Spring Collection

Journalists once scrambled to scoop manufacturers. Lately, the tables have been turned, says Mike Cotton.

Ask any senior figure in the motor industry, and he’ll tell you that the spring is the wrong time to hold a motor show. It’s halfway through the model year, too soon to show next year’s novelties, too premature to judge the state of the market, too busy making and selling cars to attend an international fair. Geneva though, that’s different!

Increasingly, manufacturers are drawn to Geneva to show off new concepts, new ideas, new sporty cars — and to separate rumour from reality. “It will be nice to drive the XJ8 in daylight without a disguise,” said one senior Jaguar executive after the new V8-powered sports coupe had been unveiled.

Although the Jaguar won’t be sold until October — and there will be a convertible alongside, due for announcement at this month’s New York Show — it is time to get some solid orders in the bank, and to spoil the fun of the long-lens photo-scoopers.

When Sir William Lyons announced the E-type in Geneva 35 years ago, he denied almost up to the last minute that Jaguar planned to launch a new product, a poker game he loved to play with motoring writers who didn’t quite dare to call his bluff.

One sheet of paper was all that Jaguar gave away this time, and it said almost nothing of the XK8’s specification. Let us fill in some gaps. It has a completely new all-aluminium 4-litre V8 engine, with double overhead camshafts and an output of around 280 horsepower.

The gearbox is a ZF 5-speed automatic, no manual will be available, and the XK8 will have traction control and ABS braking. The rest, we will have to learn just prior to the launch in the autumn.

There is a likeness to the highly acclaimed Aston Martin DB7, which started out on Jaguar’s drawing boards at Whitley, Coventry. Styling director Geoff Lawson is ready to face the critics in robust style:

“Architecturally the XK8 is similar to the DB7 but the Jaguar’s character is totally different. The Aston Martin is a more sporting car, more masculine, while the Jaguar is more feline.

“The new XK8 is a blend of many Jaguars. There is quite a lot of the F-type, which was stillborn, of the XJ220, and there are strong hints of the E-type.”

The Jaguar is this year. . . BMW’s Z3 M-sport will come in 1997, and will be hugely in demand. It will be the most exciting sports car to come from the Munich company since the M1 went out of production in 1980, and will surely be more successful commercially.

The M-sport version was shown strictly as a concept with no promise of a future — but how could BMW’s directors ignore the demand? We can glean that it will be built in Spartanburg alongside the Z3, although with the M3’s 3.2 litre six-cylinder engine installed. Flared wheel arches, sports wheels and an upgraded interior will be integrated into the specification.

It will come first to Germany next Spring, at around DM90,000, and later to the rest of Europe. It will then be followed by a Z3 Sport Hatch, a coupe model powered by the 190bhp ‘six’. Forty grand, did I hear you say ? It won’t be any less in Britain, probably nearer £50,000 by the time ‘extras’ are added and tax is paid.

Lamborghini emerged from the shadows with two superb variations on the Diablo, the Roadster and the Sport Veloce (SV). The SV will be seen in action at Le Mans on Saturday June 15, when the first round of a one-make ‘gentleman’s racing series’ takes place: six more rounds will support the BPR Organisation’s GT series, one at Brands Hatch in September.

Could you afford one? Not if £124,950 is beyond your budget, but Lamborghini has Slashed £25,000 off the VT’s price by driving the rear wheels only and taking out the air conditioning.

The Weight is down to 1,550kg, still 50% higher than a top GT1 car, but that doesn’t deter Gerard Larrousse who hopes to represent Lamborghini in the BPR series later this year. Power is up 10% to 550bhp, and you have to wonder why the VT needs a cumbersome 4WD system in the first place!

The Roadster was previewed at Geneva last year, but is now on the market in production form with aggressive styling by Marcello Gandini. It can be driven with the roof in place, with the roof stowed above the engine cover, or with the roof left at home. You would be surprised at how different in character the Roadster is in these different forms” says chief executive Michael Kimberley.

Gandini was also responsible for the de Tomaso-Bigua, a bland and undistinguished car that shares the aluminium backbone chassis of the Guara, launched three years ago, and is almost equally featureless. Powered by a Ford of America 4.6-litre V8 worth 305bhp, the Bigua is supposed to be the spiritual successor to the Pantera, but is wide of the mark.

Lotus had a show to remember, with the Esprit V8 finally reaching the platform more than 20 years after Colin Chapman first spoke of his V8 dream, and the Elise almost ready for production.

And yet, the floor show was marred by the political realities. Rod Mansfield, the nearest Lotus will ever get to replacing Chapman’s engineering acumen, was unceremoniously pitched out of the chief executive’s office after a brief six month tenure, and hard-pressed Romano Artiohi was actively seeking yet another buyer for the Norfolk concern.

Lotus executives vigorously denied that Daewoo was already the new owner, but these things change by the hour. History will judge that Artioli was not the saviour that Lotus hoped for (Bugatti, indeed, is said to owe Lotus Engineering a cool £4.5 million for services rendered), but a new owner will take control of a low-debt, highly engineered company ready to capitalise on investment.

If there are not already enough MPVs available from Renault, Ford, Volkswagen, Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat, Lancia and Seat (most of the last seven with an awful lot in common), both GM Vauxhall and Mercedes-Benz will launch their variants on the British market in 1997.

Both the Mercedes Viano and the Vauxhall Sintra will be made in America. Whether or not they have distinct advantages over the Euro-MPV, they will retain the loyalty of their customers and keep their dealers happy.

