Smart cars, clean fuel

Gavin Green assesses the motoring year

This year, some car makers finally proved that there is intelligence and social responsibility on the top floor and not just a manic desire to move metal and make money. Some clever solutions to long-standing problems were either previewed or put on sale. Among them was the probable answer to pollution caused by petrol or diesel vehicles.

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.

Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

    Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

    Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

    £10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

    £17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable