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.

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