Plenty of vroom as long as it's Green

The Motor Show must confound any environmentalist's hopes that the automobile is destined for extinction. Jonathan Glancey looks at our love affair with the car; If the car is designed to be sexy and is only fun if driven hell for leather, how will we ever learn to slow down?
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The Independent Online
The car is going about its much-vaunted demise in a determinedly perverse way. We all know that we are meant to pay lip-service, at least, to the notion that if the car has a long-term future, it will be in the guise of a tiny, recyclable, solar-powered golf-trolley, banned from city centres, and restricted to a top speed of 50mph (sorry, 80km/h). We will use this ecologically friendly, souped-up Sinclair C5 in a strictly rational manner (of course), and then only when there is no alternative form of transport in the guise of train, tram, bus, bicycle or roller-blade.

But who are "we"? It is a question worth asking, because at this year's Motor Show you will find more cars than ever before that can turn heads, attract traffic cops and are capable of blasting up to speeds of three- miles-a-minute and more. Macho muscle cars abound, from the AC Cobra to the Lamborghini Diablo, and that's only half-way through the A-Z of contemporary car makers.

There are several cars that are even capable of topping 200mph and one or two that will snap at the slicks of a Formula One racer. The McLaren F1 (a snip at pounds 635,500) runs out of Bavarian-engineered puff at a little over 230mph. Handy, no doubt, for little Johnny's school run and those habitually late for work.

Of course these are exceptional cars designed for exceptionally well- off (or perverse) people and have little to do with the world of mass motoring. Even so, their proliferation is a notable phenomenon at a time when the car is said to be on its way out.

The truth is that the car is unlikely to be phased out from our lives as quickly as some environmentalists would like. Cars, and certainly cars powered by petrol or diesel engines, might well be banned from city centres in the not too distant future, and this makes certain sense as long as there is an investment in high-quality public transport.

But the problem of the car does not stop there. For, even if it possible to devise cars that neither pollute nor encourage us to drive too fast, the problem of there being too many cars on our crowded roads beyond the city centre will still need to be solved. If everyone wants a car or has a right to one, where are they all going to go? Fume-free motorway jams might be better than smokey ones, but they would still be a mindless inefficiency.

Assuming that the car is here to stay in one form or another for the medium term, perhaps we can at least tame our urge to drive far and fast. If the car is designed to be sexy and only fun if driven hell for leather, how will we ever learn to slow down?

By making cars that look cuter and more cuddly. This might sound silly, but it's a start and is exactly what manufacturers have been up to over the past few years in an effort to change the way we perceive the car or as a response to the way we are thinking afresh about the car. So, the cuddly, blobby, toy-like family saloon of the mid-Nineties is a world apart from the befinned, chromed and gas-guzzling Yank Tank of the mid- Fifties.

Cruisin' and playing the radio with no particular place to go might have been a hip pastime in the first flush of the rock 'n' roll era, but it sounds reprehensible now, even if some of us (repentant, but still surviving) dinosaurs secretly enjoy the same petrol-headed pleasure celebrated so memorably in song by Chuck Berry in the Fifties.

At that time, the latest rolling sculpture from Motown (Detroit) was styled in the guise of jet fighters. The best cars were the fastest away from the stop lights, driven by jocks who, like Top Gun test pilots from Fort Edwards (Chuck Yeager chief among them) had what Tom Wolfe called the Right Stuff.

This gung-ho, let it all hang out, machismo school of motoring (and car design) continued throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies. Fins may have given way to Coke-bottle curves and curves into angular lines and origami-like folds, but the notion that the car was still essentially about speed, sex and power was never undermined. Even the Mini, the tiniest four-seater city car yet devised, was best known in many circles for its startling starring role (along with Michael Caine and Noel Coward) in The Italian Job where its performance was anything but civil.

Today, car makers are falling over themselves to make the car appear cosy, safe and above all Green. Stripped of its "Nought to sixty in less than seven seconds" image, the archetypal '95 saloon has turned its back on Motown and all its petrol-headed ways. In fact, no manufacturer now advertises cars on sheer speed and acceleration. Instead, they struggle to find new and different ways of saying how their latest "people carrier" or city car is as safe and as friendly as a Labrador Retriever.

Many such messages ring hollow. Take the latest generation of four-wheel- drive "off-roader", cited as a friend of our delicate eco-system. Adverts for these latter-day jeeps from Kia, Subaru, Toyota, to name but several hundred horsepowers' worth, show them parked in sylvan settings, often with a couple of expensive mountain-bikes in tow. The conceit of the adverts is to suggest that these braggadocio cars are designed for a healthy open- air life.

In fact most spend much of their time being cruised up and down city streets by urban cowboys and cowgirls in pursuit of fashionable cafes and nightclubs much as the glitzy, befinned and chromed American gas-guzzlers of the Fifties and Sixties they have replaced in the canon of motoring kitsch. And, if they do foray into the countryside, their fat tyres and prodigious four-wheel grip churn up rural byways and bucolic tracks (as, of course, do the mountain bikes they give piggy-back rides to).

