Motoring: Four ways forward

The Geneva Motor Show offers glimpses of the future.

Every motor show has its concept cars. Often they are just showing- off exercises to test the world's reaction to new ideas. But at the Geneva Motor Show, which opened last Tuesday, concepts from Opel/Vauxhall, Renault and Toyota pointed to real cars for the next millennium.

Alternatively, there was the Bentley. Imagine a mid-engined supercar, something like a Lamborghini Diablo, with a metal-meshed cut-out in the front shaped like a Bentley's radiator grille. It's the Bentley Hunaudieres, named after the restaurant half-way down the Mulsanne Straight at the Le Mans race track, scene of famous Bentley race victories in the late Twenties.

Volkswagen, which now owns Bentley, believes the marque should race at Le Mans again. So are the Germans messing around with precious British heritage? No, says Rolls-Royce and Bentley product development director Rob Oldaker. "The first ideas came before VW ownership, and last July we talked with Volkswagen about moving it forward. It was the right thing to do for this show."

The design might be Bentley-flavoured, and the 8.0-litre, 16-cylinder, 623bhp engine might be Bentley-tuned for effortless thrust rather than race-car pace, but the car was built in Germany using the chassis of another VW Group product - the Diablo. And the W16 engine is four-thirds of the W12 unit seen in Volkswagen's own supercar study a year ago. The Hunaudieres is an intriguing idea, but the notion of an engine behind the occupants seems deeply odd in a Bentley.

And so to relative reality. Lotus reinvented the stripped-out, pure-pleasure sports car with the Elise, and two big-name makers are now chasing Lotus. Opel, or Vauxhall as it's called here, is even basing its angular Speedster on the Elise's bonded-aluminium chassis, but power comes from a Vauxhall engine of 2.2 litres and 147bhp.

The driving experience won't be as extreme as the Elise's, but engineering chief Peter Hanenberger promises he "won't put in too much comfort". Vauxhall's first sportster since the Twenties goes on sale next July. VW-owned Seat's interpretation of the idea, styled mainly by Julian Thomson who also shaped the Elise, is less certain for production, but the will is there.

Opel/Vauxhall also showed "Concept A", a cuboid with a rounded nose and a price less than a Corsa's. This van-like vehicle with four fold-flat seats uses the doors and centre section from GM-affiliate Suzuki's Wagon- R. "This is the first time in Europe that anyone has done such a car," says Hanenberger. "If we had just made a smaller Corsa, then we might not gain so many sales." It will be launched next spring.

Toyota's cute Yaris supermini has just gone on sale, and Geneva saw a mini-MPV version called Verso. It's slightly larger than Concept A, and Toyota hasn't yet decided whether to sell it here. Also rooted in MPVs, but intended as a new concept in grand touring, is the Renault Avantime. Imagine an Espace coupe with a hi-tech but discreet interior, and you'll get the idea. Made by Matra, like the Espace, the Avantime is Renault's alternative to big, prestigious German saloons. You can buy something similar from next March.

Citroen's C6 signalled further confidence in the once-moribund notion of a French prestige car. It's a study for a possible XM or Xantia replacement, which looks individualistically Citroen without resort to pastiche. "Retro is a dead-end street," declares design chief Art Blakeslee. It is a beautiful, curvy thing. So are Aston Martin's V12-engined DB7 Vantage and Ferrari's aluminium-structured, 360 Modena, proper production cars and Geneva debutantes both.

At the other aesthetic extreme is Mitsubishi's Pajero Pinin, a sort of mini-Shogun part-styled by Pininfarina, which will build it in Italy. It comes either togged-up for off-roading or smoothed-off for urban crawling. Someone once said something about form following function, but this isn't quite what was meant.

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