The Germans ‘invented’ the petrol car, the Americans popularized it and the Japanese transformed it from quirky transport tool into consumer appliance.
But when it comes to big-step advances, the French are without equal. From the ‘Systeme Panhard’ architecture – for many years, the motor car’s mechanical template – to Michelin’s radial tyre; from Citroen’s revolutions to Renault’s revelations (not least the Renault 5’s popularization of plastic bumpers, now de rigueur on all cars). The French, more than any other nationality, made the hatchback an inspiration and the Grand Prix an institution (many housewives, Sunday summer lunchtimes spoilt, have never forgiven them).
Renault shows production EVs, while rivals dither
So the sight of four production-ready electric Renaults at the Paris Show suggests that the EV may finally have come of age. If so, the Paris Show will prove a seminal event. The Germans were mouthing cautious platitudes about EV viability, Peugeot had a pricey rebadged Mitsubishi EV and a few wacky electric concepts, and EV prototypes peppered numerous other stands, many as bizarre as they were ridiculous. But here was Renault, self-styled ‘createur d’automobiles’, with a showroom full of production ready EVs, and with competitive prices to boot (same as the diesel equivalent, after government rebate). My favourite was the cute Twizy, the little tandem two-seat city runabout that will sell in the UK for about £6000. It’s fun, practical and should soon be a common and welcome sight in Europe’s crowded capitals.
Jaguar’s ‘range extender’ advance
The other great electric advance came, unexpectedly, from Jaguar. Its C-X75 concept was generally admired more for its felicitous lines than its futuristic mechanicals – and indeed here was a supercar concept that, agreeably, was more about elegance than vacuous aggression. (Designer Julian Thomson promises that many of its cues, not least the nose treatment, will be seen in upcoming production Jaguars sportsters). Yet, for me, the big news was that ingenious turbine-powered ‘range extended’ electric generator, so much more elegant (and lighter and simpler) than the full-size internal combustion engine ‘extender’ as used in the upcoming Vauxhall Ampera.
The twin turbines are tiny – the size of large bottles – and light (35kg each). They run at an optimum and constant 80,000rpm and can use any fuel that can combust, from diesel to plant-based ethanol. Jaguar engineering chief Bob Joyce does not promise a production future, but he is very clear that ‘I don’t do mechanical concepts without production possibilities’. What’s more, on the day of the car’s unveiling, Jaguar’s owner Tata bought a stake in Bladon Jets, the company that makes the turbines. On the C-X75, the turbines charge the lithium ion batteries that deliver power to four in-wheel electric motors. The batteries can also be charged from the mains. Performance is astonishing; so are the low CO2 emissons
Lamborghini leads charge of light brigade
If the electrification of the automobile was Paris’s biggest trend, then weight reduction was a secondary key theme. The most impressive proponent was, surprisingly, Lamborghini, whose recent cars have been more alpha-male than highbrow. Yet the Sesto Elemento concept is all about high power-to-weight ratio and agility, not just outright speed and styling drama (although it has those qualities in spades too).
Apart from the carryover Gallardo V10 engine and 4x4 transmission, virtually the whole car is made from carbonfibre or some type of composite material (including, bizarrely, the exhaust). This includes carbon bodywork and wheels. The key new technology, a result of Lamborghini’s nascent collaboration with Boeing in Seattle, is a new type of forged carbon – cheaper and easier to make than current carbonfibre. The Sesto Elemento’s monocoque tub is made in this way. The upshot is a kerb weight of a claimed 999kg and, with lower costs, the possibility of carbon proliferation. Production of the Sesto Elemento concept is most unlikely but much of the carbon tech will be used in upcoming Lambos, no doubt to include next-generation Murcielago and Gallardo. Boss Stephan Winkelmann says lower weight will be a more important quality, in upcoming Lambos, than extra power. The tide at Sant’ Agata is clearly changing.
Lotus unveils five concept cars
Yet the greatest sports car story in Paris wasn’t to be found on the Lamborghini stand, and nor was it the comely C-X75 from Jaguar. Rather, little Lotus, which usually occupies small discreet stands at motor shows, single Elise looking lonely and familiar, and solitary PR man invariably unbothered by media scrutiny, was suddenly the centre of a press scrum.
After years or apparent inactivity, Lotus took a huge stand in Paris and unveiled – count them – five new sports cars, from Elise replacement to a £115,000 Ferrari California-rivalling coupe convertible (the new Elite). The entire new model range for the next five years was on display. To back up the metalwork, there were some heavy hitting consultants too, from dear old Bob Lutz – clearly determined to celebrate his 80th birthday working in the car industry – and ex-Rolls-Royce and BMW boss Tom Purves, who knows a thing or two about British premium cars. New Lotus CEO Dany Bahar, ex-Ferrari, has also persuaded some of Maranello’s better engineers to decamp to Norfolk.
Malaysian investment bankrolls ambitious plans
Vast Malaysian investment, some from Lotus owner Proton, the rest from the Petronas oil company, is funding the largesse. Whether it represents a long-overdue and much-welcome Lotus renaissance – and some of the cars did indeed look impressive – or it’s another Hethel hallucination, it’s too early to say. Nonetheless I bumped into McLaren’s Ron Dennis as I left the show. He quickly shook my hand and then excused himself. ‘I just have to dash to look at the new Lotuses,’ he said. For the first time in decades, Lotus was the talk of a motor show.
>> Click on the video below to watch Gavin Green, Ben Oliver and Georg Kacher discuss the themes, trends and stars of the 2010 Paris motor show