Gavin Green motoring column

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The Citroen Saxo, road-tested elsewhere on these pages, is one of the many NONO cars on sale today. NONO cars, despite the acronym, are not necessarily bad cars. They usually do the job reliably and painlessly. It's just that there's NOthing New Or interesting about them.

You can always spot a new NONO car, as long as you've got at least a smidgeon of car literacy. You look at the ads, especially the press and magazine ones, where a few words are expected to back up whatever the main image is. (On TV ads you can get away with fancy music and inspirational images and not dispense any information at all - which is why it's much harder to spot NONOs on the box.) But in the mags and rags, it's easy: if the poor copywriter is struggling to say anything new about the car, then you know it's a NONO.

Take the new Saxo press ads. Every new car in the class has everything that the Saxo boasts in its copy, including the "acoustically engineered floorpan" (a real pearl, that one). You can almost sense the sense of hopelessness that the poor copywriter had, when the Citroen marketing guy gave the brief. "So what's new about this car, what's the quintessential USP about the Saxo, darling?" asks the copywriter, desperate for inspiration. Pregnant pause, as the marketing guy looks blank.

Some NONOs get saved by clever marketing, such as Daewoo's no-dealer sales innovation. That Korean NONO ended up with arguably the best car ad campaign of the past year.

Other NONOs get saved by having one slightly unusual engineering feature. Take the Rover 400. One of the dullest cars of the past year did reasonably well in some obscure Nasa test that no car engineer (outside Rover) that I know had ever heard of. And yet that minor feat, to which doubtless Rover initially attached no importance, was turned into a whole ad campaign by some clever creative dick: "Rover 400 - the best long-distance ride on earth!" That campaign made a NONO sound like some sort of bargain Rolls- Royce. The car-literate sussed it; others may have been fooled. Until they drove the car, that is.

Most Fords have been NONOs, although some newer ones are not. A friend of mine used to work for Ford's ad agency and tells me of the collective sigh of hopelessness that greeted the first pictures and information on the Fiesta of a few generations ago. "What on earth are we going to do with this one?" he moaned. (And this from a guy used to writing flowery copy about dull Fords.) He managed somehow.

At least the latest Scorpio is no NONO. Rather, it's distinctive because it's hideous, presenting the creative chaps with a new challenge. I know they went through enormous pains to photograph it from its "best" angle, to try to make the plug ugly car look inviting. They failed.

What's so sad about the Saxo is that Citroen is famed for doing innovative cars, not NONOs - at least until recently. No maker has a better track record at being bold and furthering the course (and cause) of the car: the Thirties Traction Avant (first mass-produced front-wheel- drive car, unitary construction body, first car with standard radial tyres), the Forties 2CV (light, frugal, roomy, comfortable, and probably the most advanced car of its day), the gorgeous Fifties DS (cotton wool-soft hydro- pneumatic suspension, drop-dead looks, Art Deco dash, innovative switch gear and controls) and the Seventies CX (best cabin ergonomics ever, and great looks to match) and its little brother, the GS.

Citroen now has been neutered, its revolutionary streak quashed by the conservative spoilsports at Peugeot, which now holds the purse-strings. Now, there are only two Citroens worthy of the marque: the Xantia Activa (common sense-with-a-twist looks and brilliant hydropneumatic no-roll suspension that improves safety, comfort and cornering speed) and the XM, still refreshingly adventurous, if slightly daft.

Now that Citroen has stopped innovating, so the car has stopped progressing at the speed it should. The motor industry needs a go-for-broke marque to show the strugglers what is possible. The car as a species improved when Citroen was at its zenith, even if - as usually happens with innovators - those responsible failed to profit.

Peugeot, when you tackle it about its poor record as Citroen's master (as I have), will point out that it took over a marque that was bankrupt, a sure sign of true market failure. And that, in Britain, sales boomed as technical ambitions were lowered.

Both may be true, although I would argue that the latter is surely more a reflection on the British car buyer than on Citroen. And on the creative genius of our advertising people, who have a long tradition of turning NONOs into best-sellers.

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