Motoring: Bentley's big surprise among the small cars: Gavin Green reports on a new baby boom at this week's Geneva show

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Britain, a country that no longer has an indigenous car industry, once again dominated this week's Geneva motor show. Last year, Aston Martin stole the thunder of its owner, Ford - which had intended the Mondeo to be the star of the show - by launching the pretty DB7. More show-goers ogled that than the Mondeo, never mind that many more people would buy the latter. Motor shows are not car fairs, they are car fantasies.

It must be something about Switzerland (perhaps just that it is rich), but another pricey, classy Brit starred at Geneva this year. The Bentley Java is a good 1ft shorter and about pounds 40,000 cheaper than models in the existing range. It is the first 'small' car from Rolls-Royce (which owns Bentley), a sign that the company is finally catching up with the 20th century just as we leave it. If the car gets the go-ahead - at the moment it is called 'Concept Java' - it will go on sale in four years.

It is a handsome car, which suffers not one jot from being small, and is designed by former Rover chief stylist Roy Axe. Mind you, it is small only by Rolls's standards, being the same length as a BMW 5-series.

BMW, which already owns the biggest chunk of the British car industry, will help Rolls 'productionise' the Java. It may even donate the platform of its next 5- series model (there is significance in the Java's dimensions) and perhaps even its V8 engine.

BMW has been giving Rolls technical help for years, so there is nothing new in this collaboration. BMW's chairman, Bernd Pischetsrieder, told me that BMW was still interested in buying Rolls - 'the Rover takeover makes no difference'. But there will be no move in the short term.

There was no shortage of sensibly fuel-efficient cars at Geneva to balance the extravagance of the Bentley. Most important is the Ford Ka, a blob-shaped baby which is the precursor to a proper production Ford, to sit below the Fiesta in the range and fight minis such as the Fiat Cinquecento. Most car makers - even Mercedes-Benz - are planning baby city cars for the late Nineties.

Publicly, Ford is coy about its plans, but the new baby car has already got the go-ahead. It will look similar to the Ka, will hit the streets in 1996 and be built in Valencia, Spain. It will be aimed both at northern European trendies - attracted by its political correctness, bright colours and cheeky style - and to southern European families, tempted by nothing more modish than its low price.

More retro in style (and more humble in production volume) is Volkswagen's Concept One, the Beetle-like baby car first shown at the Detroit show in January and unveiled as a cabriolet in Geneva. VW announced that it will probably go into production in 1998. It will be Polo-priced, but aimed at those who want something a bit more distinctive than a Polo (not difficult). An electric version is certain, as are diesel and petrol variants. VW says it is 'absolutely confident' that it will have a viable electric car by 1998.

If anything, the cabriolet looks even better than the saloon. It has all the important Beetle styling cues, and yet still manages to look bang up to date.

There is nothing retro about Audi's new luxury model, the A8. It has a frame and body panels made of aluminium, to save weight and fuel.

Its English designer, Martin Smith, reckons it is also safer in a crash than a conventional steel car, and minor impacts should not be catastrophically expensive to repair - Audi is teaching all its bigger dealers the arcane art of aluminium welding. The world's last aluminium car, the Honda NSX sports car, was a dream to drive but a drama to repair. It was no good taking an NSX along to your local panel beater.

The A8 is a conventional, rather dull-looking car. It is a pity that prospective buyers will never be able to appreciate the artistry that lies beneath the body panels: the aluminium frame is a beautiful assembly, a masterpiece of industrial design. The A8 is being targeted at the Mercedes S-class, BMW 7-series and top-line Jags.

Even duller to look at is the quartet of new 'people carriers' unveiled jointly at Geneva by Fiat and Peugeot. There are Fiat, Peugeot, Citroen and Lancia versions: they are all identically ugly apart from the grilles and minor design details. Van-like and boxy, these seven-seaters have nothing like the styling elan and cleverness of the classy Renault Espace, never mind that they are 10 years newer and bigger (both inside and out).

UK sales will not start until mid-1993. Ford and Volkswagen will, by then, have unveiled their own jointly developed people carriers, to be built in Portugal. Why the people-carrier market should suddenly expand, six-fold, to make way for all these new class entrants is a mystery that no marketing man has yet been able to explain.

Back on the British stands, Rover showed an estate version of the 400, called the 'Touring'. BMW uses that name for its estate versions, so maybe the Munich influence is already being felt in the Midlands. Cartainly, the tension between Honda and BMW in Geneva was obvious. The position of Rover's stand did not help. It was right next to Honda.

(Photograph omitted)

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