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2006 Mondial de l'Automobile Paris
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Introduction
Click here to open the slideshowThere is little modesty in the official name of the Paris Motorshow; ‘Mondial de l’Automobile’ and the organizers claim that the bi-annual show is the biggest in the world. Of course it’s not so much the quantity, but the quality of a show that makes it really special. ‘Paris’ usually manages to combine these two very well as the designers seem to go one step further when working on a car to be launched in the world’s most glamorous capital. It's not surprising that the French manufacturers take centre stage, but they still have to work very hard to grab the attention they desire. They achieved their goal once again with a colourful mix of concept cars and striking new racers. We spent two days on the vast grounds of the Centre d’Exposition and returned with heads and laptops full of impressions, which have been compressed in the following report and 310-shot slideshow.

French fest
The French were the first to use the automobile to go racing and a century later they are still very good at it. Renault is the current F1 constructor’s and driver’s champion, Citroen holds both crowns in rallying and Peugeot used Paris to unveil more details of their assault on Endurance Racing. The 1:1 model of the diesel engined 908 HDi that will take to the track next year is easily the most eye-pleasing prototype racer launched in recent years. They will however have to deal with Audi, which has an unprecedented stronghold on Le Mans racing in recent years. The Peugeot 908 model was flanked by the Spider 207, which will be available to customers from March 2007 and looks set to form the basis for a one-model race series to support the Le Mans Series. There was related news from the Porsche stand where the production version of the RS Spyder LMP2 racer was on display; it is available for potential customers as of now. No cars have been sold yet, but Porsche is talking to several interested parties from both Europe and North America.
Another trademark of the French automotive industry apart from racing success is the consistently unique designs. Many of the styling cues found on concept cars of yesterday have made their way on the production cars of today, and as Renault have proven in recent years; not without success. Their Nepta concept on display in Paris may look like a conventional four seater convertible however closer inspection reveals it has a rather unusual touch to it: the doors. The two large ‘gullwing’ doors not only give access to the passenger compartment, but also to the engine bay. Under the smooth bodywork a front-engined rear wheel drive platform is hidden, which might suggest a future drivetrain direction for the French manufacturer.
Peugeot celebrated the launch of the 908 Le Mans car with the 908 RC Concept that shares the HDi V12 engine with LMP1 racer. Despite being mid-engined, the 908 RC is a four-door luxury saloon. This is made possible by mounting the powerplant transversely behind the rear seats. It all seems to fit, but spoils the proportions and of all the French concepts this was our least favourite.
Citroen used to excel in producing unique-looking and very comfortable road cars, but in the 1990's they had forgotten how to do the former. Fortunately they are back to their old quirky originality with cars like the C4 and C6. Their Paris concept, the C-Metisse is both visually and technically very interesting. Like the Peugeot 908 RC, it is a four-door saloon, but with the correct proportions, other than there is very little ‘normal’ about the design, which is dominated by huge scoops front and rear. Under the long bonnet nestles the familiar HDi V6 engine driving the front wheels. It is complemented by two electro motors, one in each rear wheel. This hybrid-diesel system should be even more economical than the petrol-hybrid system produced by the Japanese companies. It may not be a beauty queen but the Citroen C-Metisse is plain outrageous; enough to be our favourite French debutant.

German Muscle
"More is better" seems to be the norm that dominates German engineering more than ever these days. The horsepower and size war between BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi has led to 500 bhp engines being no exception any more. With their AMG-badged models, Mercedes Benz looks keen to continue the trend. Here in Paris they livened up the introduction of the new CL class with the unveiling of the 525 bhp CL 63 AMG. It was flanked on stage by the 650 bhp ‘722’ edition of the SLR McLaren model.
At Audi things seem to have cooled down a little and we were glad to hear that the all-aluminum R8 model comes standard with a V8 engine producing ‘only’ 420 bhp. There is a lot more to building a proper sportscar than just fitting a powerful engine and judging from the R8, Audi is well aware of this. It combines relatively small dimensions with plenty of interior space and should rival the best Porsche or any of the Italian cars offered in this segment.

Land of the rising sun
Japan is commonly referred to as ‘the land of the rising sun’ and at the Toyota stand they took this quite literally by presenting their latest concept in gold. Derived from the latin word 'Aurun' meaning gold, the Auris is the fore-runner of the upcoming Corolla replacement. At the press conference it was hinted that after a dozen or so generations, the old name may finally be replaced. So in the future the best selling car in the world could very well not be a Corolla, but 'Gold' instead. The design of the Auris is not quite as bold as its rival the Honda Civic, but it is good looking nonetheless.
Honda’s Type R badge is one of the best known performance indicators in the world, although not original on many of the cars sporting them today. On the Honda stand the wraps were taken off a brand new (and real) one; the Civic Type R. It combines the much acclaimed aesthetics of the current generation Civic with the familiar 200 bhp VTEC four cylinder engine to create a very hot hatch.

Italian flair
More than any other people, the Italians seem to produce and enjoy the finer things in life. They have used their artistic flair to produce some of the most beautiful designs ever turned to metal, or more recently carbon fibre. In Paris Alfa Romeo and Pininfarina showed once more that there is still no equal. Alfa Romeo did the best they could to hide the 8C Competizione road car in a dark and glass covered box. They made it somewhat difficult to admire (and shoot for that matter) the beautiful lines, but it was impossible to hide the fact that the 8C was the most desirable production car on display in Paris.
‘C’est magnifique’ is an expression that will probably be heard around the Pininfarina stand many times each day of the show. The reason why is the stunning Ferrari P4/5, which was revealed for the first time at Pebble last month. On the Pinifarina stand we caught up with owner and instigator Jim Glickenhaus, who had already been interviewed by television channels from around the globe. He talked about a recent test at Pininfarina’s test track near Paris where the car was shaken. Jim was most impressed with the laps he did in the passenger seat while Rene Arnoux took him around at high speed. And no the top speed and acceleration were not tested as Glickenhaus understandably does not care about these figures; it drives well and that’s what matters to the American. The general public will have to make do with a full sized model of the car as it will be shipped home to New York for the first time on Tuesday where it will be enjoyed by its happy owner before winter falls. The P4/5 by Pininfarina should be back in Europe for two or three events next year though.

Final thoughts
Despite the dark clouds hanging over the industry, the atmosphere in Paris was still very optimistic. And why wouldn’t it be? The automobile is still the most practical unit of transportation and there are few things more enjoyable than buying and driving a new car. It's also great to see that all manufacturers are looking at solutions to make the cars more environmentally friendly and before the end of the decade there should be more alternatives than just the Toyota and Honda Hybrids. The next generation vehicles are also maintaining attractive stylings despite the stricter safety requirements restricting designers and their artistic freedom. If anything, Paris has shown that the future is in fact still very bright for this industry that brings joy and transportation to all of us.

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Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Pieter Melissen and Wouter Melissen for Ultimatecarpage.com.