THE NINETIES has not been a great decade for innovation. The world has been too comfortable to consider revolution. Truly great breakthroughs usually come from times of need, not times of affluence.

The Suez crisis and the threat of interrupted oil supplies, for example, played a big part in the birth of the Mini. The uncertain early Eighties helped sire the Renault Espace, the world's first "people carrier".

But the Nineties have been a decade of important improvements rather than innovation. Cars have become cleaner, more economical, safer and much more reliable.

Is there a single European Car of the Nineties? I'm scratching to think of one. Candidates must include the Golf, for its sales pre-eminence throughout the decade, and its reputation (unique among small, mass-market cars) for quality. Or the BMW 3-series, still the most desirable small prestige car, despite Audi's inroads. The BMW's mix of restrained elegance, sportiness, decent economy and safety sums up what car makers were striving for in the Nineties.

What's missing, however, is a new-wave car, such as the Espace or the Mini. The biggest-selling "new segment" car has been the small 4x4, pioneered by the Suzuki Vitara and the Toyota RAV-4. But these vehicles are too frivolous to be considered great. They are fashion accessories not harbingers of a better future.

Rather, Renault sired the most important Nineties trend with its mini- MPV, the Scenic. It is being widely copied, most promisingly by Vauxhall, whose new Zafira is due to hit the showrooms later this year. More innovative, if less successful, is the Mercedes A-class - the most different car of the decade and in many ways ahead of its time.

The decade has witnessed the utter dominance of the German motor industry in Europe. Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler are easily the strongest European car companies. Rover, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Land Rover, Mini and MG - once proudly self-reliant - are now all German satellites. Germany also gave us the most awesomely competent car of the decade, the new Mercedes S-class.

Some car makers of which great things were expected, have failed to deliver. Others have improved spectacularly, none more so than Skoda. And Alfa Romeo, maker of rusty sports saloons 10 years ago, now makes the gorgeous 156, Europe's prettiest car.

In Japan, Toyota and Honda have not just weathered the recent economic meltdown but have prospered - proving what richly talented and resilient firms they are. Both are still benchmarks for quality, reliability and affordability.

But despite the unexceptional motoring decade, we are on the verge of true change. In the first decade of the millennium, cars boasting zero tailpipe pollution are set to roam our streets. GM, Ford, Mercedes and Toyota are all at an advanced stage with their hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Initially, sales will be small, but, then, petrol-powered cars spluttered before their sales exploded.

Truly, the next 10 years should see a revolution on the road.

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