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"The London Auto Show" is not a phrase that has been heard around Piccadilly Circus for 30 years. But this year and for the foreseeable future, the British International Auto Show is out of Birmingham and into Britain's capital city.

It's a tough time for the British auto industry. In fact, as visitors stride around the ExCeL exhibition center in the Docklands of East London, there is resignation to be read on a lot of faces.

Almost no British marques remain British-owned. Volkswagen owns Bentley. BMW owns Rolls Royce and MINI. Ford (F) owns Land Rover, Aston Martin, and Jaguar. A British group sold the bones of MG Rover to China's Nanjing Automotive last year, and now MGs will be made in three factories around the world: China, Oklahoma, and the old Longbridge factory in the British midlands.

With all that absorption of the old storied British motoring brands, London, long the crossroads of the global business community, seems at least a slightly more appropriate setting for the show than Birmingham, which was, after all, the cradle of the British auto industry.

PLASTIC SEATS. It's an appropriately big show for Ford. In addition to the British brands in its stable, it is the largest auto maker in Britain. Debuting at the London show for the first time are the Freelander2, which will sell as the LR2 in the U.S., and the XKR, the super-charged version of Jaguar's XK coupe. The new Freelander/LR2, which will arrive in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2007, is a welcome replacement for the first version, which was introduced in Britain in 1998 and the U.S. a few years later.

Though it became the best selling sport-utility vehicle in Britain, the Freelander was small, underpowered, poorly packaged, and had a nasty plastic interior that was inconsistent with Land Rover's pedigree. The SUV was the last new Land Rover developed under the old MG Rover management before the company was sold to BMW in 1994. No wonder Ford dropped the name altogether in the U.S.

The new compact SUV is part of Ford's overall strategy of greater sharing of parts and engineering costs across all of its brands. A good percentage of the underpinnings of the LR2 come from the Volvo S80, which also served as the starting point for the Ford Galaxy and S-Max crossover/minivans in Europe, as well as the Volvo XC90, Ford Five Hundred/Freestyle, and forthcoming Fairlane SUV/minivan in the U.S.

FAMILY TIES. The SUV is only two inches longer than the old model, but the spare tire has been moved from the rear door to the underfloor. Along with other design improvements, the rear storage space has now been increased by more than a third.

Interior quality is on a par with the more expensive LR3, which replaced the old Land Rover Discovery two years ago and is selling well. LR2 shares many interior switchgear and controls with the LR3, though in styling and street stance the small SUV is closer to the Range Rover Sport than the Land Rover LR3. Power for the LR2, which will compete head-to-head with the BMW X3, is a 3.2-liter straight six engine that Land Rover shares with Volvo.

That engine produces 230 horsepower and 234 foot-pounds of torque, a nifty 30% gain in power over the old model. Despite the independent suspension, Land Rover promises it will be the best off-roader in the premium compact SUV class by way of its "terrain response" system. It doesn't come cheap. Expect to pay only about 15% less than the LR2, which puts the damage to the wallet at between $33,000 and $40,000.

"EGGS WITH EDGES". The XKR is a welcome sibling to the already successful XK. For those who need a bit more speed and different body jewelry from the XK-owner down the street, the XKR comes with an engine that produces 420 hp and 413 foot-pounds of torque. While the front end of the XK tucks under the bumper, the XKR has a more aggressive front fascia that dives straight down. It also has brushed aluminum-finish grilles and side air vents, as opposed to the black trim on the XK.

Special springs and dampers, combined with changes to Jaguar's Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS) system, are meant to make the car a bit more of a roadster than a touring coupe. Both convertible and hardtop versions of the XKR will be available in the U.S. starting next spring. Expect the extras to cost about $14,000 over the cost of the most expensive XK, which is around $108,000.

But don't just gawk at the price. Look closely at the XKR, and the way its skin seems to be stretched so tightly over its bones. Jaguar chief designer Ian Callum says the same design scheme will be carried over to the next Jag S-Type and Jag XJ. The current versions of those cars, says Callum, are like "boxes with rounded off corners, while the new designs are more like eggs with edges."

BRING YOUR CLUBS. If Land Rover hopes to bother BMW's X3 with the new Freelander/LR2, BMW has an answer for the XKR with the M6 convertible which made its first appearance in London. It's the fastest BMW convertible ever built, powered by a 5.0 liter V10 engine that produces 507 horsepower. The speed of the car tops out at 155 mph, but BMW wants buyers to know that if the electronic speed governor were removed, it could easily keep going to 200 mph. Pricing will be announced in the fall.

Like the regular 6 Series, the folding soft top is arguably best in class, leaving ample luggage space, even with the top down, for a couple of big bags of golf clubs—the standard BMW sets for its coupes and Z4 roadster. Despite the more restrictive speed laws in the U.S. that might seem to limit BMW's M car sales, the U.S. is by far the biggest market, soaking up about 50% of all the M production the German company cranks out with the M3 and M5. Britain is the second biggest market.

DaimlerChrysler (DCX) has one entrant to the London show and, surprise, it's not a Mercedes. With the new 2007 Dodge Sebring, Chrysler Group is trying to expand the market for its U.S. brand cars in Europe. This is the first auto show to see the Sebring, which Chrysler will launch in the U.S. in the fall to finally take on the Honda (HMC) Accord and Toyota (TM) Camry with a midsize four-door the company feels is a viable alternative to the two Japanese juggernauts.

RENTAL CAR. It will certainly stand out from those category leaders in styling. Taking its look from the 2003 Airflite concept Chrysler showed around auto shows, the surfacing of the car—four flared front-to-back groove lines in the hood—also shows the influence of the Chrysler Crossfire. The profile of the car is the definition of bland. Though it's packaged as a standard four-door sedan, the Sebring's profile mimics the look of a five-door sedan popular only in Europe.

The rear seats will fold down flat, but it can't rightly be called a hatchback. "It's bold and we know not everybody will like it, but that's the point…to make a different statement," says Chrysler Group Chief Executive Officer Tom Lasorda. The Sebring is best known for its convertible, while the hard-top sedan has been better known on rental car lots than middle-class driveways. But Lasorda is betting the new design will change that.

The Vauxhall Corsa was introduced with an impressive display of skateboarders, rollerbladers, and bicyclists riding up and down a ramp on stage. The new design, which is expected to sell about 375,000 units in Europe next year, is aimed directly at the youth market.

MORE TO COME. The Corsa would seem to fit in well in the U.S. with the recent small-car entries like Toyota Yaris and Dodge Caliber. But so far there are no plans to bring it over. The success of the new Corsa is key to profitability at GM Europe, which hasn't made any money since 1999. (Vauxhall has been a subsidiary of General Motors (GM) since 1925.)

But the Corsa is not built for U.S. emissions and safety standards so GM will fill the low end of that market with the Korean-made Chevy Aveo. That's too bad, because the styling of the Aveo, especially the sedan, looks a bit dowdy against the new small-car competition in the U.S. GM product boss Robert A. Lutz, though, says that the next Corsa and the next Aveo are being designed and developed together on a common platform in Korea.

To see more of the highlights of the British International Auto Show: Click here for the slide show


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