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.

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