They are every shape and size, but all aim to be clean and green. John Simister travelled to China to take part in the ultimate eco-challenge

China: The fastest-growing car market in the world, and potentially the biggest.

China: The fastest-growing car market in the world, and potentially the biggest.

Shanghai: hub of China's motor industry, venue for the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix earlier this year, venue also for anarchic traffic and a serious smog problem.

Michelin: international tyre manufacturer, keen to promote a clean future of individual, sustainable mobility (how those expressions will insinuate themselves into my brain by the end of the week I am about to describe).

The Challenge Bibendum: the Michelin Man's competition, open to all, but supported by major car-makers, to find how green, sustainable, mobile and individual a variety of futuristic car concepts can be.

These are the ingredients. And the Challenge Bibendum 2004 proved to be quite an event, an eco-car contest in the country with the biggest car growth and the biggest nascent pollution problem. Quite apart from anything else, it showed just how serious the Chinese are about taking their place on the world auto-stage.

Maybe the HABO Volkswagen Santana, powered by a rocket-fuel-fed turbine, was not the car to make the point, but the event venue certainly did. The Shanghai circuit is one of the best I have ever driven around. The Bibendum is, in effect, a kind of car rally. It includes special tests and a navigation run, the latter on Chinese roads. There are tests for emissions and noise to set the scene, then acceleration and braking tests, a slalom test, a fuel-efficiency test (24 laps of the F1 circuit at an average speed of 44mph, which is less easy than it sounds) and then out on the open road.

This event is no respecter of an individual design's strengths or weaknesses. A family-size car is a family-size car, no matter if it is fuelled by petrol, diesel, hydrogen or pigeon droppings. It is also a grand gathering of great and open minds, with engineering companies, government agencies, environmental groups and universities all peddling their visions. And sometimes there is a world debut: at Shanghai it was Audi's fuel-cell A2, proving how a tall car lends itself to this new technology's packaging needs thanks to that underfloor space, and Volvo's highly attractive 3CC.

The 3CC is a little coupé whose tapering roofline gives it excellent aerodynamics, but makes the rear seat narrow. It can take two children or one adult, but the fact is that a car like this is seldom likely to carry more than a couple of occupants. As shown in China, the 3CC has an electric motor, lithium-ion batteries and a 180-mile range, but a production version could have any other type of powertrain. Pressing a button moves the dashboard/front seats assembly forward for access to the back seat, and the dashboard's controls feature proximity sensors: you run a finger along the stencilled symbol cut out of the aluminium surface to activate heater temperature, fan speed or whatever.

Will the 3CC make production? "We shall make something like this in the next few years," says project designer Orjan Sterner, of Volvo's California-based Montoring and Concept Center. This, then, could be a first taste of a new C30.

Two words crop up time and again at the Bibendum: "fuel" and "cell". If there was ever any doubt that this electrolysis-in-reverse mode of power production is the future of mass propulsion, it is dispelled here. Most of the major makers who are pushing this technology are represented: Ford, DaimlerChrysler (these two between them have a heavy stake in Ballard, the major fuel-cell manufacturer), plus Hyundai, the Volkswagen group and General Motors. These mainly use a Ballard 902 fuel-cell stack and a Siemens electric motor, although Nissan also has a presence and makes its own hardware. Surprisingly absent this year was Honda, fast expanding in China and also big in fuel cells.

I arrive in China to be greeted by an infra-red scanner - it checks immigrants' body temperature and thus a possible SARS infection - and an atmosphere lightly scented with smog. The roads are busy and anarchic, red traffic lights exist in an advisory role only, cyclists and scooter-riders and trucks and pedestrians co-exist in a lethal mélange, as China's ubiquitous VW Santana taxis thread their way through the maze, horns a-blare.

The plutocratic car of choice is a new BMW 7-series; the Electronics and Components China Sourcing Fair, just opening at the Shanghai Mart, reminds us that most of the world's microchips - and the objects in which they are housed - come from here.

I find myself attached to the US-based Ford team, which has brought two fuel-cell Focuses, two Escape Hybrids, a European Mondeo with a direct-injection petrol engine and a new, hydrogen-fuelled Focus hybrid estate with a relatively normal (albeit supercharged) internal-combustion engine (ICE) and an auxiliary electric motor. Ford claims this to be the world's cleanest ICE; apart from water, its only emissions are a microscopic amount of carbon-based material from combusted lubricating oil.