Meanwhile, the corporate hack (cars that are part of today's "attractive remuneration packages"), despite claims to being sensitive to the environment, get wider, longer and faster with each speeding year. Nearly every one of the 52 currently listed versions of the Ford Mondeo has a top speed of 120mph or more and all can, and do (to judge by everyday tail-gate motorway driving) cruise at the ton. Maybe these cars are softer in shape and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. But the Top Gun spirit has yet to fade away for good.

In fact, rather than becoming simpler and lighter, too many of the cars of the Nineties are too complex for their, and our, good. The industry might pander to ecological concerns, yet it evidently feels that we want more and more gizmos, to the point where DIY car maintenance is no longer practical or even possible. We seem to need electric windows, electric seat adjusters and air-conditioning.

Contemporary saloons might bear little relation to the show-off, juke- box cars of the rock 'n' roll era, but we are, if anything, even more attached to them. They have become surprisingly comfortable second homes, escapes from office, from doing the washing up and from other people.

We are, it seems, glued firmly to the seats of our mobile fantasy worlds. The latest Fords might try to say "Goodbye Motown, hello the Centre for Alternative Technology" with their gloopy, piscine snouts and tiny, puckering mouths, but no amount of organic packaging will disguise either the ecology- baiting nature of the car nor our emotional and practical dependence on it.

BMW 3 Series Executive, 45, Fulham

You've stepped up, groomed and polished, from a Renault Clio and you are on the way to the board room, garbed in regularly dry-cleaned Armani. Mistress of the clipboard, flipchart, overhead projector and list of things-to-do, you aspire to efficiency, cleanliness and a Minimalist flat (even though daily life conspires against it). The car is a perfect statement about you (or so you would like to think): successful, aspirational, stylish

Renault Clio Retired designer, 67, Worthing

Brian said I must be trying to regain my youth or else trying to get into PR at a late age when I traded in the Saab for the Clio. But, it's a super little car and cuts quite a dash along the seafront. It's terribly well thought out - ergonomic - that's it: the very word takes me back to the Central School. Those were the days.

You hang the jacket of your sharp Hugo Boss suit on the neat coat hook over the back seat. That way you keep fresh and cool for power meetings, ready to shoot sharp lines about ball parks, USPs and FMCGs. You play squash, work out, stop at petrol stations for chewing gum, cappuccino and copies of FHM, Loaded and When Saturday Comes. You'd like to be Eric Cantona or Damon Hill.

Mitsubishi Shogun Nightclub owner, 44, N2

You've picked up a few chicks in the Shogun and know all about, what do they call it, pancreatitis? OK, so you've a few grey hairs (who hasn't?), but you still look cool in a Peter Stringfellow-kind-of-way. The Shogun looks good parked outside the club. Never been off-road with it, although it gets a run to that new golf course near Elstree.

Nissan Sunny, B-reg Clerk, 55, Bradford

You aspire to a Lexus or Merc, and if you do not manage it, at least one if not all six of your children will be thrumming up your drive in the latest Japanese or German limo in 10 years' time. You buy Nissans because they are reliable and easy to maintain, because you owned one in east Africa and rather admire the Japanese for getting on with business rather than wallowing in nostalgia. You must fix that exhaust some time.

Renault Espace TV producer, 45, Putney

John the cameraman who you made your award-winning documentary last year introduced you to the Espace. It's great for taking the kids - Pippa, Tom and Jake - on holiday (north Norfolk, Pembroke, Cornwall) and back to school. Ginny uses it on the regular Sainsbury's run; amazing what you can get into it. Makes a really great office too. Pity Roly (the labrador) was sick over the back seat.

Fiat Cinquecento Teacher, 33, Bristol

Swore by your old 2CV, but when it finally gave up the ghost after the Normandy trip, it was a new car or bust. The only one you could afford that had a bit of the 2CV magic was the Cinquecento. Stylish, classless, and agile - bit like you really. Great for the kids, too. How to have a new car and cope on pounds 18,000 a year.

Volvo 850 Estate Headmaster, 53, Berkshire

There's the dogs - Tiffin, Tommy Tucker, Mr Biff and Scrap - a bit of a squeeze, but they all pile in the Volvo for a drive out to the Downs for a Sunday walk. Some of the boys come too. The car smells a bit doggy, a bit tweedy too, or so matron said. Must be your old suit. Can't beat a good tweed suit. This one will see me to retirement, or so Susan, the wife, says. A bit like the Volvo really.

Lotus Elise Fashion student, 21, Chelsea

OK, so I got one of the first of the new Lotuses. It's like a pre-degree prezzie from daddy. For a moment I thought I might have to lose 20 grand from the trust fund, but he coughed up, which was cool, you know? Jason says the Lotus is a bit like clothing. He's on to something. Shame about the dent. Bummer, eh?

Mini Metro, Y-reg Hot-dog chef, 19, Frome

When I said I'd driven into the bank, the lads at the Whipped Goose thought I meant Barclays - done a job, like - but, what I meant was that grass bank outside Yeovil. Well, that wrote off the Reliant Robin; the Metro was pounds 100. A bit of a smoker. Like my hot dogs. I want a Cosworth Sierra with big wings.