Motoring: The S-plate can wait ...

Forget the registration letter - the year's best new cars are yet to come, says John Simister

Today, as a million car-dealer advertisements have been telling you, is S-plate day. Vast numbers of cars will go to their new owners, the motor trade will be thoroughly overloaded to the detriment of customer service and pre-delivery checks, and used-car values will temporarily nose-dive as the trade-ins clog up the garages. It is the last big annual registration-letter change; we get T-plates next March, another change every six months until the letters run out, and then there's to be a completely new registration system, which will identify both the month and the year of purchase and remove any incentive to wait for a change of letter. That is reason enough not to have splashed out on a new car today. But there are other, more compelling reasons to hold off on a new-car purchase, which is that there are some intriguing new cars on the way which just don't happen to be available quite yet.

You won't have to wait long for some of them. September will be a busy month for the advertising agencies, because that is when two of the most talked-about newcomers go on sale. The Mercedes-Benz A-class, the mini- MPV that is as short as a supermini but as roomy as a Mondeo, caused its maker much discomfiture over its propensity for tripping over itself when asked to change course suddenly with a heavy load on board, but that has all been put right now.

The A-class cars sold here will have wider wheels and a lower ride height than the car that undertook the now-famous elk-avoidance test, plus an "electronic stability program" which automatically brakes individual wheels as required to keep the tall and narrow Mercedes on the straight and narrow. The engine - a 1.4, a 1.6 or one of two turbodiesels - is mounted half under the floor, liberating lots of interior space. It is a new breed of car, but whether people will discover they have always needed one remains to be seen. Think of it as a more extreme version of a Renault Megane Scenic, with the added lure of a Mercedes badge.

The other image-saturated arrival will be BMW's new 3-series. There is nothing radical here, because the new car merely takes the concept of the old one and brings it up to date. It is a little roomier, quieter, more cleverly designed, and the BMW customer base will love it. This is a thoroughly good car, of course, but ultimately just a shade anodyne.

Volvo's S80 is another September arrival. There are two remarkable things about this big, BMW 5-series-sized car. One is that it is the only front- wheel drive car currently made with a transversely-mounted straight-six engine, and consequently one of the world's shortest gearboxes. The other is that there is no estate car version. Here is a company doing its very best to shake off its baggage.

Korea recently brought us the Hyundai Atoz, a small but tall car of the cubist school. In September that country's Daewoo company will offer us its Matiz, which is a similar idea but styled with a little more humour.

Britain's motor show, this year to be held at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham, will see the debut of two cars sure to contribute greatly to the 1999 roadscape. Ford's Escort replacement, the Focus, builds on the radical, sharp-edged look of the Ka and the Puma and has a stubby, Volkswagen Golf-like tail instead of the "bustle-back" that has been a feature of Escorts since the Mark Three of the 1980's. Judging by Ford's most recent products, it should be a thoroughly pleasing car to drive, but it will be made in Germany instead of Britain. Why this is, we'll come to in a minute.

Peugeot's 206, the car that replaces the much-bought 205 in a way that the smaller 106 has never quite managed, will be built here, however. It is roughly 205-sized, but with more room inside and quite adventurously curvy styling outside. Three- and five-door versions will be offered, with a sporty 2.0-litre version, along the line of the old 205 GTI 1.9, coming later. Like the Focus, the 206 goes on sale after the motor show, in November.

By then, the new Land Rover Discovery will have been on sale for a couple of months. It looks much like the current car, but nearly every body panel is new. There is to be a new five-cylinder diesel engine to replace the smoky 2.5 Tdi unit, and a suspension system designed to keep the car level in corners, like the suspension of a Citroen Xantia Activa. It will be a big improvement over the current Discovery, but early next year it will have the excellent, US-built Mercedes-Benz ML-class range to contend with.

December sees the UK debut of Alfa Romeo's 166, which replaces the big 164. Its prospects of sales success must be heightened by the rapturous reception given to the 156 here, for the 166 is styled in a similar vein. Ford's Cougar coupe, the US-built and Mondeo-based Probe replacement that looks like a bigger, fussier Puma, will also go on sale during this month. It should be at your Ford dealer already, but there have been problems in getting the quality up to standard.

Early in 1999, following its German launch this October, the new Mercedes- Benz S-class comes to the UK. It bucks the trend for new cars to be bigger and grander than the cars they replace, which is just as well because the old S-class was as corpulent as a car could reasonably be. The new one is smaller, sleeker, lighter and much more handsome. It has air suspension and contains much technical cleverness, including a voice-recognition system for triggering certain functions. There will be the expected V6 and V8 engines, but no longer a V12. That will be reserved for the hefty Maybach luxury limousine, which Mercedes expects to launch in 2001.

March 1999, the month of the T-plate and the Geneva motor show, is the turn of the British. That is when Jaguar's S-type goes on sale, the long- promised "small" Jaguar. Small is a relative term here, because the S- type (named after a short-lived 1960s Jaguar saloon) is about the same size as its main rival, the BMW 5-series. It will have more room inside than the current XJ8, however, partly because it will be taller (the XJ8 is unusually low-slung).

Depending on the version, power will come from either the current 3.2- litre V8 or a new V6, based on a Ford cylinder block but fitted with Jaguar- engineered components. To be built at the ex-Ford Escort plant at Halewood, near Liverpool, the S-type will take strong styling themes from the much- admired Jaguar Mark Two, Inspector Morse's favoured mode of transport.

Finally, Rover. Britain is good at retro, according to the foreign owners of our major car companies. So, like the Jaguar, the new Rover 75 (another old name revived) will be full of visual references to the way Rovers were before the company turned modern and produced the 2000 and, later, the big SD1 hatchback. Whether this is healthy for Britain's image remains to be seen, for there is life beyond cream teas, the Cotswolds and Burberry, but that's the way BMW, Rover's owner, wants Rovers to be.

However, the 75, codenamed R40, will be a forward-looking car too. It replaces both the 600 and the 800, and top models will use the 800's fine KV6 engine. Insiders have said that the 75, on sale in March, is the best- handling front-wheel-drive saloon yet built. That's an accolade worth having in your armoury.

Other new cars coming between now and March include the Honda Accord (the racy Type-R version looks particularly intriguing), the Seat Toledo and the Fiat Multipla MPV. So much for the S-plate rush. Buy in haste, etc.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

    £30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

    Day In a Page

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada