Not Frankfurt, but well worth a spin

the london motor show
We are on the verge of a new age in motoring, and the forthcoming London Motor Show will give punters a taste of what's in store. But in his preview of the show,

Gavin Green suggests London may be a pale imitation of Frankfurt's more exciting display of new cars

That it is a mere taste, rather than a full-blown entree, is a shame, and a reflection of London's lowly international status in the motor show food chain. Our fashion shows may now be world class; our motor shows aren't there yet.

Frankfurt last month was a breathtaking preview of frugal and imaginatively styled small cars, machines that are green and fun. Congested Britain needs such cars at least as badly as Germany. Yet only a sprinkling of the Frankfurt Show stars are crossing the Channel.

There is, for instance, no Smart Car, the ingenious little two-seater "city coupe" made jointly by Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, the watch people, which goes on sale in mainland Europe next spring. UK sales will probably start in 2000.

Nor is there the new Audi AL2, precursor to a new baby Audi, also slated for the year 2000. With its lightweight aluminium body and direct-injection petrol engine it promises marvellous economy (well over 60mpg), as well as smile-a-mile driving. Instead Audi chooses to show a more powerful version of the handsome A4. This new S4 is hugely desirable. Yet it is an irrelevant cul-de-sac in the grand scheme of things. The AL2 is the future.

We will not see the new Mini, unveiled to a select group at Frankfurt, before quickly disappearing again. That such a crucial new British car was shown in Frankfurt, but not in London, is a rude reminder of where the real power is wielded at BMW-owned Rover these days.

At least we'll see the new Mercedes A-class, 1997's most impactful car, and probably the greatest leap in small car design since the original Mini. There are so many clever ideas crammed into the A-class's Mini Metro length, not least a passenger compartment as big as a Ford Mondeo's. Independent tests have suggested that the A-class really is as safe as a bigger Mercedes saloon, an extraordinary achievement. UK sales start in June, and prices begin at about pounds l3,500.

The brand new Golf is another Earls Court must-see. It is nothing like as radical as the A-class and, in the photos, looks like a timid makeover of the old model. Yet it is such a marvellously complete small hatch, better made and classier than the outgoing model, more entertaining to drive, yet reassuringly familiar to former Golfers. British sales start next spring but prices have already been announced: they start from pounds l1,970 - excellent value. The GTi will cost pounds 15,515.

The new Vauxhall Astra also looks impressive, if conservative. As with the Golf, much is being made about its safety offerings (in Germany, even side airbags are standard). Vauxhall is also playing up its driver appeal, an aspect of the current Astra which is distinctly underwhelming. Lotus has been drafted in to give the new model some suspension finesse.

Also in the small hatchback class, Citroen unveils its new challenger, the Xsara. If you ignore the anonymous looks and the pedigree of the badge, the Xsara is actually a likeable thing. It's roomy, rides with commendable suppleness and has the odd innovative flourish to keep the Citroen flame burning, albeit dimly. It replaces the ZX, and goes on sale next month.

Apart from the A-class, the star of the show is probably the new Land Rover Freelander, the Solihull maker's first-ever small "lifestyle" 4x4. This class has bred some naff cars in the past, yet the Freelander promises to be rather different. It looks imposing (4x4s invariably do) without being too butch, and early impressions suggest a vehicle that's capable on both mud and motorways. The three-door rag roof model also promises to serve up some fun. Sales start in November. There's a choice of four- cylinder petrol or four-cylinder diesel models, neither of which should be too thirsty - unlike all other Land Rovers.

Just as important in the 4x4 market is the new Mercedes M-class, which also makes its British debut. This one targets the bigger Discovery sector, and is bound to give the ageing Disco and the equally arthritic Shogun a pummelling in the showroom. It's Mercedes' first-ever "luxury lifestyle" offroader and is a sign of how this market continues to boom. The M-class, on the Benz stand, is part of a Jurassic Park: The Lost World display, which sounds like a good reason to avoid it. Don't: the car is important, not least because it shows how manufacturers arecontinuing to diversify their model ranges.

Mind you, another new Mercedes - the V-class people carrier - also provides a clear illustration of the dangers of diversification. This truck-like van is more a luxury minibus than a car-like MPV.

The prettiest model at Earls Court is probably the new Alfa 156, the Italian maker's most serious attempt yet to give the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4 a hard time in the small sports saloon market. It is quite gorgeous. V6 and tuneful four-cylinder engines are on offer, and build quality looks to be very close to German levels. Sales start next spring.

Of technical interest is its diesel engine. It's the world's first production unit using new-fangled "common-rail" technology which, in a nutshell, means it's cleaner, faster and more frugal than diesel rivals. Other makers will follow this Fiat initiative, set to give a new lease of life to a type of engine which many thought (and hoped) was on its way out.

A final pick: make sure you see the new Porsche 911, which serves up the best driving experience you'll probably ever get. Sadly, few will ever get the chance. Just look at it, and dream. After all, for most of us, that's what motor shows are all about.

The London Motor Show, held at Earls Court, runs from 15-26October, from 9.30am-7pm (9pm on 21,22,23October, 6pm on 26October). Entry pounds 10 for adults and pounds 6 for children under 15 and OAPs.