The cleverest car to be shown in 1996 was the new Mercedes A-class. Shorter than a Fiesta but as roomy as a Mondeo, the A-class goes on sale in Europe next summer. Britain won't see it until early 1998. It's ingenious, not just because it extracts maximum cabin room from minimal exterior dimensions, but because it is also highly fuel-efficient. In diesel form, economy of over 70mpg is promised.
Also trendsetting was the Renault Scenic, now on sale in mainland Europe and due here next summer. Little brother to the Renault Espace, the Scenic is also a motoring Tardis: an Escort-sized vehicle that holds five adults in comfort rather than like tinned fish. The key is its Espace-style one- box design, which - as with the A-class - devotes length to people rather than to a wastefully large engine or a frequently empty boot. It deservedly won the European Car of the Year award.
The past year has also seen the rebirth of the small car as an icon, 37 years after the Mini showed the way. Ford's Ka, as with the Mini, is every bit as much fun to drive as a big sports car and every bit as eye-catching. Ford was probably the most improved car maker of 1996. After years of voitures ordinaires, it pumped out a great new Fiesta complete with the best little four-cylinder currently in production in Europe, a greatly improved Mondeo, and the Ka. OK, it still has the Maverick, but nobody's perfect.
Vauxhall, whose butt has been more firmly chairbound than most makers these past few years (spending its money instead on supermodels and Ruby Wax to promote its cars) showed signs of a technical fight-back by unveiling a new twin-cam 16-valve turbo-diesel engine in the otherwise ordinary Vectra. Its secret is its marvellous economy, a real teetotalling sipper in a market still too full of slurpers. It also gave the diesel a new lease of life, after various reports confirmed what many people had long thought: namely that diesel is dirty. Fortunately for the car lobby, those reports also confirmed what most of us already suspected: that the real diesel bad guys are old buses, trucks and taxis.
Rover, the nation's car maker, was shown up as a provincial, technically minimalist subdivision of new masters BMW in an intriguing BBC documentary (When Rover Met BMW) which was as good for the BBC's and BMW's reputations as it was bad for Rover. It was left to Jaguar to prove that there is still life left in the British car industry now that the "For Sale" signs have come down (after all, there's little left to sell). Jaguar's new XK8 was one of the most exceptional sports cars in a year peppered with desirable machines. In addition, there was the Mercedes SLK, which already has a worldwide waiting list of more than two years - and a new open-top Porsche, the Boxster.
Not to be outdone, Bentley, the sporting wing of Rolls-Royce, launched a new Continental T coupe. A big, bruising, pounds 220,000, 400bhp monster, with a grille as tall as a grandfather clock, the Continental T is an anachronistic leftover from the days when most cars were gloriously over- the-top monuments to hand-craftsmanship and brute force. It is staggeringly fast and gloriously comfortable. I loved it, but it's about as significant for the future of motoring as a pounds 5,000 Chanel evening dress is as a pointer for high street fashion.
Much more of a harbinger of what's to come is the hydrogen fuel cell, the big technical story of 1996. Both Mercedes and Toyota unveiled prototypes powered by them, Toyota's being the more advanced. The hydrogen fuel cell is, in effect, a new sort of battery that promises to solve the problems inherent with electric cars. The claim is for petrol engine-type performance and range, but no tailpipe pollution. It is about a dozen years from production but, if all goes to plan, it looks like doing to the petrol or diesel internal combustion engine what the jet engine did to the propeller.
Not that the petrol motor is quite dead yet, for - just like Steve Redgrave and the Olympics - there seems to be life in the old dog yet. Mitsubishi recently launched a massively improved petrol engine in Japan, boasting 30 per cent better economy, yet identical performance and improved emissions. The secret is its direct injection, in which petrol is injected direct into the engine's combustion chambers, rather than into a manifold first.
It mixes the fuel economy of a good diesel with the performance of a good petrol engine, and thus could well dump the diesel motor into the technical rubbish bin, as well as current technology petrol engines. Toyota is about to launch an engine boasting similar technology. European and American makers are bound to follow.