Motoring: The best new cars of 1997

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The Independent Online
This has not been a vintage year for new cars, but it's certainly been a memorable one. And we've seen a host of new 1997 motors muscling into our annual list of the class-best buys. Gavin Green chooses the best of the crop.

Best baby car: Ford Ka (from pounds 7,995). Not so much a new-wave baby as a stylish and great-to-drive fun car. Technically, it's nothing new, but its style sets it apart from everything else on the street, and it handles brilliantly. Fuel economy is fabulous. Downside: tiny rear seat room, pathetic boot. Also recommended: Fiat Cinquecento (from pounds 6,647).

Best small hatch: Fiat Punto (from pounds 7,789). Still the sharpest looking car in the class, and drives well. It's roomy and comfortable, and holds its value well. Build quality, once a Fiat bugbear, is now up to class average, if not class best. Also recommended: Volkswagen Polo (from pounds 8,145).

Best medium hatch: Volkswagen Golf (from pounds 11,970). Deliveries start next spring for the classiest car this class has ever seen. The cabin has Mercedes- standard plastics and fabrics; the exterior style - though evolutionary - is handsome and distinctive. It also drives beautifully, and is well priced. The classiest models are the turbodiesel and the V5 sports model. Also recommended: Toyota Corolla (from pounds 11,800).

Best family car: Volkswagen Passat (from pounds 14,850). Mass market badge adorning a car as well made, and as classy looking, as a mid-sized Audi or BMW. Drives well; terrific value. Turbodiesel model is especially economical. Estate version highly recommended. Also recommended: Ford Mondeo (from pounds 13,765).

Best small coupe: Ford Puma (from pounds 14,550). Probably the world's best- handling front-wheel drive car. Its looks give it presence, and its new 1.7-litre engine is excellent - first time we've been able to say that about a four-cylinder Ford motor. Fiesta-based mechanicals help keep price, and servicing costs, low. Also recommended: Fiat Coupe (from pounds 19,869).

Best big coupe: Peugeot 406 coupe (from pounds 20,360). Utterly gorgeous two- door Peugeot that looks as good as any Ferrari and, in V6 guise, goes almost as well. Basic 2.0-litre model not nearly as impressive. Also recommended: Mercedes-Benz CLK (from pounds 26,640).

Best 4x4: Land Rover Freelander (from pounds 15,995). From the people renowned for making the world's toughest, if not most refined, 4x4s. The Freelander, however, can take the smooth with the rough and is a highly impressive on-road performer - which is where most 4x4 owners use their vehicles. It looks good, too, and is not too thirsty. Also recommended: Toyota RAV- 4 (from pounds 14,441).

Best small MPV: Renault Scenic (from pounds 12,995). Last year's best new car still rules this class, as big Europe-wide demand testifies. Roominess is boosted by brilliant cabin versatility. It also drives as fluently and handles as crisply as many smaller and lower hatches. Keen prices a further bonus. Also recommended: Toyota Picnic (from pounds 15,870).

Best big MPV: Seat Alhambra (from pounds 16,850). Same vehicle as the Ford Galaxy and the VW Sharan but, owing to less prestigious badge, cheaper. Roomy, good to drive and good to own. Also recommended: Renault Espace (from pounds 19,640).

Best sports saloon: Alfa Romeo 156 (prices to come). The new Car of the Year. Wins on its fabulous styling and because it drives in such a delightfully fluent, high-spirited manner. Handsomely undercuts rival BMW 3-series and Audi A4 models. Optional "common rail" turbodiesel engine revolutionises diesel design. Also recom- mended: Audi A4 (from pounds 17,024).

Best sports car: Porsche Boxster (from pounds 33,950). Traditional Porsche thrills and style, at half the price of the traditional 911. Added bonus of top-down convertible motoring. In the past year, there have been a host of pounds 30,000-ish roadsters. This one is the best. Also recommended: Mercedes-Benz SLK (from pounds 30,090).

Best luxury/executive car: Audi A6 (from pounds 23,110). In the past year, Audi has overtaken BMW as the world's best maker of well-designed, beautifully wrought, good value saloons for high-flyers. The A6 pips the once dominant BMW 5-series. Best model is the 2.8 quattro V6. Also recommended: Jaguar XJ8 (from pounds 34,475).

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