Motoring: The Germans get there first

You'd expect that at the Frankfurt Motor Show. But VW, Mercedes and Audi had better watch themselves. The rest are catching up fast.

There's a lot of showing off at the Frankfurt Motor Show, as Europe's most powerful motor industry parades its strength. It's a show on a huge scale: you could lose half a stone as you trek between Frankfurt's dozen- plus, multi-floored exhibition halls.

Mercedes-Benz always has Hall Two, a round edifice which resembles the Albert Hall, to itself. Volkswagen occupied Hall One this year, with glamour- brands Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Bugatti in close attendance. Other Volkswagen Group companies were spread between Halls Five and Six. All had reason to be bullish, because the group's collective mind has been very creative just recently.

Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piech, the most powerful man in the German motor industry, unveiled the latest embodiment of his confidence and self- belief, a hefty luxury car called Concept D. It looks like a giant Passat with the tail of a Porsche 911, and oozes technology including a 5.0-litre, 313bhp, V10 turbodiesel engine. The plan is to build Concept D in a new, glass-walled factory in Dresden.

Bentley, meanwhile, showed a new Red Label version of its Arnage saloon, with the company's own 6.75-litre turbo V8 reinstated after customer complaints about the 4.4-litre, BMW-sourced V8's lack of pulling power. Audi's show star, however, was not another luxury supercar. Instead, we were given the A2.

Now we're in the real world. The A2 is a tall-bodied supermini MPV, about Mercedes A-class size. It's made of aluminium, the first truly mass-production car to be so, using a "spaceframe" technique similar to that used in the A8 luxury car. Lightness is the aim, and the bodyshell does indeed weigh 40 per cent less than the equivalent in steel, yet the A2 still weighs 895kg complete. Thanks to the weight of modern safety equipment and electrically powered accessories, that's just 40kg less than a Mk2 Golf GTI.

There's a choice of two 1.4-litre, 75bhp engines: a four-cylinder petrol unit and a three-cylinder turbodiesel. The owner should never need to see either of them, because all fluid orifices are secreted behind the hinged flap that is the false radiator grille. UK sales start next August, with the cheapest version likely to cost a little less than an entry-level A-class.

If the A2 is the Volkswagen Group's radical small car, Skoda's Fabia points the way to the next generation of conventional ones. Again, tall and roomy is the theme, in a car with remarkable space for rear passengers and luggage in a package so compact. It confirms Skoda's new currency as a serious brand that the snub-nosed Fabia is the first car to be built on the group's new small-car platform, which will later serve the next Polo and Seat Ibiza. Prices will start at under pounds 8,000 when UK sales begin next March, with engine sizes from 1.0 to 2 litres.

Volkwagen's Golf platform, the basis for cars as diverse as Skoda's Octavia and Audi's TT, gains another variant in Seat's Leon. It's effectively the recently-launched Toledo with a shorter, hatchback tail, but the result is a good-looking car with a hint of Rover 200 about its rear window line. The top version gets a V6 and four-wheel drive.

Mercedes-Benz revealed an open version of the 537bhp SLR supercar that McLaren will build on Mercedes' behalf. It does not, however, signal the shape of the next SL sports car. Revealed in two years' time, this will be a gentler-looking creation than the fierce SLR. Another open Mercedes popped up nearby, in the shape of a Smart Cabrio. There's also a new CDI diesel Smart, able to average 83mpg with its 799cc engine. Mercedes-Benz UK confirms that it will import Smarts next year, possibly selling through dealers who currently bring them in as grey imports.

Germany's muscles flexed further on the BMW stand, where the Z8 sports car, the US-built X5 off-roader and the 340bhp M3 posed the question, emblazoned on a wall: "So. What did you experience today?" Meanwhile, over at Ford, BMW's ousted marketing and product chief Wolfgang Reitzle set out his vision for Ford's new Premier Automotive Group (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lincoln and Volvo) of which he is chairman. He spoke of sharpening the brands, recasting Aston Martin as a technological showcase, and outlined next year's Jaguar Formula One plans. Ford showed the Fiesta's new Focus- style nose, too. The old one was better. Frankfurt wasn't just about Germany and Ford, though. From France came Peugeot's large, sleek 607, its shape the work of Murat Gunak who came from Mercedes and is back there again. Peugeot hopes to crack the German grip on the posh-saloon market with this gizmo-laden newcomer, and has banished the 605 to the dungeon of history.

Citroen showed the Pluriel, based on the domed-roof C3 supermini that sees production soon. The Pluriel features removable roof-edges and a fabric roof which disappears under the floor. The result is a convertible or, with rear seats folded, an open pick-up.

And Japan? The new British-built, Japanese-badged Nissan Almera made its world debut with a March on-sale date, with a Tino MPV to follow. Toyota showed both its new Celica, crisper-edged and more compact than before, and a new MR2, whose reduced size returns to the spirit of 1985's original, though this time as an open sports car.

Perhaps the most intriguing car of all was Honda's lightweight, all-aluminium, hybrid-powered, coupe-bodied Insight. It uses a three-cylinder, one-litre engine with a slim electric motor, together releasing 76bhp. The electric motor helps the engine under acceleration, the engine uses the motor as a dynamo to charge a nickel-metal-hydrid battery during deceleration, and spectacular fuel economy of about 83mpg results.

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