, on sale next month as the 205's spiritual successor. Destined to become Peugeot's best- seller, the 206 kicks off with 1.1 litre , 1.6 litre and 1.9D power. The 2.0 GTi and advanced diesel come later.

One size down, VW's baby Lupo is set to give Ford's controversial Ka a bloody nose.

Fitting into no established category comes Merc's new A-class - Ka sized, Escort spacious, Mondeo priced.

Small space-race contenders aimed at Renault's top-selling Scenic include Vauxhall's seven-seat Zafira, Citroen's Xsara-based Picasso, still a year away from production, and Mitsubishi's Space Star.

Nissan answers critics of its lucklustre styling with the adventurous KYXX (pronounced Kicks) - a Micra-sized concept.

Other showcase one-offs: Renault's hideous Vel Satis, said to hint at future range-toppers; and Subaru's Exiga estate.

Fiat's Brava/Bravo twins have had a makeover; Mazda's 323 has been restyled to look less aggressive; and Seat's new four-door Toledo, which includes a 2.3-litre V5, is based on the underpinnings of the Golf's saloon offspring, the Bora - also making its UK debut. Ditto VW's revived Beetle (left-hand drive only) and Honda's handsome sixth-generation Accord, set to double its share of the medium saloon sector. A new V6 rival is Hyundai's British- styled XG.

Other new cars worth a view: Ford's hot Mondeo, the ST-200 (for 200bhp); BMW's blistering 400bhp M5; Toyota's mini Yaris, said to top the class for space; Rover's red-nosed 200 BRM, which rekindles an old association; estate versions of the Skoda Octavia and Saab 9-5; Vauxhall's best-seller Astra saloon; and a turbo-diesel Chrysler Voyager.

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