Who could fail to love the Renault Fiftie? It’s a modern concept with strong historic connections, celebrating the launch of the Renault 4CV in 1946 when echoes of Allo, Allo had hardly died away. But the Renault lozenge is sharper and shinier these days, and the Fiftie is based on the Sport Spider’s aluminium girder chassis, clothed in carbon bodywork. Power comes from an entirely new 1147cc four-cylinder engine intended for the Twingo and Clio, a very light motor at 82kg, which is 20% less than the familiar D7F. Items such as the air filter and injection rail are incorporated into the design, saving space and weight.

Nedcar. There’s a boring-sounding organisation, and the bland, boxy Access did nothing to restore flagging spirits. But the promotional vehicle is a five-door semi-estate, a little bigger than a VW Golf and is surprisingly light at 850kg.

It was built by the Volvo and Mitsubishi Dutch subsidiary to promote the concept of the aluminium chassis and alu-honeycomb bodywork. All this has been done before, the Nederlanders must know, but their power unit is an entirely new 1.7-litre modular ‘four which is only half the weight of a conventional engine.

It was back to the future with Rinspeed, the Swiss tuner with the retro Yello Talbo drawing the crowds like a magnet. Yello because it’s yellow, Talbo because it recalls the design of the Talbot Lego 150 SS, one of the most futuristic cars of the prewar era. Power, if you need to know, comes from a supercharged Ford of America V8 engine, a 5-litre unit with 320 horsepower available.

The stolid Swedes stepped out with an adventurous pair of concept cars based on the Saab 900, a coupe and a convertible designed by… ah yes, a Norwegian named Einar Hariede.

“I wanted to show that the basic design of the 900 model has a lot of potential for the future” says Hariede, who knows full well that they’ll become mainstream models in 1997.

Saab has re-established its Special Vehicles Operation in Trollhatten, and the 900 concept cars are powered by high torque, 250bhp versions of the four-cylinder turbo engine.

Ital Design’s Formula 4 concept is a buggy vehicle based on the Fiat Bravo. The bodywork is detachable, and is almost irrelevant since the Formula 4 is designed to be a modular car with sports, saloon, coupe or estate car bodywork to the customer’s choice.

Giorgio Giugiaro has even shown Fiat a single-seater enveloping body that would be suitable for one-make racing.

If you want to drive round Tuscany, there’s nothing better than the Peugeot 406-based Toscano. So say the designers, an in-house team who transformed the much praised family car into an aero-screened roadster, widening it by four centimetres, lowering it, and adding an integrated full width rear wing which makes the French product look adventurous.

Franco Sbarro usually comes up with some wacky offering, but his lssimo Alfa Romeo made sense. It was the product of his engineering and styling school students, and the first point of interest was the Bimotore supplied by Alfa Romeo. A pair of 3-litre V6s joined by the crankshaft, the 6-litre V12 must have prodigious power (assuming it works) which goes to the wheels through a Tiptronic control Porsche 928 transaxle.

The plastic body is mounted on the steel ladder frame chassis by four pairs of Monroe pneumatic struts, similar to modern engine mounts. These are computer controlled to keep the body level and stiffly mounted no matter what the chassis is doing — a reactive ride in other words.

lsotta Fraschini is an old, hallowed name brought back into the world by Italian businessmen who have established a factory in southern Italy, with government grants because it replaces a former armaments arsenal.

From guns and rockets to German origin motor cars, the lsotta Fraschini T8 is based entirely on the Audi A8 quattro platform and running gear. The styling is unfortunate, but if the new company can find the market they plan to make 800 cars this year, rising to 5,000 in 1998.

Aston Martin will make only 20 of the new V8 Coupes this year, a realistic target for the Vantage lookalike without the superchargers … and £38,000 less expensive to buy. The 5,3-litre Virage engine has been honed to produce 350bhp, and the price has been set at £139,500.

Hyundai took a further step into the world arena with the Lantra-based Coupe, a sinewy two-plus-two which looks set to challenge the Calibre, the Probe and the MX-5. It’s curvaceous, though not every curve blends comfortably, but it looks very dynamic and Porsche has sorted out the suspension. Power is from a 2-litre twin-cam developing 138bhp, and the advanced specification includes electrically assisted power steering.

Zagato presented the Lamborghini based Raptor ‘dream car’, a concept for this summer’s Pebble Beach Show. The key feature of the sleek coupe is the pivot at the base of the windscreen, allowing the body centre section to tilt upwards and forwards for access.

Bertone seems not to be on top form, unveiling the Slalom two-box coupe based on the Calibre turbo 4WD platform. It’s futuristic, but not easy on the eye, with a wrap-round windscreen merging into the side windows.

Ford’s answer to the Tigra lies in the Lynx, a conceptual roadster based on the Fiesta. It has some redeeming features but wears a sardonic smile at both ends, reminding us that styling is a very personal matter.

Its not easy to tell whether the Volkswagen Concept car is coming or going, now that it has a panoramic glass top that makes it look the same at both ends. Now officially called “the new Beetle”, it enters production in 1997, has the Syncro 4WD system and is powered by a 1.9-litre turbo diesel.

Of more immediate interest, VW introduce the 100bhp 1.4-litre engine to the Polo and Golf ranges, though not for Britain until the autumn. Variable geometry intake manifold design improves the torque, to a very reasonable 94Ib ft at just 4400rpm.

It was surprising just how much the big manufacturers are prepared to show us of their future model lines, a far cry from Sir William Lyons response. “New car? First I’ve heard of it” five minutes before the lights went up.