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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

    £38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

    Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

    £35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

    Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

    £15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea