Drive past the Hondas and the Nissans and head for the Rover, Fiat and Alpha Romeo stands - Motoring - Life and Style - The Independent

Drive past the Hondas and the Nissans and head for the Rover, Fiat and Alpha Romeo stands

Gavin Green's guide to the London Motor Show

"See 500 sexy models reveal all", is the naff poster campaign, complete with drape, to persuade punters to visit Earls Court this Thursday and for the 10 days thereafter. Quite apart from being a hoary old throwback to the cars-as-sex-symbols mentality that was supposed to have ended in the caring-sharing Nineties, it also runs contrary to most car-makers' marketing efforts. Cars as sex substitutes are passe; cars are supposed to be all green and cuddly and protective right now.

It's also a throwback to the old Earls Court show days, back in the Sixties, when it was one of the world's most important, and when sexy new models (girls not cars) really did get their kit off rather a lot. Back then, the British motor industry was one of the world's biggest and most innovative - before BL committed hari-kiri and the Japanese makers turned us into a low-cost assembler of their cars.

But there are signs of revival, and it's one of the reasons why this year's Earls Court show promises to be an unusually good one. For starters, the British motor industry is getting bigger and bolder, and Earls Court is riding along in its tyre tracks. Foreign car bosses who usually give London a miss are coming this year, and they're bringing important new cars with them.

Plus: the nation's car-maker has actually got something to crow about. Rover is giving the MGF its British debut, and it's not only the most dramatic-looking Rover in goodness-knows-how long (since the SDl Rover of 1976 perhaps?), but it's also a car that, in certain areas, has genuinely progressed the art of automotive engineering.

This year's show will end up taking quite a sports car theme. Making their British debuts are Fiat's Barchetta roadster and the Alfa Romeo Spider - in the case of the Spider, six months or so before UK sales start. They look even more daring and eye-catching than the MG, even if their engineering is not quite so far-sighted.

Little Lotus, whose fate is uncertain following the financial problems plaguing Italian parent Bugatti (but when was Lotus's future ever secure?), is giving its new Elise sports car its UK premiere. This is a much more uncompromising sports car: as much street racer as cafe cruiser. As with the MG - whose Rover engine it shares - the Elise is studded with innovative engineering, proof of Britain's re-emergence as a nerve centre for innovative sports car engineering.

At the mass-manufacturing end of the scale, the Earls Court halls will be filled with new models: Vauxhall unveils its new Vectra, successor to that symbol of the fast-lane fleet rep, the Cavalier; and Ford takes the wraps off a new Fiesta (reviewed below). The Fiesta is another fish- faced and rather gawky-looking new Ford, following on from the hideous Scorpio; the Vectra just looks plain dull.

Better by far to head for the Fiat and Renault stands where a couple of genuine big-volume head-turners are being previewed. The Fiat Brava/Bravo - Brava's the five-door, Bravo's the three-door - is one of the most unusually- styled and detailed Escort-class car ever. It goes on sale here in a couple of months.

Renault unveils the even-prettier, but less imaginative, Megane, another stunner from the pen of its Anglo-French design chief Patrick Le Quement. It replaces the worthy but nondescript R19, and is on sale here from February.

Back in the dull corner, keeping the Cavalier company, is the new Honda Civic and the Nissan Almera. You wouldn't expect any great shakes from Nissan and, in the new Almera, you don't get them. It's a boring little Escort-sized hatch, utterly bland, no doubt faithful, no doubt reliable, and no doubt about to be ignored at Earls Court. This is a new car that will like the quiet family life before gently retiring to the minicab circuit, like its predecessor the Sunny.

The new Mercedes E-class, successor to the biggest-selling model in Mercedes' history, makes its UK debut, too. The old version was much-loved by executives who liked the idea of driving behind a Mercedes star, and, in estate form, by school-run mums who liked the idea of driving in front of probably the safest passenger cell in the world. The new one doesn't look as good, and there are worrying signs of Mercedes-Benz penny-pinching, especially in some of the cabin fittings. It's still a great car, though.

There's a special motor sport day (26 October), a classic car day (24 October), the first public appearance of Richard Noble's latest world land speed record car, designed to break the sound barrier, and, if you've got the money to buy instead of just the capacity to dream, there are four classic car auctions.

Sexy new models? Well I suppose it depends what turns you on. The Earls Court show will never return to the old pulchritude and power days of the Sixties. But the London Motor Show has regained its credibility as one of the world's better car exhibitions.

London Motor Show, Earls Court, open from 19-29 October, 9.30am-7.30pm (9pm from 23-27, 6pm on the last day). Prices: pounds l4 on 19 October, pounds 9 on other days (pounds 6 if entry after 5pm), children /OAPs pounds 5.

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