Motor Show 1993: Small cars are rapidly becoming big business: Efficient production boosts choice, writes Martin Derrick

THE CURRENT European Car of the Year is the British-built Nissan Micra, and the runner-up for the prestigious 1993 Award was the Fiat Cinquecento; this month the 40 jurors are submitting their votes for the 1994 Car of the Year - and the Fiat Punto and the Vauxhall Corsa are two of the leading contenders.

Perhaps never before have small car buyers had it so good. As well as these brand-new offerings, they might also consider the Ford Fiesta and Rover Metro, the Citroen AX, Peugeot 106 and Renault Clio from France, the VW Polo from Germany, Seat Ibiza from Spain, and several offerings from Japan of which the recently improved and facelifted Daihatsu Charade is probably the leading contender.

Small cars are rapidly becoming big business. The difficulty the manufacturers have to overcome is that in general, smaller cars do not cost much less to manufacture, distribute and market than larger cars; margins, therefore, are inevitably tight.

That is why the Japanese, while restricted in volume in the UK market, chose not to import the micro cars that have been built in Japan for decades in order to get round that country's bizarre taxation and car parking regulations. Why bring in small cars and make small profits when you can import larger cars and make larger profits?

European companies are having to find ways to design and build small cars profitably. So, for example, Fiat's response to the challenges of the 1990s is to spend no less than dollars 38bn in an investment programme to bring 18 new models to the marketplace and renew almost all its factories.

Already one of the world leaders in factory automation, Fiat's emphasis for the 1990s goes beyond the installation of yet more robots. 'Striving for top levels of efficiency in our factories and the use of automation are important, but not enough,' says Fiat Auto's managing director, Paolo Cantarella.

Organisational structures also had to be revised and responsibility had to be delegated downwards so quality levels could be improved and production costs lowered through the introduction of true simultaneous engineering.

The Fiat Punto, being shown in Britain for the first time at the London Motor Show, is critically important, says Mr Cantarella. Not only is it replacing the bestselling Uno, but it is also the first Fiat model derived from this new technological and production thinking.

What the Punto shows is that the combination of simultaneous engineering and highly efficient manufacturing not only permit manufacturers to build small cars profitably, but also to offer far greater choice of models to their customers.

A similar situation can be seen at Vauxhall/Opel, where less than a year after the initial launch of the three and five-door Corsa, the company is already able to offer both automatic transmission and new diesel derivatives. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, no less than three Corsa-based prototypes were displayed: the Tigra coupe, the Roadster two-seats sports model, and the Scamp recreational vehicle. All can be put into production very quickly if public reaction is favourable.

Largely due to the Corsa's runaway success, Vauxhall is now nipping at the heels of Ford, the market leader, and looks likely to overtake its arch rival.

But despite the state-of-the-art technical specification of models such as the Micra, Cinquecento, Punto and Corsa, despite their modern style and brilliantly packaged interiors, despite their sparkling performance, their greatly improved safety attributes, their low fuel consumption, recyclability, and low emissions, there are still those who love the old classics - and thus the evergreen Mini is still finding buyers.