More modest cars have a high profile at Birmingham. By James Ruppert
WELCOME TO the 1998 British International Motor Show - the People's Motor Show. If only. Most of the time, it is an inter-manufacturer preening contest at which they can all decide who has the slickest concept car, the best new model launch and the largest stand.

Even the cars themselves are there only to tickle the interest of a company fleet manager looking to replace 3,000 hatchbacks, or a middle- ranking executive with an pounds 18,000 "user/chooser" budget.

New cars are expensive and the private buyer will not get a 40 per cent discount, as the fleet-buyer does. So, is the Motor Show simply a shop window for what the ordinary buyer will be able to afford on the used forecourt in five years' time? Is there anything at the show for the ordinary motoring man or woman?

If you are prepared to think small, then there are a lot of good-value cars on show. Pop along to the Daihatsu stand, No 128 in Hall 1, and you will find a bewildering range of small cars to choose from, all of which come with an excellent three-year warranty. The Sirion, for example, priced at from pounds 7,995, is a spacious supermini that is well equipped and worth considering, despite its buzzy and power-deficient three-cylinder engine.

The Cuore, at pounds 6,530, has been the cheapest Japanese-built car on sale. This spartan city car is fun - and Daihatsu has launched a replacement at the show, which means that old Cuores will now be very much cheaper at your local dealer. The same goes for the soon-to-be-replaced Move, at pounds 7,295. It started the current trend for narrow, short but tall, micro people-movers.

Hyundai, on stand 538 in Hall 5, has got one of its own called the Atoz. This South Korean-built urban runabout costs just pounds 6,999 and has an excellent three-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Unfortunately, it has limited performance and feels uncomfortable and vulnerable on the open road.

Suzuki's Wagon R, on Stand 306 in Hall 3, is theoretically a micro people- carrier, except that it is larger - but it is no more refined than the rest, and prices start at pounds 7,425. Suzuki offers a three-year, 60,000- mile warranty and in its bargain basement it has an Indian-built Alto at pounds 6,350 and a Hungarian-assembled Swift for pounds 6,895. Neither is a state- of-the-art supermini.

Much better would be Seat, on Stand 626 in Hall 6, with its baby Arosa. This is a quality city car, with prices starting at pounds 6,995 and a comprehensive three-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Basically, it is a cut-down Volkswagen Polo, and is as good as that sounds. In sheer value-for-money terms and style, though, the Daewoo Matiz, at pounds 6,320, is arguably the best small car buy of all.

On Stand 501 in Hall 5 you will find that the design is as eye-catching as a Mercedes A-Class. The car's equipment levels are good and even though the small engine has a lot to do, it copes well with most traffic conditions.

Above all, it has a spectacular warranty which has tremendous appeal for the private buyer: it lasts for three years/60,000 miles, including free servicing for that period and AA cover.

If money is the chief consideration, the cheapest car on sale in the UK is the Perodua Nippa at pounds 5,999. It is really an old Daihatsu, and, not surprisingly, Perodua isn't exhibiting - with a two-month waiting- list, it doesn't need to. Also not bothering is Proton, preferring local promotions, although the Persona Compact at pounds 7,802 is not something you will feel bad about missing.

Those after a proper budget motor, family-sized with four doors or more, may like to consider the Chrysler Neon on stand 408 in Hall 4. At pounds 11,995 it is not that cheap, but it is spacious and this American-built car has all the extras drivers in its home country expect. The Daewoo Lanos, from pounds 8,820, is a practical hatch, and so is the larger Nubira at pounds 12,020. Both boast an epic warranty.

Hyundai is less accomplished, its reliable equivalents being the Hyundai Accent at pounds 7,899 and the Lantra at pounds 10,599. Skoda, on Stand 560 in Hall 5, at last proves that it is no longer a joke. The Felicia, from pounds 6,999, has been face-lifted and is a well-proven, reliable and well built car that, with a three-year warranty and 45,000 miles of servicing free, has to be taken seriously. The estates, from pounds 8,599, are probably the pick of the range, being spacious, especially with their rear seats removed, and highly practical.

Best of all, though, is the Octavia. The influence of the parent company Volkswagen means that this Golf-based hatchback is roomy, well equipped with two airbags, refined and with a classy cabin, all for pounds 11,499. And because private buyers keep cars for longer, its warranty and 10-year anti-corrosion guarantee will be very reassuring indeed.

However, if you want to save money, first you have to spend it. The People's Motor Show costs an outrageous pounds 10 per adult and pounds 5 for every child, plus pounds 6 for a day's car parking. Once there, make your way to Hall 1, stand 118 and have a go at christening the new 4x4 leisure vehicle from the commercial vehicle builder Tata. If yours is the winning name, you keep the 4x4. Power to the people.

The Motor Show is at the NEC, Birmingham until 1 November