2010 Paris Auto Show: Think Small, Act Fast, Go Blue

September 30, 2010

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."

Think small

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.

Act fast

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.

The need for speed didn't single out Italian exotic makers, though. The production-minded Lotus Elite gets power the old-fashioned way, from a big V-8 engine purchased from Lexus, inserted into a striking, but also derivative shape. BMW's big two-door, the 6-Series Coupe, already makes astonishing power in its current form--and a twin-turbo V-8 is likely under the hood of the lightly veiled "concept."

Go blue

Above all, the Paris show proved that electric cars and plug-in hybrids are coming to car buyers around the world, and soon--and with no guarantees of sales success. The Expo floor was festooned with electric and hybrid supercars, from all corners of the car industry. Lotus introduced no fewer than six cars, most of which offered some sort of hybrid or plug-in electrified powerplants, helped along with a technical cooperation with Toyota.

A pair of French exotics, the Citroen Survolt and the Renault DeZir, crossed streams at exactly the same "blue" target. In automotive terms, "green" is about improving emissions; "blue" is about removing them entirely from the equation with electric power. The DeZir sported the usual gullwings and racy red paint, but also an EV drivetrain that leverages the company's big plans for electric cars with Nissan--as in the 2011 Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence EV sedan. The Survolt? It's more a motorsports concept car with the same blue promises--not to mention an en garde name that implies Citroen thinks it can teach GM a thing or two about electrifying drivers. And audiences.

No doubt, the stunner of the Paris show combined blue power with raw power, and an arresting sense of style. Beautifully detailed in aluminum, chrome and brown leather, the Jaguar C-X75 concept celebrates the marque's 75th year in business, and casts it with a new mission. It's an electric car with 68 miles of driving range; it's a range-extended EV like the Chevy Volt, with its pair of microturbines that generate new power for the lithium-ion batteries when they're tapped out. And it's an exotic in every other sense of the word, with its 200-mph top speed and a 0-60 mph time of 3.5 seconds.

It just could dispel the notion of dull, short-lived EVs forever. That would make history--just as this year's Paris show seems to have done.


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