The first shots will be fired by VW when it launches the Mark V Golf (right) in February. Vauxhall will be first to respond with the next-generation Astra (below) in April with Ford following up with a revised Focus during the summer of 2004.
With the Golf, buyers will be able to choose from a range of powertrains including two Euro IV compliant diesels. Prices for the entry level models are expected to start at about £11,500 – an increase over the current cars VW will justify because of additional standard kit.
Expect a 200bhp 2.0-litre unit for the Astra GSI while the Golf will respond with a 2.0-litre 200bhp engine and a 3.2-litre V6, currently in the 250bhp R32. Ford will revive the Cosworth performance badge for a 300bhp four-wheel drive successor to the RS. Money-spinning derivatives will include soft-top versions, estates, saloons, mini-MPVs and sporty three-doors.
All three platforms are new and each manufacturer is claiming improved handling and an increase in space compared with current models. Sales targets are likely to be up over last year's total figures that saw Volkswagen sell 72,362 Golf units, Vauxhall102,107 Astras and Ford 151,209 Focuses.