Amidst the biggest economic and fuel crisis of the last decades, the Mondial de l’Automobile opened its doors seemingly unaffected. The reality is quite different and closer inspection revealed many worried faces across the board. The rising oil prices were something the industry could deal with, but the credit crunch has disastrous effects. The sales figures of new cars are frighteningly low with customers unwilling to spend money or unable to get credit. Despite the dismal state of the automotive industry, sitting out one of the biggest shows in the world really was no option. All big manufacturers were present and each did their best to hide the worries with lavish displays and dozens of brand new production and concept cars. The two major trends were ‘green cars’ and ‘superminis’, which both form an answer to the challenges the industry faces. Probably appealing more to the enthusiasts were the high performance and luxury novelties of which there were quite a few.
Colin Chapman, the environmentalist
Saving fuel and the environment go hand in hand and this is best achieved by consuming as little energy as possible. Ironically that’s what racing car designers like Lotus’ Colin Chapman have been trying for over a century. His credo ‘add less weight’ is more relevant now than ever before. The most common ‘green cars’ are hybrids, which combine a conventional powertrain with an additional system of regenerative batteries to power electric motor(s). These were pioneered by Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda. Now they and in their wake many other manufacturers are trying to bring this technology to track as a marketing tool, but certainly also to get a performance advantage. At the Silverstone 1000 km race last month Peugeot rolled out the fully functional 908 HY; one of the first top level hybrid racing cars. The French manufacturer plans to race the car in the second half of 2009. This racing effort supports a mass roll-out of hybrid models from Peugeot and sister company Citroen. The latter also showed a hybrid version of the ever successful C4 WRC. Apparently it is intended to run on the electricity on the public road sections between the timed stages.
The rise in fuel prices has given the plug-in electric vehicles extra momentum. One of the most exciting of these is the American Tesla Roadster. Using a very light Lotus (yes that green manufacturer again) chassis in combination with two potent electric motors, they created a very exciting sports car. Driving one is an unusual (very quiet) experience, but the 380 Nm of torque available from 0 (zero!) rpm is something I could get very used to. The problem right now is the high price of the car and the limited range; a quick fill-up is impossible. General Motors have found a solution for at least the latter with their Chevrolet Volt. Using a petrol engine as a generator once the batteries are empty, the range of the Volt is not limited. Toyota followed suit by introducing a ‘plug-in’ version of the pioneering Prius.
Together with French experts Bolloré, Italian design house Pininfarina unveiled the electric B Zero concept. It was dedicated to the late Andrea Pininfarina, who was a firm believer in the project. The car uses Bolloré developed ‘LMP’ batteries which are lighter, more durable and more efficient than conventional batteries. The car will be produced in Turin by ‘Bolloré-Pininfarina.’
Not necessarily going to the extremes of additional or alternative powertrains, all manufacturers have worked hard to make their existing petrol and diesel engines more frugal and less polluting. All of the above are great developments to maintain our mobility and hopefully the economic problems won’t put a temporary end to these efforts.
Less is more
The best answer the industry has to offer to today’s problems is the ‘supermini.’ It is certainly not surprising that Smart is doing so well right now. In Paris these small cars took center stage. After a production run of over a decade, Ford finally launched a replacement for the quirky Ka. If you really try (not sure if you want to) you can see some resemblance with the original. The new Ka very much follows the lines of the current Ford line-up and has done away with the eccentric lines and trim of the old one. Toyota extended their line-up with the even smaller iQ. Even though it looks like a kart with a roof, it actually has rear seats. To ensure the safety of the passengers in the ‘booth,’ the Japanese manufacturer fitted the tiny city car with rear-window airbags.
Alfa Romeo unveiled the ‘MiTo’; the solution for all of us that longed for the beautiful 8C Competizione, but could not quite afford it. Somehow they managed to shrink the styling of the V8 engine supercar to fit a supermini chassis. It is rare that one style theme works so well on two completely different cars, but more about that later.
Although two of them are aimed at a slightly higher / larger market, Audi, Nissan and Mazda showed concept cars for a new generation of city cars. The German manufacturer showed the ‘A1 Sportback’ concept. It is certainly more conventional than the similar Audi A2 it could replace. A direct rival for the Toyota iQ, the Nissan Nuvu was one of the funkiest cars on the Paris show floor. The least likely of these three to hit production is the Mazda Kiyora, which is another in a long line of exciting concept cars from the Japanese manufacturer. Apart from its styling, the two-door hatchback stands out for its unusual water purification system. Rain water is captured in a slot in the roof and subsequently fed through filters. The end-product can be consumed by the passengers.
Although not particularly green or cheap, our favourite supermini in Paris was the new Fiat Abarth 500 esseesse. The small, but well appointed display of the Fiat subsidiary just screamed style and excitement.
Beauty and the beast
Ferrari showed the first images of the new California as early as May of this year. Nevertheless it was in Paris that the wraps were taken off the drop-top for the general public. The initial response was not wholly positive with the styling being subject of much debate. As had been the case with the 599 GTB Fiorano an in the aluminum encounter with the California took most of the doubts away. My only complaint is the choice for a metal roof; the California’s of old were very Spartan racing derived roadsters, so a fabric roof should have sufficed.
Ferrari’s rival Lamborghini opted to build anticipation for their Paris showpiece quite differently. The Italians released four teaser pictures and very little information in the weeks before the Mondial opened its doors. Looking at the end result, maybe they should have left it at that. The ‘Estoque’ concept they eventually unveiled on the eve of the show could form the basis for the company’s first ever four-door production car. To make sure everybody knew it was Lamborghini the designers crafted the nose of a Murcielago onto a sedan green-house. Underlining that styling cues that work well on one car, often can’t be transferred to another. Such an exciting and potentially important Lamborghini really deserves its own styling with the marque references limited to the details.
An even bigger disappointment was the Aston Martin booth, which prominently featured a mock-up of the upcoming One-77 supercar. Taking Lamborghini’s tomfoolery one step further, the covers were only taken off a small part of the nose and of an even smaller section of the rear end. Either show it in its entirety or don’t show it all. There are plenty of exquisite road and racing cars in the Aston line-up to fill the space.
Industry experts believe that it may take up to two years before sales will fully recover. It remains to be seen if all of the cash-strapped manufacturers have enough resources to survive until then. If anything the Paris show underlines that there is still plenty of life left for the automobile and its manufacturers. Trying times usually encourage creativity, so for us enthusiasts some good may come out of this crisis in the end. All of the new machinery and their friends are depicted in our sparkling 220-shot gallery