Cars of a new breed are soon to hit the streets. They will be welcomed by the greens (because they are frugal), by the car-makers (because they will mean increased sales), by enthusiasts (because they look fun), and by politicians (because the cars will be used instead of public transport, thus furnishing an excuse for more non-investment). Last week's Geneva Show, Europe's best barometer of car trends, was full of them. They are known as 'city cars': and, although they are very good cars, they are a thoroughly stupid idea.

Most makers have them planned, from posh Mercedes-Benz (whose Vision A93 is scheduled for production in 1997), to Ford (whose Ka made its debut at Geneva, and should be on the streets in 1996).

Even Swatch, the watch company, is getting in on the act. Its 8ft- long, brightly-coloured offering, engineered by Mercedes, should be clogging Europe's cities, with well- heeled youths at the wheel, within three years.

Now there is nothing wrong with fuel-efficient small cars. Fiat, the master of the art, has long turned out top-quality miniatures. Its latest, the Polish-built Cinquecento, continues a fine tradition of cheap (to buy and service) little cars.

But there is an important distinction between the Cinquecento - and even more so, baby Fiats of the past - and the new cars being planned by northern European car (and watch) makers.

The Fiats were designed as 'only' cars, aimed at impecunious motorists who could afford nothing bigger. They were minimalist in every sense. That is what made them great designs: nothing was wasted. They were not second cars - the little Fiat for mamma, while papa had a big Lancia. How could there possibly be room in a narrow Italian street for both a small Fiat and a big car outside one house?

This unpretentious philosophy is true even of the new Cinquecento, which is aimed more at eastern Europeans discovering personal mobility (and poor Italians trying to preserve it) than rich young northern Europeans who want a trendy tin box in which to whiz to the winebar (never mind that that is how Fiat has marketed it here).

The Mercedes Vision, Ford Ka, Vauxhall 'project X', BMW E1 (possibly to be built by Rover) and the rest will be small, cleverly designed, space-efficient and fun. If car-makers were introducing them as an alternative to some of the bloated barges currently in their ranges, I would salute them.

Yet the new baby cars will merely supplement the big models, not supplant them. They are intended primarily to be used in the city, as second (or third) cars. Thus, far from making our clogged and smelly towns more pleasant places in which to live and drive, they will probably make them worse.

Ford, for instance, will not encourage the Mondeo owner to ditch his big car for a little one. That would be a preposterous idea, because the company makes more profit on a Mondeo.

'The new baby Ford will be marketed as a trendy, attractive little car in northern Europe,' a Ford director told me in Geneva. 'It will be sold on its political correctness, its cuteness, the brightness of its colours and upholstery, its rightness for city motoring. It is not a cheap, utilitarian car.'

In northern Europe, the Ka will be only marginally cheaper than the bigger Fiesta. In southern Europe, where there is less money, and less pretention, it will probably be bought as a cheap family car - although, as it is likely to cost pounds 1,500 more than a Cinquecento, it will not be as popular as the Fiat.

The forthcoming Vauxhall 'X', similarly, will be only marginally cheaper than the Corsa. The Mercedes Vision will cost top-line Golf money, so not too many mammas in Mantua will be swapping their old Fiat 126s for one.

The mistake is not with the cars themselves. It is with the way they will be marketed: as city cars.

Cars and cities just don't get on; the sooner the car industry stops trying to con us that they do, and - more important - the sooner legislators wake up to the incompatibility, the better for all of us. Trains, tubes, bikes, buses and delivery vans are the future of urban transport. There simply isn't enough road space for the private car, and no amount of big-budget advertising should convince us otherwise.

The term 'city car' is not merely an oxymoron; it is moronic. Better by far for Mercedes, BMW, Ford, Vauxhall et al to encourage buyers to exchange their giant brutes for tiny tots - which will no doubt be perfectly good family cars. They should be as safe, as comfortable, and in some cases as roomy, as their big brothers.

The Mercedes Vision, probably the best of the bunch, has more cabin space than the Granada-sized Mercedes E-class: its mechanical parts are sited under the floor, leaving all the space inside for passengers and their luggage.

Great progress is indeed being made in small cars. The pity is that they are being made, and will be sold, for the wrong reason.

(Photograph omitted)

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