Motoring: Coming to a showroom near you ...

A host of Britain's most popular cars will be replaced over the next year including the Escort, Astra and Golf, and there will also be new offerings from BMW, Porsche, Citroen, Renault, and even Skoda. Gavin Green reports on what's on offer
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The Independent Online
If you're about to buy a new Golf, Escort or Astra - don't. Or at least make sure you get a big discount. Along with a throng of other ageing cars, they are soon to be replaced by new and probably better cars. Indeed, the next 12 months will see more interesting new models than any year in memory.

Last week's Frankfurt show previewed some. But many others are still secret. And the cars still under wraps vary from a new version of Britain's perennial bestseller, the Ford Escort, to a fresh iteration of that sporty style icon, the BMW 3-series.

The busiest segment for new car launches will be in the small family hatch sector, the biggest-selling class in Britain, as the three traditional top-selling models are belatedly pensioned off.

The new Escort takes its bow in a year's time. In line with recent Ford thinking, it is likely to be the boldest-styled car in the class - a far cry from the mediocre current model. Cabriolet and estate versions of the new Escort will come later; initially, we'll see only the hatch and saloon models.

The Escort's great rival, the Astra, is also ageing and incompetent; it is replaced next spring by a handsome if conservative car that promises great safety and fuel economy. It also sires a promising MPV offspring, the Zafira, which goes on sale next autumn.

Europe's best-selling car, the VW Golf, is replaced in the UK next year by the new version, previewed last week at Frankfurt. It looks much like the old model - always a handsome car - but scores on extra safety and better economy. There will be three sporty versions of the new Golf: the turbo GTi, a VR5 and a VR6. The base model will cost pounds 12,000 - a modest increase on the current vehicle, but good value considering its higher specification (which includes anti-lock brakes and twin airbags).

Still in the small family hatch class, Citroen's new Xsara hits the showrooms in November. It replaces the ZX, which did well in Britain, giving flair-free but reliable service. The Xsara is a car of the same breed: utterly anonymous but competent.

The recent Frankfurt show was full of baby hatches a class or two smaller than the Xsara or Escort; most are coming to the UK in the next year. The most intriguing, and expensive, is the new Mercedes A-class - a car of Metro external proportions but Mondeo space, thanks to its ingenious underfloor mechanicals. It arrives in the UK in spring, and costs from about pounds 13,000. It is very likely the cleverest car concept we've seen in a decade.

More conventional, and probably more stylish, will be the new Renault Clio. Nicole's favourite hatchback gets revamped mid next year. It'll be safer, roomier and far more modern, but will retain its idiosyncratic Gallic charm. Another French hatchback icon to be replaced next year is the Peugeot 205. Peugeot originally intended to replace the 205 jointly with the 106 and 306 models - one slightly smaller than the 205, one slightly bigger. But the world wanted a direct successor, and that's what we'll get when the new 206 is unveiled at next autumn's Paris show.

Even smaller is the new Fiat Seicento, Fiat's baby car replacement for the popular Cinquecento. The new Seicento (600) - rounder, roomier and more stylish than the old Cinquecento, though using most of the older car's mechanicals - will debut at next March's Geneva show.

Another sub-Fiesta-sized tot due to be shown at the Geneva show is the new VW Lupo. It's mechanically very similar to the Arosa, made by VW's Spanish affiliate, Seat. It will rival the Ford Ka and the Fiat 600. VW is in for a busy year. On top of the new Golf and Lupo, it's also unveiling the new Beetle at the Detroit show in January. UK sales are likely to start in late '98. Round and cuddly like the old Beetle, the new one is nonetheless commendably hi-tech and shares most of its mechanicals with the new Golf.

The old BMW 3-series is one of those iconic cars that has retained its exclusivity and class cachet, despite being as regular as Ray-Bans in England's more affluent areas. It's been a huge hit, although its popularity is starting to crumble, mainly to the benefit of the more modern Audi A4. The new 3-series aims to win back the deserters, plus a new breed of style-conscious suburbanites.

In typical BMW style, the new model looks rather like the old one, but sleeker and sportier. Picture a scaled-down version of the current 5-series, and you'll get the idea. Most of the mechanicals are carried over, including the usual range of gutsy fours and silky smooth straight-sixes.

Ford will hope to steal a few BMW buyers with its new Cougar coupe, big brother to the "Steve McQueen" Puma, which hits the streets next spring. It's based on the Mondeo, and uses both 2.0-litre four and V6 motors, but looks nothing like Ford's family favourite. It's a rakish, handsome car, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ford's MC2 concept car at Frankfurt.

Heading further upmarket, we'll also see a revised and improved Aston Martin DB7 (using many Jaguar XK8 parts), the gorgeous Alfa 156 (set to give the new BMW 3-series a hard time), the Alfa 166 executive car (which replaces the 164, and goes on sale late next year), a bold-looking Audi coupe called the TT, an attractive 4x4 off-road Mercedes, the M-class, which will probably be vastly superior to the ageing Land Rover Discovery, and a new S-class, Mercedes' top-line model, due to be replaced in late '98. The new Porsche 911 debuts in the UK just after next month's London show. Most surprising new car of 1998 may be a Skoda. The old Skoda jokes are now about as funny as Beadle's About. Since VW took control of the Czech company with the chequered past, quality has been excellent. But the best Skoda of all has yet to reach Britain. The new Octavia comes next June. It's as good as most rivals in the Mondeo/Vectra class, yet will come at a very much lower price.

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