Motoring: Ford comes out of its shell

A fun replacement for the old Ford Escort? You'll believe it when you see the Focus. Gavin Green reports from Geneva
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Ask your local Ford dealer for a hand-finished Focus - the successor to the Ford Escort - and he'll probably think you're on drugs. Which is precisely what most Escort owners will think Ford's stylists have been taking, when they first see the new model on show at Geneva. It's an upshot of Ford's desire to build "statement" cars, and it's certain to turn heads when it hits British roads in September.

Under the skin it's a bit more conventional, with four-cylinder petrol engines varying from 1.4 to 2.0 litres and a new 1.8 direct-injection turbodiesel. Three- and five-door hatches are on offer, plus a four-door saloon and an estate.

And Ford hasn't forgotten Mr and Mrs Average Motorist. The Focus has substantially lower fuel consumption (10 per cent better on average, with the 1.4-litre model offering a whopping 25 per cent improvement). It won't cost any more to buy than the current Escort, will have a lower insurance rating and should be the roomiest car in its class. Ford says it's almost as spacious as the Mondeo.

The Focus competes with the latest Vauxhall Astra and VW Golf, neither of which will hit British roads until April. All three raise the stakes in the market for mid-sized hatchbacks.

Ford wasn't the only traditionally conservative maker to come out of its shell in Geneva. Toyota unveiled its newest small car to be made in Europe, the Yaris. The name sounds dumb (the Japanese have never been good at naming cars). But the car looks striking. It's a tall, five-door vehicle, looks roomy, and has loads of stowage space. The 1.0-litre engine is compact and economical. High-tech, too, with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing.

Way upmarket, Toyota previewed its new baby Lexus at Geneva. The IS200 is Lexus's answer to the BMW 3-series. It's a rear-drive, 2.0-litre six- cylinder machine that promises to be quiet and refined - though in the wake of the drop-dead-gorgeous Alfa 156, it may be too anonymous to tempt many buyers.

Not that the new 3-series, which made its world debut at Geneva, impressed greatly. It drives superbly - as we've come to expect from BMW - and seems well made. Yet it's a car that BMW's vast and hyper-talented team must have rushed out in their lunch hour, before getting down to something more important.

In contrast, arch rival Volkswagen-Audi's A4 now outsells the 3-series in most markets, and innovative new models seem to spill forth as easily as beer flows from the Hofbrauhaus's taps.

For Geneva, the Volkswagen Group concentrated on its orphan brand, Seat. A new concept car, the Bolero, previewed the production style of the new Toledo, due in October. It has curves as delicate as flowing silk, and bears a slight resemblance to the Alfa 156.

More light relief than serious production possibilities was the Renault Zo, a cross between an off-roader and a sporty roadster, with automatic variable ride height. Creature comforts are few: it has no roof, and no windscreen.

The Geneva Motor Show, at the Palexpo, next to the airport, is held from 5 to 15 March.