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Motor Show 1993: Hardy Britons take a breath of fresh air: The choice has never been wider or better in the cabriolet market. Martin Derrick reports on a continuing story of success

AS WINTER sets in, the main focus of the medium car sector falls, strangely enough, on cabriolets. But this is unlikely to upset visitors to Earl's Court, where they will be getting their first look at both the Volkswagen Golf and the Peugeot 306 Cabriolets - because, despite Britain's appalling weather record, this remains one of Europe's largest markets for fresh-air motoring.

Peugeot can now offer a full range of three-door versions of the 306 range, and with the launch of the three-door come both high per formance derivatives and the all- new cabriolet. These reach the Peu geot showrooms about a year after the launch of the 306 5-door hatchbacks. Then, Peugeot announced that a number of new derivatives of the 306 would be launched, including a coupe, though this has yet to make an appearance.

The creation of the cabriolet, as so often before with Peugeot specialist products, was entrusted to the talents of Pininfarina designers. What they have achieved is smooth lines, a neat hood-stowing arrangement and the option of an electrically powered hood. Torsional stiffness has been increased by strength ening the windscreen surround and beefing up the platform, thus eliminating the need for a roll-over hoop.

Volkswagen, also showing a brand new cabriolet in the same sector of the market, decided that it would retain a roll bar. It has also brought the Golf Cabrio to market with a more straightforward folding hood arrangement that requires a separate soft cover to be fitted manually over the lowered unit.

The Golf Cabrio is the work of Karmann, the company that created the soft-top Beetle almost 50 years ago and which was responsible for no fewer than 392,000 examples of the Mark I Golf Convertible - making it by far Europe's open-topped market leader.

Professor Ulrich Seiffert, head of engineering at Volkswagen, insists that the roll bar is a positive safety feature, along with the standard driver's and passenger's airbags, ABS, side impact beams and height adjustable seat belts.

The end result might be considered less elegant than the Peugeot 306, the Fiat Punto or the Renault 19 Convertible with which it will also compete. But Volkswagen might counter by pointing to the torsional stiffness of the Golf Cabrio - which Professor Seiffert claims is best in the class.

Cabriolets may be popular in Britain, but a far more important development in all sectors of the market has been the recent explosion in demand for diesels. Sales are up over 60 per cent so far this year, with the French manufacturers Citroen, Peugeot and Renault selling strongly, but it is Vauxhall which is really setting the pace, with sales of diesel cars up 124 per cent in 1992 and a further 142 per cent in the first half of 1993. Vauxhall now offers buyers the choice of 11 body styles, 11 trim levels and six engines ranging from the 1.5D in the Corsa to the 2.3TD fitted to the Carlton and Frontera.

Even the least powerful performs well: the 50PS Corsa 1.5D still has a 94mph top speed and a 0-60 time of 18 seconds. Yet its fuel consumption is a truly outstanding 45.6mpg Urban, 70.6mpg at 56mph and 49.6mph at 75mph.

Vauxhall diesels are available in every model in the range except the sporty Calibra and executive Senator, but in the all-important medium sector, the choice is second to none: no fewer than 17 Astra diesel models are available, specified as 3- or 5-door hatch, saloon or estate, with 1.7D and 1.7TD engines and three different trim levels.

Meanwhile, Citroen with the ZX, now widely regarded as the class leading medium hatchback in terms of performance, specification, style and price, Peugeot with the 306, and Renault with the 19 hatchbacks, are concentrating far harder on diesel models than on GTis.

Fiat still offers the crackerjack 2.0-litre 16-valve Tipo which has a heady combination of high performance and pin-sharp handling, but far more relevant in its recently revised Tipo line-up are the less powerful petrol versions and the 1.9TD turbo diesel, priced approximately pounds 400 below the models they replace.

Many manufacturers - Renault and Volkswagen included - have also 'realigned' their price lists to reduce prices in the hard-fought medium hatchback sector.

There's plenty of choice for those with cash in their pockets. But some visitors to the Show might choose to save their money until next February after seeing the Honda Civic Coupe which is due to be launched at Earl's Court and reach UK showrooms next year. Built in the United States, it is a sleek, smooth and affordable 1.5-litre coupe, with prices reckoned to be around pounds 10,000.