German car-makers made sure they had pride of place at the Frankfurt Motor Show, reports John Simister. But small vehicles - and a three-wheeler - caught the eye

So three cheers for the Volkswagen Eos, a new convertible, which you would expect to be based on a Golf but isn't. It mixes Golf and Passat mechanicals and is midway between the two in size. And then Audi revealed its tonic for Stateside sales, the hefty Q7 4x4. It's based on a stretched, seven-seater version of the platform that already underpins the Volkswagen Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne, and its very existence is a slight irony given that Audi pioneered the use of four-wheel drive specifically for regular car-shaped cars rather than hefty SUVs.

Even the most cynical heart melted when BMW revealed the Mini Countryman concept, and it was all the better that the design chief Gert Hildebrand used neither the word "emotion" nor "passion" once. "I hate those words," he told me, "and 'icon' is another one." That's slightly awkward given the nature of the brand whose visual future he shapes, but then there's little need to talk up a Mini's image. The Countryman previews the look of the next Mini range, to be launched at the end of next year with engines developed by BMW and PSA Peugeot-Citroën, and this little estate car on its lengthened wheelbase answers criticisms of the Mini hatchback's lack of rear space and luggage capacity.

One obvious conflict within this lengthened Mini is that it really isn't very Mini at all. It is actually quite hefty now, despite its looks. Over on the Smart stand, though, something very small appeared: the Crosstown concept, a very square-cut soft-top Smart with big wheels, external door hinges and a strong hint of 4x4. It has just the usual rear-wheel drive from the usual small-Smart rear engine, but in this case there's also an electric motor and a battery pack to make a high-efficiency, high-economy hybrid powertrain. Such a system could be offered on a future replacement for the Smart Fortwo, but the smaller and cheaper and more economical a car, the less point there is in adding an expensive hybrid drive.

It makes much more sense to "hybridise" something big and heavy, such as Mercedes-Benz's new, technology-laden but visually challenged S-class, on public view for the first time at Frankfurt. Two hybrid S-class concepts, one petrol with the economy of a diesel, and one diesel with the cleanliness of a petrol (and yet more economy), showed the direction that future large cars might take. Audi's new Q7 also appeared in hybrid form.

Joint development ventures are the way ahead, as Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and BMW are pooling their resources in hybrids and, further into the future, hydrogen-fuelled systems such as the fuel cell. BMW showed a hybrid X3, while Honda revealed its new Civic hybrid saloon, which is more efficient, and looks far more enticing, than the last one. But it still looks conventional next to the extraordinary Civic hatchback with its full-frontal glazed nose and its Dual Link two-layer dashboard.

From green-ness to red-blooded-ness, Germany also brought us the Porsche Cayman (effectively a Boxster Coupé) and the BMW Z4 Coupé Concept. The latter, finished in an intriguing matt silver, is an obvious development of the Z4 roadster but is also extremely good-looking with its fastback tail and squat stance. Expect a production version some time next year.

"Crossovers'"- mutant offspring of 4x4s and normal cars - continue to offer the most possibilities to designers' fertile minds, and Opel (the European identity of Vauxhall) joined the onslaught with its Antara GTC concept. This has a three-door sporty-coupé top half sitting on a lower half which resembles a pumped-up Astra, and is designed to show how the new Opel Dynaverse design philosophy can translate to an SUV. It looks very neat if you like that sort of thing, helped by bonnet- and side-vents suggestive of great power within (it's a 212bhp, twin-turbo diesel). But this Antara is not what it seems. The production version, due on sale at the end of next year, is to replace the ancient and defunct Frontera and will look a lot less racy.

Ford has a new design language, too. New Edge is long gone, and the way ahead is to be "kinetic design". This is important: GM's product development czar, Bob Lutz, describes design as the last great differentiator in the automobile industry, and if a car-maker is to have any sort of identity it needs a distinctive, understandable look. And that's something recent Fords have lacked, judging by the dull Fiesta and Focus. The Ford Iosis is a dramatic saloon-cum-coupé with four gullwing-like doors and a very "fast" tail. Its curves and stance do indeed hint at much motion, and its face presages the look of the next Mondeo.

Before that car happens, though, we'll see the next Ford Galaxy midway through next year and also a sleeker interpretation of an ample MPV, to be called S-Max. The Galaxy made its debut at Frankfurt. No longer will the Galaxy be made alongside Sharans and Seat Alhambras in Portugal; henceforth they will emerge from Genk, Belgium where Mondeos are made.

Ford does have a new joint venture, though, with Fiat, to develop a new small car. In Ford's case it will replace the Ka, while in Fiat's it may become the production version of the Trepiuno concept car whose Fiat 500 references brought warm feelings to everyone.

Peugeot's handsome new 407 Coupé lurked nearby, but more eyes were on the pair of 20Cup concept cars which fused a single rear wheel and a skeletal concept to a virtual facsimile of the nose that we'll soon see on the forthcoming Peugeot 207. Today's long noses can have a two-fold function, it seems; for a road car they help with pedestrian-protection regulations, but suitably lowered they also make a good front end for a racing car.

PSA's partner Citroën showed its C-SportLounge concept, a kind of grand-touring MPV similar in spirit to Renault's defunct Avantime. Curiously, its nose didn't conform to Citroën's recently-emboldened double-chevron look but instead resembled that of Mitsubishi's Concept Sportback, a handsome car which will reach production as the next Lancer.

Renault showed its Egeus concept car, which could reach production as a kind of Toyota RAV4 competitor, while its partner Nissan revealed the production version of its Tone concept car, now anagrammatically renamed Note. The Note is a tall hatchback with sliding rear seats, much more space than the cramped Modus and an eye on the Honda Jazz's corner of the market. That should leave the way clear for Mazda to attack the other end of the supermini spectrum; its Sassou concept, a sporty and low-slung three-door, is planned to replace the Mazda 2.

The RAV4 itself appeared in larger, higher-quality, third-generation form (five doors only, unlike its new Suzuki Grand Vitara rival which comes with five doors or three), while Toyota also showed the new, and larger, Yaris, still with its central instrument-cluster and clever use of mirrors to display the digits. At last, with the Yaris, the new Fiat Punto, the new Clio and the Note, the world of superminis has suddenly become a lot more interesting.

But could that world ever embrace something as stark as Toyota's Endo concept? Smaller than an Aygo, very upright and featuring doors able to open from either end, it is roomy and highly practical with its foldable table and reconfigurable seating for up to four. It may be tiny but it's airy inside, with a glass roof and a full-width information screen. Given the Smart Fortwo's success, there's no reason why the Endo shouldn't become the next must-have urban transport pod. For now, though, it's just an idea.

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