Coming soon to a forecourt near you

Gavin Green on the new models for the new year

Car makers are great at playing follow-my-leader. One company innovates and makes a mint, and after due caution, market research, soul searching or vacillation the others jump in. This year the three leads they are following en masse are: people carriers (chasing joint pioneers Chrysler and Renault), two-seater roadsters (following the Mazda MX-5 and last year's MGF) and baby cars (after the 37-year-old Mini, proof that some leaders take a long time to follow).

Ford would not describe its new baby car, set for launch in the autumn, as a "Mini rival". It's a bit too big; not novel enough. Being based closely on the Ford Ka "sub-B" prototype shown at various motor shows over the past couple of years, it is effectively a cut-down Fiesta in trendy clothing. It will win no prizes for technical ingenuity; another Issigonis Mini it is not.

But it is the precursor to a number of new small cars - shorter than Fiestas or Corsas - aimed at economy-minded city drivers. More radical babies follow later this decade, among them the Mercedes A-class (Metro size on the outside, Mondeo size inside), the ritzy French-built Smart Car (co-developed by Swatch and Mercedes, and to feature an electric option), and a rival from Vauxhall, code-named the S-car.

People carriers (seven-seat family "vans") are now starting to get old hat. It's well over a decade since Chrysler launched the Voyager van in America, and Renault the prettier Espace soon after in Europe. None the less, sales continue to grow. Among the late entrants this year are Vauxhall, with a new American-made vehicle called the Sintra; Mercedes, about to launch a dull-looking but doubtless fine-driving vehicle called the Viano, to be built in Spain; and Seat, with its version of the Ford Galaxy/ Volkswagen Sharan, called the Alhambra. Chrysler will also begin to sell right-hand- drive versions of its new Voyager, designed in America but assembled in Austria. It's likely to be the most impressive people carrier of the year.

However, if you're keen on the versatility of a seven-seater van, I'd go ahead and buy the best of last year's releases, the Galaxy or Sharan (same car, different badges). The offerings in 1996 are unlikely to be any better.

Europe deserted the roadster market in the Sixties and Seventies. Mazda eventually showed the slow-witted Europeans that there were riches in ragtops after all. Rover (MG), the one-time dominator, got back in last year. This year we'll see the return of BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Renault and, in Britain, Alfa Romeo.

The new BMW Z3 has already been widely seen as the German interloper, taking what should have been Aston Martin's place as James Bond's company car in Goldeneye. It's a pretty little four-cylinder thing, due in Britain in the summer for under pounds 20,000.

Mercedes, of course, never gave up building roadsters. They've been building SL's for film stars (usually starlets), models and other rich, non-retiring types for years. At the end of this year, they'll get back into the "affordable" sector. Being Mercedes, their definition of affordable is a little different from yours or mine, but pounds 25,000 for the base model, and about pounds 29,000 for the supercharged version (see above) does sound like good value for the new SLK.

Porsche will charge similar money for its new Boxster 986, a mid-engined open-top two-seater that replaces the 986 and the long-lived 928. Renault's pounds 25,000 offering, the Sports Spider, is a raw, minimalist racer-for-the- road, due here in the spring

Finally, the Alfa Spider name makes a comeback in the UK early this year, when the gorgeous new Alfa - on sale in Europe for almost a year - finally makes it across the Channel. It's joined by a GTV hardtop coupe. They're further proof of the styling and technological renaissance going on within the Fiat group.

The most important new British car of the year will be the new Jaguar XK8 coupe, due in October. It replaces the 20-year-old XJS, looks more like an updated E-type, and features Jaguar's new V8 engine, built by Ford in Bridgend, Wales. There'll be convertible and hardtop coupe versions. In 1997, the new V8 engine goes into the XJ6 saloon, replacing the current straight-six unit.

BMW will launch the new 5-series in Britain in April. I've already had an early drive here. It's probably the best executive car of them all.

Another potential class winner is the new Renault Megane, also coming in the spring to replace the R19. It competes in the Escort sector, where it will give the current "best buy" (the new Fiat Bravo/Brava) a close contest. Whatever the outcome, they both set new standards in what has been, for many years, a technologically unadventurous sector.

The best mainstream new car of the year? Probably the Megane. The prettiest? The Alfa Spider. Best big family car? Either of the Mercedes estates. The most influential? The Ford baby car. The biggest technical breakthrough? Too early to say whether there'll be one at all. But, with such a follow- my-leader year in prospect, we are getting impatient.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
football
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
weird news
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: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?