Motoring: Style, substance and eccentricity

Virtually all the big boys have come up with something special for the Paris Motor Show.
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The Independent Online
The French rediscovered their styling boldness, the Germans launched the most high-tech car ever made and the Italians showed that they still have a sense of humour. Meanwhile, Toyota - now an honorary French car manufacturer - probably launched the production star of the Paris Motor Show, the Toyota Yaris.

Virtually every car maker was busy at Paris. The French tried particularly hard on home territory. Citroen, once France's boldest car maker and recently its most timid, finally came out of its shell and served up a spiritual successor to the 2CV.

Called the C3 and scheduled for production within three years, it is a simple, practical yet unusually proportioned machine - just as the 2CV was. Bubble-shaped and very glassy, the C3 has a cabin with MPV-style seat versatility, rear-hinged back doors and no central pillar, to help access. Some of these features won't make it to production but other novelties will, including the folding rear hatchback door. The lower half folds up and under the top half, which helps to open the boot in tight spots.

The C3 uses the same suspension and engines as the Peugeot 206, the most important new French production car on show. The 206 replaces the 15-year old 205, the best-selling Peugeot in history, and still on sale in France. (The European 205 factory is now being sold off to the Iranians.) It is a swoopily styled little car, roomy and soft-riding, and is probably the best supermini now on sale in Europe.

Peugeot also served up some important 206 variants, not least the upcoming GTi model, due mid-1999. Successor to the much-loved 205 GTi, it uses a new 2.0-litre twin-cam Peugeot motor, good for 138bhp. Its body is decked out in the usual GTi warpaint and it will no doubt drive with the eagerness of a terrier on Viagra. Other 206 offspring include a cross-country 206 estate, known as the Escapade. It uses simple front-drive but has loads of ground clearance and looks butch.

Back on the Citroen stand, the Parisian maker unveiled its belated entry into the small-MPV market. The name may be dumb - the Picasso (just what would old Pablo have thought?) - yet the car is functional, pretty enough and a step forward for its class. Its strengths are its vast cabin and its big boot - the latter a real novelty for an MPV. Like the class-topping Renault Scenic, it is a five-seater only.

Renault celebrated its centenary at the Paris Show and its birthday treat was an extraordinary concept car called the Vel Satis. According to design boss Patrick Le Quement, it is "designed to prove that the French can make beautiful luxury cars again". Many would argue that Vel Satis proved no such thing, although it is undeniably eye-catching.

The Vel Satis is a four-seater "coupe de ville", a type of upmarket car at which the French excelled in the '30s. It prefigures a new top-end Renault coupe, due in 2000. Eighty per cent of Vel Satis' features will hit the road, says Le Quement, and most will be seen in that upcoming new two-door Renault, including the wedge profile, incredibly low roof and the bustle-back tail.

Wackier, and definitely destined for production, is the Clio V6 24V, a mid-engined super sporty version of the humble Renault hatch. Renault has always had a pleasingly demented streak - witness the Sport Spider convertible - and the Clio V6 is its latest manifestation.

If the Clio V6 was the craziest production car in Paris, the most sensible was probably the new Toyota Yaris. Much improved since it first appeared in prototype form at the Frankfurt Show last year, the new baby Toyota is a handsome, nicely sculpted car that sets new standards for space and fuel efficiency. Its high roof and wide cabin, allied to its short overhangs, make for a surprisingly roomy cockpit and the big door apertures greatly help access. Three and five-door versions are available. A completely new car, the Yaris also uses a frugal new 1.0-litre engine, good for an average 50mpg. A 1.3-litre version will be available later.

Supposedly designed primarily for Europe, the new baby Toyota will be built in France in a new factory in Valenciennes (the engines come from Britain). Production starts in 2000. Until then, the Yaris, which competes in the lower reaches of the Fiesta and Polo class, will be imported from Japan.

Also impressive was the new Volkswagen Lupo, a roomy, nicely detailed mini with a particularly interesting cabin. One version - the three-cylinder turbodiesel - is the world's most economical production car. It betters 90mpg and, driven carefully, may even exceed 100mpg.

At the other end of the market, Mercedes debuted its new S-class, the most high-tech car in the world, and one of the priciest. Toys which the gadget-obsessed executive may enjoy include the radar-controlled automatic cruise control. Stray too close to the car in front and the car automatically backs off. It even brakes if things get very dodgy.

Other gizmos include key-less door and ignition locks. Instead, a simple credit card automatically informs the car whether the correct person is approaching or not. (You don't have to wave the card in front of the door lock or at the ignition. Carrying it in your wallet or purse is sufficient.) Once you've been identified, you simply push a door button, or the starter button.

The new S-class is lighter and much more elegant than its ungainly predecessor. V6 and V8 engines are offered and a V12 - for those plutocrats for whom a 306bhp 5.0-litre V8 is insufficient - comes in 2000.

Still in the mega-money sector, Ford-owned Jaguar showed a concept car called the XK180 (for 180mph, its top speed). It is an XK8-based roadster that mimics features of the Le Mans winning '50s racing D-type. Only two will be made, both for publicity purposes.

Alfa Romeo, on something of a roll following the success of its 156, launched its car for the next class up, the 166. Looking like an elongated 156 (no bad thing in theory, considering how pretty the 156 is), it comes with a choice of four-cylinder or V6 engines, and competes with the BMW 5-series and the Audi A6.

Still in the Italian corner, Fiat showed the production version of its small-MPV, the Multipla, the strangest new production car at Paris and yet one of the cleverest. The small-MPV market is all the rage in Europe just now, which is why Citroen, Fiat, Opel and Ford are all poised to give the class-dominating Renault Scenic a hard time. The Multipla is easily the most radical. It boasts two rows of three seats, has a huge pod-like cabin grafted onto the underlying mechanicals, and is amazingly roomy and airy inside.

Meanwhile, looking anything but radical, Land Rover unveiled its new Discovery. It is hugely improved over the old roly-poly Discovery, Britain's best selling 4x4. Yet it looks almost identical. Land Rover says that is because owners liked the style of the old one so much. Maybe. But among the futuristic cars in the halls of the Parc des Expositions, it looked like it belonged on a used car lot.

The Paris Motor Show, held at the Parc des Expositions at the Porte de Versailles, runs until 11 October, from 10am-10pm