Motoring: The days of the world car are at an end. The Germans may own Rover, but even the Brits are rediscovering their Britishness, just like the French and the Italians, too

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FAST FOOD is booming in France, chicken tikka is Britain's most popular dish, and the world's most successful McDonald's "restaurant", apparently, is in Moscow.

Food has crossed borders - and it's the same with clothes and cars.

Not that many years ago, British saloons were upright, formal in style, and inherently genteel.

German cars were solid and slightly stolid.

Italian cars looked fabulous but quickly went to pieces.

French cars were stylish, odd and rarely did well away from home.

American cars were big and mostly had an unpretentious design honesty.

In the car world, some generalisations still hold true. But the edges are getting very blurred.

In food and clothes, it is the Americans who have dominated fad and fashion, and who set the international agenda.

In cars, over the past few years at any rate, it has been the Germans (in Europe) and the Japanese (everywhere else).

The new Renault Clio looks like the (German-designed) Vauxhall Corsa and drives in a solid, slightly heavy-footed Volkswagen manner.

Equally Citroens and Peugeots mostly have a Germanic conservativism to their styling, with little of the quirkiness or wilfulness that once used to distinguish French cars.

Fiats went through a rather bland, anonymous phase back in the late Eighties and early Nineties. And British and Spanish cars have lost their idiosyncrasies as much as they've lost their national identities.

This is hardly surprising, as all current Rovers are based on Japanese Hondas and Seats are now engineered and made in Germany.

Volvos now look like every other car, rather than like the motoring equivalent of a Russian shot-putter, and Saab - arguably once the builder of the quirkiest European cars of all - is now part of General Motors, the world's most conservative car company.

A few years back, most cars came out of a bland international melting pot of market-researched anonymity. Same-again styling was a disease which affected all companies from all countries.

But whereas the hamburger-and-jeans invasion of the world continues, in cars there are some encouraging signs of manufacturers rediscovering their pasts - even if, in Rover's case, it has been the Germans who have made them build proper British cars again.

Upcoming new models from Jaguar and Rover - both due to be unveiled at this October's Birmingham Show - will use styling cues from older cars. Both the new Rover 75 and the new Jaguar S-type will use curvaceous, upright design, in the classic British manner.

And it isn't just the Brits who are rediscovering their genes. In Italy, the renaissance is already under way.

Ironically it was begun by an American, Fiat's former design boss Chris Bangle, now at BMW.

Bangle gave the world the amazing Fiat Coupe, a car whose body language could only have come from Italy.

The Fiat Punto is another classically Italian piece of design brilliance; ditto the new Fiat Bravo hatchback.

The French have talented designers, but they have recently lost sight of their Frenchness.

This is about to change. Renault will show a new luxury car at this September's Paris Show which, in the words of Renault's design chief Patrick Le Quement, "is France's rediscovery of the art of building distinctive big saloons."

Peugeot and Citroen, now emboldened by new management, are also about to strut their Frenchness once more.

Citroen has been given the green light to be individual again, after too many years of timidity.

Even the Yanks want to be more Yank. Ford's new design chief, J Mays, in a gentle snub to his predecessor's "world car" philosophy, wants to make US Fords more different from European Fords.

"European Fords will be stylish, design-led and very distinctive.

"US Fords need to be tough, honest and unpretentious - just like our pick-up trucks," he said.

Just as the car business becomes more and more international - with Volkswagen building Bentleys, BMW making Rovers and GM running the Saab works - so the car makers will return to their roots to try to make more distinctive and more attractive cars.

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