PARIS - The City of Light, known around the world for its beauty, romance and style, celebrated the centennial of the Paris Motor Show with two days of fanfare for the motoring press and more than a week of celebration for the public.
In 1898, Renault 's two-cylinder Clement and the Peugeot Type 3, with seats for four and a wicker basket for stowage, arrived by horse and wagon at the first Motor Show, now held biannually in the fall. For 1998, 38 manufacturers from around the world brought nearly 800 makes -- transported by land, air and sea -- to Mondial de L'Automobile. Each automaker in its own way did its utmost to highlight and introduce new '99 products as well as reveal its voitures (cars) of the future. Consequently, there were more than 30 world premieres of models soon to be on the street, plus fantasy cars the world's automakers might be offering at some future Paris Motor Show.
At first glance, this show appears similar to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit but with the feel of a world exposition. There are eight buildings chock-full of displays of new cars, historical cars, motorsports, and utility vehicles. This being Paris, there’s also plenty of champagne, showmanship and attractive, scantily clad, dancing females that add an air of festivity to the sheet metal glistening on the turntables.
Few SUVs in sight
Dramatically different from the top American show, however, is the conspicuous absence of sport-utility vehicles and light trucks - often among the main attractions at the Detroit show. Frankly, there were few to be found on the turntables at the Paris show or on Europe's highways. Just a handful of manufacturers even showed a traditional sport-ute. And only one - Nissan - parked a personal truck (its new four-door extended cab) on its stand.
While this fastest-growing segment of the market in the U.S. accounts for nearly half of all new vehicles sold in North America today, the European market is consistently driven toward small fuel-sipping cars by the cost of fuel, as well as the practical needs of European car owners. High gas prices (approaching $5 a gallon in the U.K.), overcrowded roadways, cities with limited parking, plus additional taxes on vehicles with large engine sizes and/or horsepower ratings have dictated a market dominated by models with less sheet metal and small engines. Such conditions have done a good job of limiting the number of burly SUVs and trucks equipped with gas-guzzling V-6 or V-8 engines.
While a number of manufacturers are showing off their small hybrid models, designed as all-terrain leisure vehicles, many take the form and size of everyday cars or small passenger vans.
Land Rover's new Discovery, now called the Discovery Series II in the U.S., and Suzuki's Grand Vitara (in turbodiesel version here ) were the only new mainstream SUV models introduced in Paris that will also be sold in the North American market.
Mercedes unveils M-Class
Mercedes used the Paris show to display its smaller-engine M-Class, the ML 320, which has been a sellout in America. This version is a bit of a stretch in Europe, while across the ocean American buyers are eagerly clamoring for the new V-8 version, the ML 430, just now hitting showroom floors. (Note: Labbe SA has outfitted the M-Class with armor plating to withstand AK-47s - a version not likely to reach the American market any time soon.)
Mitsubishi's 4x4 Pajero Sport, marketed as the Montero in the U.S., was upgraded for the world market as well and shown at the Paris show.
Other models on display are intended for European buyers only. They include ARO France's 4x4 Crosslander (a five-door diesel prototype); Peugeot's 206 Escapade, a three-door, all-terrain station wagon; Opel's three- or five-door Fontera 4x4 leisure vehicle; Land Rover's 4x4 Defender model with a new turbodiesel engine; Skoda's Felica Fun, a mini-four-seat "pickup for the outdoors" with a 75-horsepower engine; Subaru's turbo version of the all-wheel-drive Forester; and Suzuki's "Jimny," a three-door 4x4 leisure vehicle.