Motoring: The future looks wacky

Geneva Show: Next season's cars were unveiled at the Swiss motor show. Gavin Green previews some of the radical new designs
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Next week's Geneva Motor Show will see the unveiling of new versions of some of Europe's best selling cars. Yet the star of the show is likely to be a small-volume British luxury car.

The new Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph is the first new Rolls since 1980. It is also proof that there is life yet in the old girl who stands, arms outstretched, on top of the Rolls radiator. Rolls's owner, Vickers, also hopes it will prove to doubters that Rolls is a healthy, vibrant company that's worth buying rather than - as some suspect - a quaint Edwardian leftover. A decision is expected shortly on who will be the latest successful suitor for the Flying Lady. BMW, which is supplying engines for the new car, is favourite to buy the company, although various British bidders - possibly in partnership with BMW - are also possibilities.

The Silver Seraph is a large, stately car, unmistakably a Rolls. It looks like a softer-edged version of the current Silver Dawn - in turn merely a rebadged version of the 1980 vintage Silver Spirit - but is in fact all new. Power comes from a BMW 5.4-litre V12, good for 322bhp.

The car still boasts a hand-assembled cabin, using the finest woods and leathers. It is, however, the first Rolls ever made on a moving production line - some 80 years after Henry Ford first pioneered the concept. The automated line is a new feature of the Crewe factory and is part of Rolls's drive to reduce manufacturing costs, better to enable it to compete with Germany's luxury makers.

Prices haven't been announced, though they are bound to be higher than the current Silver Dawn, which starts at pounds 123,000. Modern the Silver Seraph may be in some ways, but it is still a gas-guzzler. It weighs 2.3 tons and produces a meagre 16.2 mpg on the combined EU fuel economy cycle. Few owners, cosseted in the luxurious cabin, thick-pile carpet underfoot, are likely to be bothered by the price of fuel.

In April, the Silver Seraph's Bentley equivalent, the Arnage, goes on sale. The new Bentley saloon uses mostly Silver Seraph mechanicals but features a twin-turbo BMW 4.4-litre V8 engine rather than the smoother but less thrusting V12.

Another British star of Geneva will be the Jaguar XKR, a supercharged version of the XK8 coupe. The XKR is the fastest Jaguar production car ever. Styling changes over the normal XK8 include an XJR-like meshed grille, twin body-coloured bonnet louvres and small boot lid spoiler. New-style 18-inch wheels are standard. Sales start in May, at about pounds 60,000.

Rolls's engine supplier, BMW, is also in for a busy Geneva. It is launching the new 3-series, the latest version of its biggest selling model, destined for the UK in September. It's a cracking car, as you'd expect, with a range of four- and six-cylinder engines. Pity it looks so much like the outgoing model, though.

Alongside the Rolls, Geneva's biggest news story is the launch of the Ford Escort replacement. The new hatchback won't be called Escort, bringing to a close the career of one of the most successful badges in European motoring history. Few details have been released, but the new Ford will be a radical-looking car and a major gamble for what was once Europe's most conservative car maker.

Less intriguing saloon and estate versions will also be on offer, when the "new Escort" hits British roads in October. The old Escort will continue in production, as a cheaper and more conservative option, until 2000.

Another likely huge seller on show at Geneva is the new Renault Clio. The little hatch has even cuter styling than before, with a particularly unusual "double curvature" rear screen, and boasts more room and better quality. UK sales start in May.

As well as making some of Europe's more intriguing production cars, Renault is probably Europe's best maker of concept cars, and can turn the apparently weird and wacky into production reality. Remember the extraordinary Sport Spider, unveiled five years ago? It's now available in Europe from your nearest Renault dealer.

The Zo is another way-out concept car that could well make it into limited production. Set to debut at Geneva, the Zo is a cross between beach buggy, four-wheeled motorcycle and piece of mobile architecture. Designed by Scot Ken Melville, part of Renault's vast, Paris-based team of international designers (under the leadership of Patrick Le Quement), the Zo features Europe's first direct-injection petrol engine (soon to find its way under the snouts of the Laguna and Megane).

It has beetle-wing-like "scissor" doors, that swing up electrically at the touch of a door catch, and a McLaren F1-like three-seat arrangement, with the driver centre-mounted and his two back seat riders behind and to the side. Other novelties include hydraulically controlled ride height adjustment, to turn your Zo from a sports car into an off-roading beach buggy. Flick a lever, and ride height rises by 10cm. One low-tech touch: there is no roof. As with the Sport Spider, if it rains you simply have to zip up your anorak. Nor is there a windscreen.

Honda is set to unveil three new cars at the Geneva Show, including a new supermini aimed at the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo. The new baby car, codenamed J-BX, is described by Honda as being "very close to a production car". It is based on the Logo model, sold in Japan, and uses a 1.3-litre 65bhp four-cylinder engine. A CVT auto gearbox may be offered on top of the normal five-speed manual.

The J-BX will represent Honda's return to the small car market in Europe. The newcomer may be built in Honda's UK factory, in Swindon. Among its rivals will be the new Toyota Funtime, to be built in Valenciennes in northern France, scheduled to go on sale next year.

The two other Honda newcomers at Geneva are concept vehicles first shown at last October's Tokyo Show. Both are scheduled for production. They're the RAV-4 rivalling J-WJ mini 4x4 and the CRX-based J-VX coupe.

Peugeot is showing a handsome but unusual show car in Geneva, the 20Heart, which gives a good indication of the upcoming 207 small hatchback model. The Geneva concept car is a hardtop coupe that, at the touch of a button, transforms into a convertible. Yet, look beyond the clever roof - which stows in the boot - and you'll get a clear picture of the new 207, the successor to the old, massively popular 205, which fills the gap in the market between the Peugeot 106 and 306 models.

The 20Heart concept car comes with either 1.4 or 1.6 petrol engines. These are all features of the upcoming 207, although that car will also get a range of turbo-diesel engines. Just as significant, the 20Heart presages Peugeot's new corporate style.

The 207 is due to appear at the Paris Show in October. Peugeot expects it to be its best selling model. A coupe version is likely. So is a retractable- roof convertible model, similar to the 20Heart.

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