Of all this year's A-list auto shows, the Paris show opening this week is the lucky one. The grey mood at recent shows in Frankfurt, Detroit, and Geneva broke at the Paris Expo, with a herd of electric supercars leading the charge.
Two years ago, the raw display of power and advanced technology on the show floor might have been unimaginable. Europe's automakers were mired in recession and bitter market-share squabbles. GM and Chrysler were about to pitch into bankruptcy.
Now that the global downturn is showing signs of waning, automakers opened up their minds and wallets to show that cars--and the industry--has been changed for the better. Europeans have claimed hybrids as their own; Asian brands have chalked up big progress in wooing luxury buyers. The American car companies, Ford (NYSE:F) in particular, have placed their wagers down on a new generation of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars that are beginning to resemble more closely what the rest of the world drives.
Since the financial crisis, every global car company has learned it has to shrink its vehicles to meet fuel economy rules, to plug in to the EV zeitgeist, and to keep the sex appeal of performance intact. The new world order--at least for now, and certainly at the Paris show--translates roughly as "think small, act fast and go blue."
Downsizing has been the theme in the industry for more than a decade, but it's taken at least that long for America's automakers to figure out how to execute.
In Paris, the usual schools of small cars from makers such as Citroen and Renault, Honda, and Volkswagen found some new company. How about Lexus? The upscale brand from Toyota introduced the CT200h shortly before its on-sale date in the U.S. The five-door hatchback is sized--and some say, styled--like the Mazda3, and features a version of Toyota's hallmark hybrid powertrain. Priced to slot in near the brand's HS 250h hybrid sedan, the CT 200h gambles on an unproven notion that "sporty" and "hybrid" can co-exist under the same sheetmetal.
At Ford, the movement to smaller vehicles is mostly a one-way trip, from Europe to America. The most aggressive of the domestic car companies to unify the way it builds and markets cars, Ford showed off all the different versions of its 2012 Focus, a compact sedan, hatchback or wagon that will be sold in essentially identical forms, all around the world. It's a far cry from the highly profitable Expeditions and Explorers that funded Ford's acquisitions of Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo. All those brands are gone now--but the idea of engineering truly global cars that was seeded in 2000 with the first Focus is taking hold with the new edition. The biggest indication? The 250-horsepower Ford Focus ST will be sold in the U.S., while past hot-hatch Focuses have been withheld from American enthusiasts.
Of course, some of the small cars on the Paris show floor were more for fantasy. The Renault Twizy neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) may seem far-fetched, but it's said to be a work in progress, and seems to make perfect sense in snarled Parisian traffic.
In the depths of a recession, an extravagant supercar may sound like the worst indulgence. But the Paris show pulsed with exotica like the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, a manifesto of what the Italian car company has in mind for the future of performance and for its brand. It's not a hybrid, nor is it an electric car--but at just 2200 pounds, the carbon-fiber concept weighs about as much as a first-generation Mazda Miata. And it brings massive horsepower to the party--570 hp in all, in a concept that Lamborghini says could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds.