Of babes and 'bahn stormers

The Frankfurt Motor Show is always full of surprises, but this year's highlights ranged from pint-sized city cars to the most potent Porsche yet. Gavin Green reports on a motoring revolution

There probably has never been a motor show that sparkled with innovative new models quite as brightly as the 1997 Frankfurt Show. The biennial German exhibition is habitually Europe's most significant motor show. But this was a Frankfurt Show unlike all others.

There were so many important new cars that most visitors left the show convinced that the motor industry post-Frankfurt was on the verge of revolution. Not only were the mainstream new models more interesting than ever, but there was a plethora of "new wave" cars. There was even a new version of the world's most innovative car ever - the Mini - even if it was shown only at a press briefing.

As a sign of change, the star of the show was neither a fire-breathing sports car nor a multi-cylinder luxury sedan. It was a little three-cylinder rear-engined "city coupe", the product of a new car maker, Smart. The thinking behind the car is as new as the company. BMW launched a revolutionary city vehicle that is half-bike, half-car. Not to be outdone, Audi showed its first baby car, slated for the year 2000. Among other novelties, it uses an aluminium body. Toyota also previewed a new baby car, to be built in Europe.

There were three new major family hatchbacks launched, including the new Golf. There were two major new 4x4s, including a new Land Rover, and an innovative new people carrier, the Vauxhall Zafira. And, back in more traditional motor show star territory, Porsche unveiled a new version of the world's most enduring supercar, the 911. Ford previewed its new Cougar coupe, to be sold in both Europe and America. And as if all the above weren't enough, at least three makers unveiled new hydrogen-fuel- cell concept vehicles - increasingly spoken of as the way ahead. Many car makers now expect to have production vehicles in about 10 years.

The star, though, was probably the baby Smart. Smart may be a new company, but it is backed by experience - Mercedes-Benz, the world's oldest car company, is the biggest shareholder. (The other shareholder is Swatch, the watch people.)

I have my doubts whether it will be a commercial success - I just can't see enough Europeans willing to spend over pounds 5,000 on a two-seater runabout, when for a few dollars more they can buy a "proper" little hatchback. But there's no doubting the radical nature of the little beast. For starters, it's tiny - only 2.5 metres long. It's as colourful as a Benetton jumper and, what's more, you can change the colours almost as easily as you can change your sweater. The doors, front wings, bonnet and boot are plastic clip-on parts, attached to a strong steel safety cell. So, when you tire of your peppermint green Smart, you can swap the green panels for orange ones. The technicolour upholstery can also be easily changed.

The Smart is aimed at trendy young urbanites who care about pollution and congestion and who want to stand out from the crowd. Power - if that's the right word for three-cylinder 45 or 55bhp 600cc turbo units - is parcelled to the rear wheels via a semi-automatic sequential six-speed gearbox. The engine is rear-mounted, just below the boot, and on top of the rear axle. Top speed is 85mph, and 0-35mph takes 6.5 seconds.

Safety is said to be excellent. Twin airbags and ABS brakes are standard, and the Smart uses a Mercedes A-class-like twin floorpan, further to strengthen the main structure. UK sales are possible but, for the time being, sales are restricted to eight continental European countries, from next spring.

That's about two years ahead of the new Mini, but as a way of counteracting all the publicity for Mercedes with the Smart, BMW authorised Rover to give a sneak preview. Few technical details were available at the press conference, but it's clear that the new Mini is nothing like as radical as the old one. It's a stylish, bijou baby car aimed at affluent, design- conscious small car buyers. Technically, it will be very conventional.

The four-cylinder engine will be made in Brazil, in a joint-venture Chrysler- BMW factory, and it will be sited in the manner pioneered by its forefather, transverse, driving the front wheels. The springs are conventional steel, and the new car is of Metro length - short, but appreciably longer than the original Mini.

There will be a sporty Cooper version (the model shown in Frankfurt), as well as more basic versions. It won't be cheap; the starting price will be about pounds 8,000, which will make the Mini pricier than many larger hatches. Instead, it will occupy a BMW-like sporty, exclusive niche in the baby sector. Rover hopes to make about 100,000 a year, in its Longbridge factory in Birmingham.

The new Mini wasn't BMW's only baby "car" proposal at Frankfurt. It also unveiled the C1, a single-seater, ultra-economy vehicle also slated for the year 2000. Essentially a motorcycle with a roof, a windscreen, seatbelts and a safety cell - including a front-end crumple zone - the C1 is a radical city alternative. BMW reckons that the ultimate city vehicle is actually a motorcycle, but accepts that most people won't buy a bike, owing to safety, exposure to the weather and the need to wear a helmet. Thus, the C1 is partly enclosed - although there are no doors. BMW also claims that it is as safe, in a front-end accident, as a small car. In a side impact, however, there is no air bag - just air. It has no doors. It uses a 125cc single-cylinder motor, a CVT automatic gearbox, and will cost about pounds 3,000.

