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The Jag struts its stuff on the catwalk

Gavin Green visits the Geneva motor show, an opulent exhibition for Europe's richest car owners
The traffic queuing to get into the Palexpo exhibition centre was appalling last Tuesday. It was the first day of the Geneva motor show, when all the industry big wigs attended. I wonder if any of them stopped to contemplate the absurdity of a show which saw numerous highspeed sports and luxury cars being unveiled, while the real problem facing motoring worldwide was staring at them on a smog-bound Swiss motorway?

The Geneva Show has never been about serious issues. That's what the Frankfurt and Tokyo Shows, run by those dour Germans and Japanese, are all about. Geneva is a fashion show: an exhibition of good-time motoring for Europe's richest nation which, conveniently, has no motor industry of its own.

It's convenient because there are no nationalistic biases at Geneva. The Germans can't banish everyone else's motor industries to far-flung pavilions as they do in Frankfurt, only for the Japanese to reciprocate in Tokyo. Geneva is neutral.

Perhaps that's why the British, who have no large locally owned car maker of their own either, are so at home here. For the last four years, British- based makers have dominated the Geneva Show.

Last year, the MGF was the star. This year was Jaguar's turn. Its new XK8 was the perfect Geneva icon: stylish, glamorous, expensive and, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant to future motoring needs.

Set to replace the ungainly 20-year-old XJS when sales start in October, the XK8 is a pounds 45,000, 155mph ego-massager for the rich. It's handsome, in a retro sort of way, and is further proof of the revivification of Jaguar under Ford. Sales volumes are likely to be handsomely up on the old XJSs.

Although it replaces the XJS, it's really more of an E-type successor - that seminal Sixties sports car that was unveiled at the Geneva Show exactly 35 years ago. The XK8 is more of a sports car (like the E-type) than a lazy boulevard cruiser (the XJS's forte). It is too conservative in style to be accurately compared to the E-type: that car, back in 1961, must have been far more eye-catching than the XK8 is today. It was a radical step forward, instead of a handsome update of an evolutionary styling theme. Nonetheless, the XK8 promises much. It is powered by Jaguar's new V8 engine, a 290bhp 4.0-litre unit to be built by Ford in Bridgend, Wales. That engine will shortly be the mainstay of the entire Jaguar range. It will be fitted to the XJ saloon series in late 1997, replacing the current straight-six and V12 units.

Back in the real world, Mercedes unveiled its long-awaited twin successors to the marvellous old E-class estate, favoured school-run transport in Britain's leafier suburbs. The new E-class is bigger than the old wagon, with a particularly sizeable rise in fore-aft load space. The clever, child rear seats and numerous utilitarian features of the old E (dog guard, luggage blind, completely removable back seats etc) all remain.

The new C-class estate, on the other hand, is smaller than the old E, and cheaper, too, with prices starting at about pounds 20,000. It's as much "sports" estate as luggage toter, but still should be big enough for the needs of most families. Both new Mercedes estates hit the UK in the summer.

Mercedes also unveiled its new V-class people carrier, built in Spain. The roomiest and plushest people carrier yet unveiled, the Spanish-built vehicle is also one of the ugliest: it really does look just like a converted van. Geneva also saw the European debut of the AAV 4x4 Mercedes concept car, precursor to the M-class Mercedes off-roader to be built in Alabama. UK sales start in two years. It's aimed at the Land Rover Discovery.

The other big news in the German corner was the comeback of the Beetle. VW announced that its Concept One show car - a Beetle for the Nineties - which was first unveiled two years ago, will go on sale in 1998 at about pounds 10,000. And it will be called the New Beetle. It'll be built in Mexico alongside the old Beetle, still assembled in Mexico and Brazil.

Although undeniably cute, the New Beetle is also very contrived: a triumph of fashion over clever design. Underneath the Beetle-like body lurks the floorpan and mechanicals of a Volkswagen Golf, which will doubtless prove superior on the road. America, where there is still lingering fondness for the old Beetle (Love Bug movies and all that) will be one of the biggest markets.

Ford showed a small coupe concept car called the Lynx, forerunner to a Vauxhall Tigra-sized new baby coupe. Honda had two fine new production cars: the CR-V is a Toyota RAV-4-like 4x4 that eschews that old macho off-road nonsense for car-like styling and practicality, while the SSM is a handily sized, two-seater roadster gunning for the MGF. It also had one duffer, the new Legend, a styling parody of the excellent Lexus that's bound to be a sales flop in Europe. Even more disappointing was the little Citroen Saxo, which will eventually succeed the AX. It's just a Peugeot 106 in drag.

Another French maker, Renault, launched Geneva's cleverest new car. The Scenic is a mini-Renault Espace, a five-seater, multi-purpose "one-box" vehicle based on the mechanics of the fine Megane hatchback. It looks great, is versatile, will cost from about pounds 12,000 when sales start early next year (a bargain), and was that rarest of Geneva offerings - a genuinely fresh slant on motoring.

Given that it's an Escort-sized car that can seat five adults in comfort, the Scenic may even make a modest contribution to easing traffic congestion. It proved that the car industry is working on new solutions and helped give a tinge of common sense to the party-time atmosphere that invariably pervades Europe's most enjoyable motor show.

The Geneva Motor Show, Palexpo exhibition centre (next to the airport) runs until17 March.