Little cars are back in a big way.
Small cars aren't small any more. They're getting bigger, fatter and more expensive. The latest VW Polo, the smallest car made by Europe's biggest car maker, is as big and heavy as the first Golf - traditionally one class up. An Escort is now the size of an early Cortina.

Back in 1959, the Mini invented the modern small car. It was 10ft long, could accommodate four at a pinch and two in comfort, and had enough luggage space for a big family shop or a short family vacation. It became a big sales success, if - owing to the financial stupidity of BMC and latterly British Leyland - never a commercial hit. And the world copied it.

But these copies were succeeded by bigger, heavier cars. The motor industry's excuse was that they had to be heavier to meet new safety regulations - as though the collective brainpower of the car industry was incapable of paring weight from other areas, while still offering airbags, side intrusion beams, crumple zones etc. (Another even more feeble excuse I've heard when challenging the growing obesity of all modern cars, is that people are getting bigger, so cars must follow.)

From the car makers' perspective, a happy corollary of cars getting bigger is that they also get more expensive. The car industry has always subscribed to the misguided notion that a bigger car appeals to a wealthier clientele than a small car, and therefore should cost more. And so, now that every other small car model has gone to fat, the Mini once again stands supreme as the leanest, most brilliantly designed, most space efficient car on the road. Only the Polish-built Fiat Cinquecento threatens its tiny-tot primacy.

But competition is about to hot up. In an extraordinary volte-face, the car industry is about to rediscover the multifarious charms of the small car. They are starting to think small because, as traffic gets worse, more of their customers are starting to do the same. Equally as the two- or three-car family gets more popular, so there is room for a city/runabout/commuting/shopping car in the fleet. And, as fuel prices start to rise above inflation - likely in Europe if not in ecologically illiterate America - so small cars and their smaller fuel bills make sense.

These new small cars will not be bought because of their cheapness. As with the Mini - which has never been particularly inexpensive - they will be bought because of their desirability. Unlike most current "small" cars, which are just downscaled and less competent versions of bigger machines, these new cars are distinctive, stand-alone products. They will look special, be classless (one of the Mini's greatest attractions), be fun to drive and put a smile back on the face of motorists who have become increasingly disillusioned with the dull heavyweights.

First up is the Ford Ka, darling of the recent British Motor Show. Unlike the Fiesta, which is mostly bought by people who can't afford Escorts, people will buy a Ka because they really want one. And you can see why: it's stylish, smart, cute, fun to drive and fairly cheap. The Escort is none of these things. The Ka is also well equipped, another novelty for a small car. In the past, car makers had a predictably cynical view of small car customers. Because they didn't have much to spend, they were offered few luxuries. If you wanted air conditioning, power steering, electric windows, central locking etc, then you clearly had extra pounds to spend, so you would obviously want a car with extra inches to drive. It was a cock-eyed logic, but it was the motor industry's excuse all the same. This is now changing.

The next intriguing small car comes from Mercedes-Benz, better known for limos than for lightweights. The new A-class is previewed at next spring's Geneva Show and will go on sale in Britain in early 1998. It will almost certainly be the cleverest car of the year, possibly of the decade. An ingenious twin floorplan will sandwich the engine and gearbox under the body and enable almost the whole length of the car to be devoted to passengers. Thus, finally, the Mini's space efficiency - unchallenged for 37 years - may be beaten. The A-class will marry Fiesta length with Mondeo carrying capacity, and will cost from about pounds 14,000 - Golf money.

Smaller and cheaper, and also from the Mercedes stable, is the new Smart Car. It, too, is slated for 1998. A two-seater co-developed by Swatch, the watch people, the Smart Car is only eight feet long and will be marketed as an environmentally friendly, urban get-about. The French built baby will cost in the region of pounds 6,000.

Volkswagen and Vauxhall will also launch interesting small cars in the next few years, coming in under their Polo and Corsa models.

Fiat, the most committed of all makers to the art of the small car, replaces its Cinquecento in just over a year with a new model to be called the Seicento. It's a more stylish, more distinctive update of the current Cinquecento.

Later, in the year 2000, Audi is scheduled to launch its new A2, an aluminium- bodied lightweight hi-tech, high-spec hatchback, said to be good for 95mpg.

The most eagerly awaited small car of all, though, is the new Mini, slated for 2001 or 2002. Hurried along by BMW, but designed by Rover in Britain, the new Mini uses a South American-built 1.4-litre four-cylinder motor co-developed by BMW. It will not be cheap - prices will start from about pounds 9,000 in today's money. As with the Ka and the current (but recently upgraded) Mini, the new Mini will be bought not because of its low price but because of its style, distinctiveness and its common-sense approach to transport.

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