Motoring: Manufacturers ready to put the vroom into Brum

The Birmingham Motor Show has driving ambitions. By John Simister

IS THE Birmingham Motor Show the poor relation of Paris? You could be forgiven for thinking so, because Paris takes place a month earlier and has a strong local motor industry to celebrate. But, this year, it is different.

Jaguar is owned by Ford (a US company), and Rover by BMW (a German one), but the cars are built here, they are built to be as British as possible, and each company has something important to reveal at Birmingham: the Jaguar S-type, and the Rover 75.

Now, those names straightaway provide a clue as to what these cars are about. There was a Jaguar of that name in the Sixties, and a Rover so called in the Fifties: we are into retro here, looking over our shoulders to feel secure as the future beckons. Both cars, unseen before their debut at the National Exhibition Centre, ooze references to past glories, the Jaguar showing a face inspired by the old Mark 2 as made famous again by Inspector Morse, the Rover mixing shades of the current 400 with the more stately demeanour of the pre-British Leyland Rovers.

If they sell well, then fine, but it is a slight shame that what Britain has to offer is seen in a sepia-tinted light by those looking in from outside. The Jaguar, some of whose underpinnings were developed with Ford in the US, will compete head-on with BMW's 5-series, and has a new V6 engine to help it, while the Rover is a 3-series rival.

Elsewhere in the world of high-image saloons, Toyota's new Lexus IS200 also makes its world debut. Like the Rover, it competes with BMW's 3-series, but rams the point home by fielding a 2.0-litre straight-six engine, just like the core model in its German rival's range. There's nothing retro here, though, not least because Lexus doesn't have much of a past to draw on.

World debut number four comes from Seat, whose new Toledo looks a little like a cross between a Lexus GS300 and a BMW 3-series; that German maker is a powerful influence. It is based on the Volkswagen Group underpinnings that have given us the latest Golf, the Audi A3 and the Skoda Octavia. It is larger than the old one and is now a four-door saloon instead of a five-door hatchback.

The new Toledo looks like a thoroughly credible car, even if it no longer has the ability to swallow a double bed without its rear seats being folded. The top version comes with VW's unlikely-sounding V5 engine.

Several cars seen at Paris will appear in Britain for the first time. Alfa Romeo's 166 takes the look of the svelte and successful 156 and moves it into the next size-class up, but without quite as much flair. The Mercedes-Benz S-class, laden with technology and looking as lithe as its vast predecessor looked lumpen, is in fact smaller and lighter than the car it replaces. Among its options are fan-cooled front seats and a built- in lower-back massager.

Ford's radical Focus and Peugeot's UK-built 206 will be on view in right- hand drive form, as will Honda's European-styled, Vauxhall Omega-like Accord. The new Land Rover Discovery has its British coming-out, but you had better take a picture of the old one along with you so you can spot the differences. It is longer, so it can be a proper seven-seater, it has a new interior, its suspension uses hydraulic rams to keep the car level during cornering, and every exterior panel apart from the tailgate is new. There is a new five-cylinder diesel engine, too. However, Land Rover's research revealed that buyers liked the old car's look, so the new one is more of the same visually. It is a decision Land Rover may regret in a couple of years.

You should seek out the new Maserati 3200 GT, because this car - styled by Giugiaro and engineered with Ferrari's help - is the first credible Maserati in years. It is a curvy coupe, Ferrari 456 GT-like in profile and said to be capable of 174mph thanks to a 370bhp twin-turbo V8 engine. At the opposite end of the spectrum, take a look at Toyota's Yaris, a supermini that is as refreshing as the current Starlet is dull. It is tall and very roomy, with big, rounded-corner windows and vast headlights, and - this is set to become Toyota's motif - it has unusual instruments, in this case a digital display. It will be made in France from 2001, and in Japan before that.

The success of Renault's Megane Scenic has encouraged other makers' interpretations of the idea, so Citroen will show its Xsara Picasso, Vauxhall its Astra- based Zafira, and Fiat its boxy Multipla. Mitsubishi will show its Dutch- built Space Star, too, which bridges the gap between the Scenic idea and a regular hatchback.

Other cars seen in the UK for the first time include Volvo's big S80, Volkswagen's small Lupo (similar to a Seat Arosa and featuring a bold new fascia) and sporty Bora saloon, Vauxhall's new Frontera off-roader, and Renault's mad Clio V6. This mid-engined two-seater, which is clothed in a massively morphed Clio hatchback body, is a modern interpretation of the old Renault 5 Turbo rally cars of the early Eighties.

Finally, Britain's sports-car specialists. TVR will show something unexpected and just completed - because TVR always does - but it is likely to have the company's new six-cylinder engine. Westfield has a new minimalist sports car, the FW400, with a lightweight carbon fibre chassis, and Lotus - Malaysian-owned but British in spirit - has its Elise 340R. Elise-based, it is even lighter and is designed to look like an open-wheeled racing car.

The show runs from 21 October to 1 November, and has a classic car day on 29 October, and two motorsport days (30 and 31 October). Admission costs pounds 10 for adults, pounds 5 for under-16s and senior citizens. The last day is an "adventure day" designed to "put the excitement back into family motoring", for which you need to book a pounds 25 two-adult, two-children ticket in advance. Call 0121-767 4455

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