This 2.3-litre, 143bhp Focus (110bhp from the ICE, the rest from electricity) is more than just a laboratory plaything. "This could be the link between cars of today and the fuel-cell cars of the future," says project leader Bob Natkin, "because it would get people used to the idea of putting hydrogen into their cars without having to make the leap to fuel cells. It's a transitory technology."

Driving this Focus, complete with its 5000psi hydrogen tank in the tail, seems a good place to start the Bibendum experience. It feels heavy (it is, at 1,550kg) and its rorty exhaust sounds like a kit-car's, but these are early days. It works and it feels quite normal, apart from a sluggish accelerator response. Will the fuel-cell Focus feel unfeasibly alien by comparison?

I try that one next; 30 more will be tried in the real world across California, Florida and Michigan, starting at the end of this year, in a joint project with BP which is building the fuelling stations. Here are the statistics: 1,600kg, top speed over 80mph, a range of up to 200 miles on a tankful, 87bhp, 170lb ft of torque, 315 volts, no gears. This Focus is a saloon but the hydrogen tank takes up most of the ample boot. The battery, used for extra accelerative energy and charged under regenerative braking, is behind the back seat, the fuel-cell stack is under the floor, the motor and its "traction inverter", both of which create heat, are under the bonnet. I try it in much greater depth next day, when I am the only journalist to drive in the 24-lap fuel-efficiency test.

This is surely an ultimate track with long straights, sweeping bends, some fiendishly tight sections and plenty of hill and dale. The grandstand and paddock area resembles a Star Wars film set, and now a couple of dozen eco-hopefuls are flagged away, five seconds apart, to prove their worth.

To my surprise and delight, this fuel cell car, this vision of a zero-emissions future, is not a sterile, soul-less thing. It makes a series of whooshes and whines like something out of The Jetsons, the air-compressor's pitch rising as I squeeze the accelerator and feel a surprising force.

Running neck-and-neck on the track with a fuel-cell Mercedes A-class (a tiny electric pick-up from Wuhan University is having a particularly miserable time, for example, despite its smiling face) and a bio-diesel VW Golf hybrid, we prove to have used our fuel efficiently enough to score a silver medal overall. But Phil Chizek, Ford's marketing manager for advanced engineering, outsmarts us with a gold in his similar Focus. Must be because he carried more tyre-squealing speed through the corners, thus needing to accelerate less.

The next day's road rally, in two sections, with police at every junction (not much navigational skill needed, then), sees me starting in a hybrid Escape.

This is the small 4x4 also sold as a Maverick or a Mazda Tribute, and now in production for the US as a hybrid. It works well, reaching up to 30mph on electricity alone if I am gentle, but will probably not come to Europe. We can expect such a hybrid powertrain in the next-generation Mondeo, though. For the second stage I am back in my blue Focus, which suffers a systems malfunction near the end ('Shut it down! Shut it down!' cries Mike Smith as NASA and the sound of Chinese horns collide).

The electric motor is overheating and the power is holding back; we wait a few moments and it fixes itself. Dirt in the heat exchangers is thought to be the culprit.

So ends the rally, but much has emerged over the past few days. I became the first journalist to ride Peugeot's Quark quad-bike, powered by an electric motor in each wheel fed from a battery and a little fuel cell (currently not quite working). A hydrogen cylinder slots into its rump, and a PDA acts as the key by slotting over the handlebars. Thus inserted, it becomes the instrument display.

Also from France came two Michelin concepts, one with fully active suspension, able electronically to keep the tyres always at the perfect angle to the road.

Less serious was the Courrèges La Bulleºr (a tortuous piece of typography), an electric egg with louvre windows, blue tyres and a transparent steering wheel and seemingly no sense of direction, as the front and rear are near-identical. It is sometimes to be seen driving around Paris, but ran out of volts on the 24-lap test.

And, weirdest of all, the Aurora from Australia, a wide, blade-like three-wheeler whose upper surface consists entirely of photo-electric cells. It can run at 53mph on solar energy alone, up to 90mph with battery back-up, has travelled 25,000 miles so far including a 2,000-mile race from Darwin to Adelaide, and gets very hot inside. It even works on an overcast day, albeit more slowly. It seems there is such a thing as a free lunch, after all.

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