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Car confidential: Next big thing will be small

Pick-up trucks to dwarf bungalows, 4x4s smashing through glass doors, squillion-horsepower ‘pony cars’ chasing Ford’s Mustang – Detroit ’06 delivered the all-American motor show experience. But amid all the bulk and brawn, a small sports car revival is under way, whose impact will be felt in Europe.

Ford predicts America’s small cars will take 30% of the market by 2008, and it fully intends to ride that wave. After last year’s supermini-MPV concept – the not-to-be-sneezed-at Synus – came the Reflex coupé, a Puma for the 21st century.

This made Japan’s Detroit offerings – a booted Toyota Yaris and Honda’s Jazz – look staid. It’s a clean, swooping sports car, measuring just under 4m long. Minus its gullwing doors and hybrid diesel, the Reflex looks production feasible.

Even more so when you consider that Ford’s offering has to take on the Mini. The Brit import has regenerated the small car market, along with the boxy MPV and small coupé of Toyota’s Scion youth brand. It won’t be easy for blue collar domestic brands to match the Mini’s chic, foreign appeal and its heritage. But a gorgeous, sporty car like the Reflex would have the best chance.

Blue Oval insiders weren’t giving much away, but surely the Reflex would be part of the new Fiesta programme, especially given Ford’s skill at sweeping its volume brands into shared platforms. It’s the biggest hint yet that European dealers could have a sporty offering around 2009.

Within eyeshot of Ford’s stand, Mazda unveiled the Kabura, an MX-5-based front-engined/rear-drive coupé. Officials stressed the two coupés were mere coincidence. Mazda is keen to build the spiritual successor to the MX-3, which could provide another avenue for Ford to explore the Reflex, although at a higher price point.

The MX-5 will come under attack from Nissan within a couple of years, as shown by the Urge concept, a small roadster based on the next-generation 350Z. With Nissan committed to making every car go global, expect the four-cylinder Urge in dealerships here around 2008.

Dodge launches the Caliber hatch and a Freelander rival in Europe in 2007. But sources admit the firm is actively exploring a supermini. Could another alliance with Mitsubishi be just around the corner?

So the premium small car market is hotting up. But Mini won’t be loosening its grip without a fight. Showing its Clubman concept for the third time at Detroit, Mini confirmed that the wagon would make production. Let battle commence.

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