PERHAPS it is because we have all got less money to spend, or because the world has fallen out of love with big, aggressive cars. Maybe it is because cities are becoming so crowded. It might even be that manufacturers really are trying to help the environment by finally giving us frugal cars.

Those explanations, and a few more, lie behind the host of intriguing new small cars - almost Mini-small, not Fiesta-small - which are on the way.

The most worthy was unveiled at last week's Paris show. Three others make their UK debuts at the Birmingham show, which opens to the public on 24 October. Many more are scheduled for launch throughout the Nineties, from major companies such as Ford (which is planning a sub-Fiesta vehicle powered by an economical new two- stroke) and Volkswagen (which is to make a small car in conjunction with the watchmakers Swatch).

Last week's Paris star was the Renault Twingo, one of the boldest cars ever launched by a major European manufacturer. A foot shorter than the Renault Clio, yet offering even more passenger room, the Twingo is the most distinctive-looking French car since Citroens started to get boring. Novelties include the 'one-box' styling, so that it looks more like a cute mini-van than a conventional small car. Other oddities include its half-moon headlamps, which give the car a cheerful smile. It is the friendliest looking car I have seen since the 2CV.

Inside, it is even more interesting. The upholstery is a blend of blues and reds, the switchgear bright green. The switches are abnormally large and have a pleasingly rubbery feel: they look as if they have been taken from a child's toy.

The seats can all be laid flat, creating a comfortable double bed. The rear seat is adjustable fore and aft and, at its rearmost position, offers as much rear leg-room as the roomiest executive car. The rear backrests recline individually.

The only thing wrong with the Twingo is that it may not come to Britain. To reduce costs, Renault has engineered only one version - a 1.2-litre five-speed with left-hand drive. Converting it to right-hand drive may prove too expensive or simply impossible. If it does come to the UK, it must be a couple of years away. Sales start in France in January at a price of pounds 5,700.

Definitely heading for these shores is the Cinquecento, Fiat's latest attempt to build a tiny tot as cute as the old 500, now as beloved by the designer set as by the car enthusiast (not to mention impecunious Italians). The new Cinquecento looks more conventional than the old model and is substantially bigger - it is six inches longer than a Mini.

It is surprisingly roomy inside - much more than a Mini. Unlike previous small Fiats, the cabin feels robust. It is also colourful. It can seat four adults in reasonable comfort, although the boot is tiny, if deep. The all-round visibility is fantastic, the steering is light and so are the other controls. This is a fabulous city car, probably the world's best. It is tolerably refined on the motorway and surprisingly comfortable at 70mph-plus. The major shortcoming is the notchy gear change.

The Cinquecento, made in Poland, will be at Birmingham, but will probably not go on sale in Britain until next May. It will be just under pounds 5,000. Fiat UK expects to sell about 10,000 a year.

A brace of Japanese 'micro' cars, also set to make appearances at Birmingham, are likely to cost just a little more. About 1.8 million of these tiny cars are sold every year in Japan, helped by favourable tax rates on cars that have engine capacities below 660cc and are shorter than 130in (330cm).

The Daihatsu Mira is Japan's best- selling micro car. For Britain, a bigger 850cc engine will be used. Jazzy colours will be offered to tempt the young. Newer in Japan is the Subaru Vivio, judged by magazines there to be the best of the micro cars. It is said to feel like a big car on the inside, be well appointed, and drive like a big car on the motorway. Only the ham-footed will fail to achieve 50mpg in normal conditions.

When talking about the latest minis, it is easy to overlook the grandad of them all. The marvellous Mini, 33 years old, still sells in large numbers. In 1990 Rover made more than 46,000 - 10,000 more than two years earlier, but sales dipped a bit last year because of the recession. Japan, where the Mini is a cult car, remains the biggest export market.

Far from contemplating the car's death, Rover is about to introduce yet another variant. A year ago, a limited- edition Cabriolet model was made at the instigation of a German Rover dealer. Only 75 were built at pounds 12,250 each. They sold out in a trice.

At Birmingham, Rover will announce a production Cabriolet. About 15 a week will be built at Longbridge and the price will again be over pounds 12,000. That makes this latest Mini the priciest production version of all. Rover is confident that demand will exceed supply. Which should help to prove that when it comes to small cars, Britons are once again starting to think big.

(Photograph omitted)

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