Motor Show 1993: The need for security has changed priorities: Martin Derrick reports on the new developments in car safety that have been prompted by the demands of purchasers

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The Independent Online
IF OUTRIGHT performance and the flaunting of wealth were the icons of the automotive world in the 1980s, the coming of the recession has radically changed what the all-important customer sees as his or her main priorities in the 1990s.

One of the considerations rising higher up buyers' lists of priorities is car security, at a time when crime rates are soaring. And such is the competition in the motor industry that all manufacturers are having to take note of - and respond to - those changing customer demands, far faster than they have ever done before.

Six years ago, the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) first introduced its Anti-Theft Award to persuade manufacturers to do more to make it harder to break into and steal cars.

One of Britain's leading manufacturers' submissions for the award read along the lines of: 'Thousands of customers buy the cars as we produce them now. Therefore we must be producing the cars customers want. Therefore there is no need to introduce better locks, alarms or immobilisers.'

Happily, that company's arrogance was not shared by all, in particular Vauxhall - the winner of the first award and a winner three times since - has shown not only that it is possible to improve security considerably and cost-effectively, but also to use that increased security as a positive marketing benefit.

Almost every Vauxhall model is now fitted with a formidable array of theft prevention equipment and many improvements to the specification of all models were made in 1992, which made Vauxhall once again the clear winner of the latest BVRLA Anti-Theft Award.

Vauxhall was also commended for the introduction of a comprehensive anti-theft package available on the Astra van at a time when thefts of commercial vehicles are also causing great concern.

The judges took into consideration the fact that more than pounds 1.2m was spent by Vauxhall in 1992 on consumer advertising designed to create greater awareness of the need for theft prevention.

Vauxhall has spent pounds 16m to date on research and development costs on dead lock and alarm systems, and none of it is going to waste, judging by the results of a recent pan-European survey carried out by Europcar.

This reveals that 41 per cent of British motorists have personally experienced car theft or vandalism, with theft from the car being the most common crime.

Of those affected, 51 per cent have experienced stolen contents, 36 per cent have had their vehicles stolen and 30 per cent have been the victims of car vandalism. It is no wonder that security is of major importance to today's car buyers.

Citroen has responded by fitting new keypad immobilisers and two-way alarms - already standard on most XM and Xantia cars - to many of its ZX models. This makes the ZX the first car in its class to enjoy such protection.

Many other manufacturers are now beginning to fit more secure locks, alarms and immobilisers and there is also a healthy after-sale market in security-related items. One of the more interesting recent developments, offered by the AA, uses silent homing signal technology to defeat the thieves.

Called Tracker, the system consists of a hidden transponder which, once activated when the car is reported stolen, allows the police to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of the vehicle.

'Car crime dominates the crime figures, threatens lives and plays a significant part in road accident statistics,' says John Newing, Chief Constable of Derbyshire. 'Tracker has a proven record and will provide an opportunity to improve recovery and catch offenders. By reducing car crime, it will help improve police effectiveness generally.'

A second important buying consideration is now the safety of modern cars. The preoccupation centres upon passive safety - the protection offered in case of an impact - rather more than on active safety - the ability to avoid an accident in the first place thanks to ABS brakes, or improved handling, or improved tyre technology, for example.

As far as passive safety goes, almost all leading manufacturers now offer airbags either as standard or as optional features, while most new cars also get the added protection of side-impact beams to provide greater protection to the doors.

What cannot be seen is under the skin of the latest models, where highly sophisticated CAD/CAn technology allows manufacturers to greatly improve the solidity of the passenger cell while ensuring that as much as possible of the force involved in an impact is absorbed by other parts of the car.

At any big motor show, the concept cars now concentrate not on high-performance pipe dreams, but on environmentally sensitive small vehicles producing minimal emissions - reflecting another preoccupation with the car buying public of the 1990s.

While it is generally accepted that no car can be 100 per cent environmentally green, there is much that can still be done to improve matters without taking away the fundamental advantages of personal transport.

Electric cars remain some years away because battery technology has still not yet reached the point of providing good performance and reasonable range.

But the continuing emphasis on refining current petrol and diesel engine technology to produce still greater efficiency and still fewer emissions continues - as can be seen on the Citroen stand at the London Motor Show where their AX-ECO reveals how 100mpg together with minimal emissions is now possible.

This car will never go into production because its Kevlar body panels, while showing the potential of lightweight construction, would be far too expensive for a volume car.

But Audi will next year launch an all-aluminium car which takes the potential of recycling a big step further and offers the benefits of lightweight construction which in turn improves fuel consumption considerably.

There is still a long way to go before the motor industry can boast it has come up with a totally safe, secure and green car, but the pace of development is hotting up.