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Birth of the baby Benz

Gavin Green reports from Geneva, the catwalk of car shows, where Mercedes chose its moment to step wildly out of character
It seems odd that Switzerland, Europe's capital of financial excess, should play host to a bout of sudden pragmatism from the world's motor industry. But this year's Geneva Show, which usually bears about as much reality to the motoring world as the Paris catwalk does to this summer's M&S fashions, was full of sober, sensible motor cars. In particular, it was full of cleverly engineered small cars, which promise great fuel frugality, bold new styles and low-cost motoring.

Just to make the Swiss feel a little more at home, the star car was a Mercedes-Benz. But instead of the usual oversized limo, from the back seat of which waddle overweight politicians, plutocrats and peers, the star Mercedes at Geneva was the long-awaited A-class, the smallest car that the Stuttgart maker has ever released. It is also quite the most radical tiny tot since the Mini of 38 years ago.

It is ingenious on so many fronts. First, it's shorter than a Fiesta but has as much cabin space as a Mondeo. This remarkable space efficiency is largely due to its under-body drive-train, enabling more of the total length of the car to be devoted to people.

Second, it boasts Renault Espace-style cabin versatility, with the possibility of removing the rear seat and, if you want, the front passenger seat, too. Thus it can be transformed from a five-seater into a single-seater van. Removing the rear seat gives easily enough room for mountain bikes. The rear seat is also fore-aft adjustable. In its forward position, the boot is cavernous - and there's still enough leg-room for three backbenchers.

The cleverest part of the car is its twin floor-pans. They help give the baby much greater strength than other cars of this size. Mercedes says it is almost as crash-worthy as the big E-class, one of the world's safest cars. There is probably a bit of PR puff here - after all, the nose of the car is so short that there can't possibly be as much cushioning as on a car with a bonnet the size of an aircraft carrier's deck. Nonetheless, it's a fair bet that there has never been a safer small car.

From launch, engines include 1.4-litre and 1.6 petrol four-cylinder units. A couple of four-pot turbodiesels follow in early 1998, one which is reputed to average 62.5mpg. British sales start in spring 1998. No one is being specific on prices yet, but expect the A-class to cost from about pounds 14,000 - the same as an upmarket VW Golf or plain Jane Mondeo.

The A-class is a huge gamble for Mercedes, not so long ago one of the world's most conservative car makers. The company is betting that enough people are prepared to pay medium-car money for a technologically advanced baby car. It overturns the bigger-the-car-the-better mindset which Mercedes, as much as any other maker, has helped to foster. It should prove particularly attractive in big, congested, affluent cities, where small cars really are a boon.

Hot on the wheels of the recently launched Ford Ka, other car companies went small car crazy at Geneva. The Volkswagen group unveiled its Ka competitor, the Seat Arosa, preparatory to launching its own VW-badged equivalent, the Pico, in December. The Arosa is a dull-looking little thing, four inches shorter than the Ka, but promising great fuel economy. It comes in under the current Ibiza, just as the Pico will come in under the Polo.

Vauxhall showed a revamped version of the pretty-looking but otherwise pretty average Corsa, with endless minor updates to bring it up to scratch. The most significant is a new three-cylinder, 973cc engine, reckoned to average almost 50mpg. It's still good for 94mph.

Rover, which invented the modern small car in the Mini and has been doing its best to try to improve on it ever since, showed yet another "new concept" Mini proposal, this one called the Spiritual.

There were both three- and five-door versions, with little engines under the rear seat and highly space-efficient cabins, as well as various trad Mini styling cues. Sadly, and despite all the hysterics in certain media quarters, ("It's the new Mini!"), the Spiritual has about as much in common with the next real Mini, slated for the year 2000, as the Williams-Renault F1 car on display on the stand opposite.

The three- and five-door Spirituals are in fact 18-month-old styling studio models, dusted off by Rover to try to win some PR points and steal some of the Mercedes A-class's thunder. (Don't forget, Rover is owned by BMW, Mercedes' deadliest rival.) The real new Mini will have a conventional front transverse engine and, by all accounts, won't be the technological big leap that some of us had hoped.

Ford, which got the new-wave small car fad underway with the Ka, is now thinking small in the coupe class. At Geneva, it launched its two-door Puma, a Vauxhall Tigra competitor using the mechanicals of the recently revised Fiesta. Like all recent Fords, it looks either bold or weird, depending on your tastes. I like it. A new 1.25bhp 1.7-litre engine is the only motor available.

Further upmarket, back in more familiar Geneva Show territory, Audi - Europe's fastest improving quality car maker - took the covers off the new A6, rival to BMW's 5-series. It looks great, like all recent Audis. Early reports suggest that it drives as well as it looks.

British makers, who perversely have tended to dominate recent Geneva Shows (last year it was the Jaguar XK8, the year before the MGF, before that the Aston Martin DB7) had a quieter time. Even those masters of high- cost luxury, Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce, were fairly quiet. Geneva is usually where they make a splash, secure in the knowledge that at least here many of the show visitors can actually afford their wares.

Rather, Geneva showed that the small car is now truly back in fashion again. Look at today's traffic and pollution, and it's easy to understand why.

More of a surprise is who's leading the charge, and that Mercedes chose the Geneva Show to spread the good news.

The Geneva Motor Show runs until 16 March at the Palexpo, next to the airport.