There are question marks about its legality. In Germany, apparently, it will be fine, but other countries, including Britain, may insist on the driver wearing a crash helmet. Some markets will also insist on a motorcycle licence.

BMW is flagging the C1 as its "city car" solution, and reckons it has spent almost as much on it as Mercedes has on the Smart. In truth, the concept is nothing like as convincing; but it's an intriguing vehicle nonetheless.

Not to be outdone by its prestige badge rivals, Audi also unveiled a fuel-sipping tot. It showed a prototype of a new four-seater small car, the Al2. The Al stands for aluminium, and the lightweight metal is one of the keys - along with a new direct-injection three-cylinder petrol engine - to remarkable fuel economy. Audi promises about 65mpg. It, too, is slated for the year 2000.

Back closer to normality, there were a bevy of new small family hatchbacks on show: a new Golf, a new Vauxhall Astra and a new Citroen, the Xsara, which replaces the ZX. The Golf is a conservative-looking but beautifully detailed car, with the classiest, best-finished cabin I can ever remember for a car of this size and price. UK sales start next spring, with prices beginning at pounds 12,000.

People carriers in Europe are now all the rage, but in Frankfurt there were only two new ones. The Grand Espace is a longer wheelbase, roomier version of the normal Espace, and is Renault's attempt to dominate the top-end of the sector which it, more than any other maker, invented. More inventive is the new Vauxhall Zafira, still a year away from the showrooms. What appeals is its cabin versatility.

Vauxhall has concluded that MPV cabins are nothing like as versatile as many makers pretend, owing to the inconvenience of removing and then stowing seats. Instead, the Zafira's seats all fold away. The back pair fold down flat into the floor, while the middle bench - big enough for three people - can fold up against the front seats, station-wagon-like. (It also splits 60:40.) In addition, the middle bench is on runners, which moves the length of the cabin.

The most important British car at Frankfurt, apart from the far-away Mini, was the new Land Rover Freelander. It is Land Rover's first foray into the small, stylish 4x4 sector, dominated by the likes of the Toyota RAV-4. The Freelander is a handsome, imposing vehicle, bigger than the class average. Novelties include an ABS system that arrests unwelcome descent down muddy slopes. Push a button, and the brakes will ensure that you'll never exceed 5mph downhill.

On the Japanese stands, Toyota previewed two crucial new models. The first was a new baby car, called the Funtime, that goes into production at a new European plant in two years. It replaces the slow-selling Starlet. The Funtime at the show was tagged a concept car. In fact, it is based heavily on the upcoming new production Toyota, although there will be differences to the nose and tail. Intriguingly, the dashboard and all instruments are centrally mounted.

The second important Toyota was the new Lexus GS300. Completely restyled, the new car is smaller but roomier. Power comes from the familiar 3.0- litre straight-six engine, now fitted with variable valve timing. There's a new five-speed "intelligent" auto box. As with the exterior, the interior is all-new.

Although unusual small cars dominated, high-performance cars weren't forgotten. Porsche unveiled the new 911, using a water-cooled flat-six - still in the tail. It carries over most of the old 911 styling cues, but is longer, faster and better. The 3.4-litre engine produces 300bhp; a six-speed manual gearbox is standard, although a new five-speed Tiptronic auto is available. Top speed is 175mph.

Alfa showed the new 156, which replaces the slow-selling 155, and promises to give Audi's A4 and BMW's 3-series some hurry-up. BMW unveiled two autobahn stormers - the Z3-based M Coupe, and a new M5. The M Coupe, which looks like a Z3 with a roof, uses M3 mechanicals, including the 321bhp six-cylinder engine. Top speed is electronically limited to 155mph. The M5 was previewed at the same BMW press briefing that gave us a taste of the new Mini, but wasn't at the show. BMW claims it will be the world's most powerful sports saloon. The 5.0-litre V8 is good for 400bhp. Sales start in early 1999.

There was a Ford show car called the MC2, which underneath the concept car veneer is actually the new Ford Cougar coupe, big brother to the Puma, which goes on sale in Europe next spring. There will also be a Mercury version, for the US. The floorpan is Mondeo-based, and engines include a 2.0-litre four and a 2.5-litre 24V V6.

Jaguar launched the new V8-engined XJ8, Suzuki showed a brilliant little roadster called the C2 which uses a twin-turbo 1600cc V8, and Mitsubishi unveiled a couple of wacky concept cars called the HSR-V1 (drives itself, looks weird, but at least uses highly relevant direct-injection petrol engines and a new CVT auto) and the Technas (the Mad Max of sports utility vehicles which carries mountain bikes, has an unusual central aisle walkway from front to rear, looks strange and has no production relevance).

And there was much, much more - for the Frankfurt Show was a reminder that the car industry is a massively creative force. Frankfurt was the beginning of a new era of bold thinking. From now on, the pace will just get faster.

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