Where's the beef in Frankfurt?

Gavin Green sniffs out the manufacturers with something to boast about at the Frankfurt Motor Show

Frankfurt, the city, is like the sausage named after it: all substance and no style. Its motor show is the same - a big beefy event, usually full of hi-tech talk and bold new engineering solutions. It is the showcase of the German car industry, and, Germans being Germans, they quite like to brag about their successes. Mercedes and BMW, the twin jewels in the crown, have vast exhibition halls to themselves: Mercedes' four-storey palace must be about the size of the entire Earls Court exhibition centre.

The Japanese are all rather condescendingly clumped together in a hall smaller than either of the home makers' vast emporia. The main European rivals are also together, in a hall which must be a good half-mile from the entrance. There, this year, you will find Renault, Fiat, Volvo, Peugeot and Ford; there you will also find the stars of the 1995 Frankfurt Show.

And this year, new cars from Fiat and Renault are the stars because of the way they look, not because a German engineering boffin with a funny name claims to have reinvented the car. Fiat and Renault have brought some fun into Europe's biggest-selling but stodgiest, car class - the Escort/Golf, sector. Their new Bravo/Brava and Megane cars replace, respectively, the Tipo and the R19, and are cheerfully styled "distinctive", and different from the herd. They are also comprehensively different in three- and five- door guises, another novelty.

Fiat even gives its versions different names: Bravo is the three-door, Brava the five-door. The Fiat is probably the bolder looker and the better detailed (the interior, especially, has some novel and very clever features: including a "diffused" cabin light instead of a couple of ugly spots).

Yet the Renault is also significant, not least because the Megane platform will give birth to five distinct variants. Frankfurt gave us the five- door hatch and the three-door (called a Coupe); later we'll see a four- door saloon, cabriolet and, more radically, a people carrier.

Even Volvo, renowned for its anti-style school of car design, was getting into the cars-as-fashion act. Its new S4, which eventually supplants the dire 400-series, is aimed more at car lovers than the usual car-hating Volvo buyer.

The S4 is built in Holland, alongside its technical twin, the Mitsubishi Carisma. Volvo and Mitsubishi have a new sweetheart agreement rather like that which Rover and Honda used to have, and the Carisma/S4 is the first Euro-Japanese progeny.

Peugeot's new 406, which replaces the 405, isn't as radical, but it looks handsome in a conventional Peugeot sort of way. Less handsome but more radical-looking, is the revamped Ford Fiesta. It's not a brand new car, rather an old Fiesta bodyshell with a new nose, new tail and improved cabin. Just as important, it boasts a new Ford engine, a 1.25-litre four- cylinder co-developed by motorcycle makers Yamaha. This will eventually blossom into a whole family, set to power the lower-order Fords well into the next century. Ford is renowned for the crudity of its engines: insiders say the Yamaha motor is a great improvement.

Honda unveiled its new Civic, its most important and popular car - a hit in Europe, America and Japan. The current three- and four-Civic is an individualistic driver's car par excellence. The new one doesn't look as special. As Europe has started to rediscover family-car styling flair, Honda seems to be going the other way.

Lotus, the little Norfolk-based sports car company, has never been without flair; rather it is usually without money. The company is used to stumbling from crisis to crisis. At Frankfurt, though, it was celebrating, thanks to a new sports car called the Elise. But at pounds 20,000 it's expensive for a minimalist four-cylinder sportster.

Meanwhile back to the place where the Frankfurt Show goers are meant to start - the Mercedes and BMW stands. Mercedes, despite the vastness of its site, had nothing new, apart from the latest E-class, on sale in Europe since the summer and due in Britain next month.

BMW, on the other hand, unveiled a car of great importance: the new 5-series. But talk about party poopers; while Fiat and Renault were taking some styling risks, BMW was moving oh so cautiously. It is hard to imagine a more conservative upgrade of the fine old 5-series.

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF FRANKFURT '95

Buzz words Direct injection. A new type of petrol engine, unveiled by Japanese maker Mitsubishi, which promises much greater fuel economy. Mitsubishi says it will eventually supplant its diesel motors. Once other makers adopt it (very likely) it may do the same thing to all diesels.

Overwhelming Fiat and Renault are stars of the show with new family cars that bring some life to Europe's dullest car class (the Golf/Escort sector).

Underwhelming The new BMW 5-series, star of the home "team" and bound to be good to drive - all BMWs are. What a pity it looks so ordinary.

Little and large The Lotus Elise (right). Named after the grand-daughter of Bugatti boss Romano Artioli (Bugatti owns Lotus), Elise is the spiritual successor to the bare-and-basic Lotus Seven. There's nothing minimalist about its price of pounds 20,000, although sales expectations are a fairly minimal 750 a year.

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