Geneva rediscovers the party spirit

Judging from the roadsters at the motor show, Europe's car industry is in a fun mood - and Rover is leading the game, says Gavin Green

Even though the weather was cold and snowy for the first few days of the show, it was still tagged the Geneva Spring. It wasn't just that it was March that made people think of spring, nor that the host of exciting new cars on display were mostly drop-top roadsters, designed for sunnier days. Rather, it was the feeling of revitalism, of rebirth.

Geneva produced cars of real optimism, of vitality; cars that were fun and fancy-free. Instead of concentrating on mere transport, Europe's car makers used Geneva to preview style statements: cars to tug emotions rather than merely move people. It was a show full of cars to make you smile.

Amazing that a decade or so after Europe, and more particularly, Britain, deserted the roadster market that it once dominated, so many European makers are re-entering the scene simultaneously. Amazing, too, that they are re-entering at a time when the coup market is in steep decline, and when sales of the only current inexpensive roadster on the market, Mazda's MX-5, are also nosediving.

Yet there they were: Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Renault and, most notably, MG, all producing attractive two-seater open-top cars, all in the £14,000- £25,000 range. And that's not the end of it. BMW, Rover's owner, will unveil its new cut-price roadster, the Z3, before the year is out and, a little further on, both Mercedes and Porsche will release small two- seater roadsters, both for under £30,000.

The MG was the star of the show - even the German, French and Italians on hand had to admit that. Britain's favourite sports car marque, dormant for 15 years, raced back with a car that owed nothing to the bone-shaking old roadsters, and everything to modernity, sassiness and high-technology. The only thing the cloth-capped nostalgists would recognise is the badge: but that was enough to have scores of fortysomethings reminiscing about their first MG Midget or MGB.

Others merely appreciated the subtle yet distinctive styling, even if some reckoned it to be too Japanese derivative. It is not a bold looking car nor a revolutionary one, not by the standards of this Geneva Show. But it is pretty, and that should tempt loads of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who don't care about trad badges to consider one instead of a GTi or a BMW3-series.

More revolutionary are the mechanicals. The 1.8 litre four-cylinder engine is said to have the most sophisticated variable valve control system ever introduced on a road car, proof that Rover learnt a thing or two from its long association with Honda. The Hydragas suspension, although a throwback to the old British Leyland days, is also a positive step, and should help the MG's handling. So should the mid-engine layout, a feature usually reserved for high-priced sports cars such as Ferraris.

Rover's boss, John Towers, is talking about a production run of 20,000 or so cars a year, and prices ranging from £16,000 to £18,500. That's a lot for a little sports car, and is much more - in real terms - than small MGs of yore, as well as being pricier than the MG's biggest rival, the MX-5. I can't see Rover having much problem selling the cars, although like any new sports car the initial novelty value may fade after a few years. A bigger threat is the BMW Z3 roadster, on sale in Britain early next year for about £19,000.

The MGF and the BMW Z3 were planned and finalised before the recent Rover/BMW deal. Given that the two companies are now effectively one, BMW probably would have preferred the MG to be a little more downmarket and the new BMW to be a little pricier, better to differentiate the two.

More immediate threats to the MGF come from the Fiat Barchetta and the Alfa Spider, and from Renault's show star, the Sport Spider. The Barchetta, Fiat's return to the cheap roadster market which it used to dominate alongside MG, is a more mechanically conventional but more stylistically adventurous machine which uses a new Fiat 1.8 engine, front-wheel drive and a Punto underbody. It's long-nosed,short-tailed and eyecatching. It will come to Britain in left-hand drive only for about £14,000.

The prettiest new roadster at Geneva was the Alfa Spider. Although it's been seen at a motor show before - the Paris Salon last autumn - the Spider is just about to hit European showrooms. British sales start next spring, at just over £20,000. Both four-cylinder twin cam and V6 engines are available, and as with all recent Alfas, it is front-wheel drive.

Renault's roadster was the wackiest, the priciest, and probably the least significant - inasmuch as not many will be built. The Sport Spider uses an aluminium skeleton to which composite plastic panels are affixed, and will be built by Alpine in Dieppe, best known for the now-deceased GTA coup. Renault is talking about a price of £25,000 for the unusual-looking beast, powered by a four-cylinder Clio Williams engine. As with the MG, it's placed right behind the driver. The production target is 2,000 vehicles, 250 of which will come to the UK, almost certainly in right-hand drive form. Whether Renault makes any more depends on demand.

At the other end of the two-door convertible scale was Britain's other Geneva Show star, the Bentley Azure. Gargantuan in size as well as in price (£2l5,000), it's based on the Bentley Continental R coup. It replaces the old Rolls Corniche, favoured wheels of the Cote d'Azur millionaire who liked to keep working on his suntan while on the move.

There wasn't much in the way of sensible new production saloons or bold new technical solutions to the world's transport problems. The only novelties the car industry served up were Opel and Mercedes concept cars that boasted modular bodies. In other words, you buy the skeleton and can rent or buy various different "bolt-on" bodies to satisfy your moods or requirements, varying (in the case of the Mercedes) from a convertible to a pick-up to an estate.

But let's not get serious: that betrays the party mood of Geneva. The car industry was having some fun, and chief party-goer was the one-time long face of the European car industry, Rover. For the first time in decades, it produced the star of Europe's most important annual car show. And led the charge as Europe rediscovered a lost art form.

The Geneva Motor Show is held at the Palexpo, near the airport. It closes on Sunday 19 March.

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