Motoring: The return of the handsome conservative

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Don't buy a BMW 3-series, an Astra or an Escort, unless you get a thumping big discount. Along with many other ageing machines, they are to be replaced by cars bound to be significantly better. As Gavin Green writes, other new cars due in 1998 include a Land Rover Discovery-busting 4x4 Mercedes-Benz, a Renault Clio and a stunningly revamped Volkswagen Beetle.

The first wave of new cars hits UK shores in the spring. That is when the new Volkswagen Golf and the Alfa 156 Car of the Year go on sale here, many months after hitting mainland Europe (where they are already on sale). The Golf is one of three crucial new mid-sized hatchbacks to go on sale in Britain in 1998. The others are the Astra, and the radically styled new Ford Escort.

The Astra, like the Golf, is a handsome yet conservative machine that will not offend Mr and Mrs Middle England, and should appeal to the fleet car chiefs who buy so many cars in the sector. Compared with the old Astra, which rode with the finesse of a billy-cart, the new one should have much more composed suspension. High safety levels will be a key feature.

The new Escort makes its debut in the autumn; sales are likely to start in October. In keeping with recent new Fords (the Ka and the Puma), the new Escort will have stand alone looks. "Spy" photos suggest a very high tail, high tail lamps, a tall rounded roof, and a Puma-esque nose. Top- level ride and handling are said to be priorities as Ford, once known for sensible-shoes motoring, tries flair.

BMWs have never been short of driving flair, although the styling is often unimaginative. The new 3-series, successor to the Yuppies' favourite, looks like a slightly upscaled version of the current 5-series. This "different cut of the same sausage" styling theme certainly helps give BMW a family resemblance, but it can get tedious.

The current 3-series really began the modern BMW styling theme. There were hopes that the new one would begin another. But photos of the new car make clear that it is from the same old mould. Never mind: the new car, as with most BMWs, is bound to drive brilliantly. It is launched at the Geneva Show in March. UK sales start in September, with 318i and 328i derivatives. A 323i follows soon after. Coupe and compact hatchback versions come in a year or so.

BMW also has a big hand in the most important British newcomer of 1998 - the new-generation Rolls-Royce. The German company has supplied engines and other main mechanicals and, early next year, is likely to be confirmed as new owner of the Flying Lady, adding it to its growing British motoring portfolio, which now includes Rover and Land Rover.

The new Rolls gets BMW V12 power. It will be quieter, faster, more frugal and much lighter on its feet than the old Silver Dawn/Silver Spur, and probably even pricier. Sales start in late 1998. Order one, and you should not expect much change from pounds 125,000. Also in late 1998, the Bentley versions come along. They will be powered by turbocharged BMW V8 motors. Unlike current Bentleys, the new models will look noticeably different from their Rolls cousins.

From the sublime to the sub-mini: 1998 will see a string of interesting new tots. Daewoo, fast making a reputation for selling unimaginative cars in an imaginative way, launches its most interesting model - a Fiat Cinquecento rival - in mid-1998. Fiat hits back with its Seicento (600), which replaces the Cinquecento. It is marginally bigger, roomier, apparently nicer to drive, and more solid. UK sales begin in June. Volkswagen also ventures into sub-Polo territory in 1998, when it launches its Lupo baby car. It is based on the existing Seat Arosa but, given that VW owns Seat, moral copyright for the concept belongs to Volkswagen. The Lupo looks more interesting than the rather dull little Seat, but should drive in a similar (and very satisfactory) way. Low running costs should be one of its strengths. The Lupo is due here in September.

A month later, a much more famous VW image reappears in Britain: the Beetle. Aimed primarily at the US market, where VW has been having a torrid time, the new Beetle looks like a 1990s iteration of the real thing. It has Herbie-like semi-circular style, and a host of retro details. Underneath, though, lurks the (front-engined) mechanicals of a VW Golf. For everyday motoring, the (cheaper) Golf is probably a better bet.

Renault launches a new version of its Clio at March's Geneva Show. UK sales begin in September. The new Clio looks much curvier than the old model. Particular attention has been paid to the interior, where fabrics and trim are to a higher standard. There will be more cabin space, too.

The Mercedes A-class, fresh from an assembly line rest to cure its propensity to tip over, goes on sale in Britain in June. Robert Collin, the Swedish journalist who flipped one, has apparently driven a fettled A-class and managed to keep it on all fours. Changes include a new electronic handling and traction package, new tyres, and reduced ground clearance. Production recommences in February.

Less controversial, and more of an instant sales hit abroad, is the new Mercedes M-class 4x4. Built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where labour rates are low and skill levels apparently high, the M-class is Mercedes' first stab at the Land Rover Discovery/Mitsubishi Shogun 'lifestyle' 4x4 market. Unlike the A-class, the M-class scores bullseye. It not only drives well on road, but is useful in the mud, well made, and looks good (in a chunky, butch off-roady kind of way). UK sales start in the autumn, and both 4.3- litre V8 and 3.2-litre V6 models will be on offer. It will not be cheap, though. Prices start at about pounds 35,000.

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