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Best in show: Musings from Paris

2010-10-04 09:21

Lance Branquinho

Motor shows are flush with instances of vainglorious oneupmanship.

All major manufacturers attempt to usurp each other by scheduling unveilings at the same time (always between 09:30 and 10:30), forcing the assembled news media corps to play favourites.

At this year’s Paris show, Lotus did things differently.

CEO Danny Bahar (less than a year in the job) announced that Group Lotus would uncloak its five covered cars on display only at 16:45 in the afternoon.

Therefore, last Thursday at 16:40 (whilst the good employees of the world maddeningly wished the last few minutes of their working day to pass) I was standing in hall five of the Paris motor show.

Most of the assembled media planned to attend the early morning unveilings (from Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi and Lamborghini) and then disperse.

Paris is a beguiling city, even at the worst of times. Flush with pretty people (fashion week was running at the same time as the auto salon), there was a strong imperative to get out of the motor show venue by lunchtime and bide one’s time at some Champs-Élysées cafe. Understandably, then, Lotus was gambling with a late-afternoon curtain call…

Lotus reborn

By 16:40, as I enered Hall 5 through its rotating glass doors, you could hardly even see the Lotus stand. A legion of media has waded in, elbowing for position to be best served in terms of field of view as Bahar began outlining the company’s future plans.

I was rather tired at this stage, having navigated the entire eight-hall show twice, with a fatigue-inducing weight of camera equipment. Longingly I stared at the empty seats of the Café de Seine to the left of Lotus’s display stand. It was a credit to Lotus’s uncontaminated brand image that virtually all core accredited motoring media has stayed the day to attend the Lotus model unveiling.

Admittedly, I was mildly excited at the prospect of what those five blanketed cars would be. I expected two new models (the Elite and new Esprit) in various shades of concept-colour weirdness. What transpired during the next 15 minutes was nothing short of spellbinding.

Bahar, in his peculiar Swiss accent, delivered to the assembled media no less than five new cars, an unprecedented gesture of confidence - unparalleled in sports-car history at a motor show. For a company as small as Lotus, it was a monumental achievement.

Although having rent-a-celebs Naomi Campbell, Mickey Rourke and Stephen Baldwin as part of the unveiling did rankle some traditionalists, the new Elite, Elan (rear-wheel drive again), Esprit, Elise and Eterne all looked absolutely smashing and tallied typically impeccable Lotus-grade engineering specifications.

Lotus is in a make-or-break position, having been given an ultimatum to either double sales or face going out of business by its Malaysian owners. When the collection of new models roll off Hethel’s production line by 2014, I’ll look back fondly at the afternoon of September 30 as Lotus’s rebirth.

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The sixth element

Lotus may have stolen the show, yet this year’s Paris auto salon was an unexpectedly upbeat event, with two key themes emerging.

For one, Paris 2010 essentially salvaged the supercar concept. Secondly, it showed off the consequence of innovation and how the motor industry needs to occasionally be coerced into advancing – this time round by a combination of environmental legislation and recession truncated sales.

For most petrolheads the current era of environmentalism has been perceived as the beginning of the end for true performance car motoring. Paris proved this to be a fallacy.

Lamborghini’s outlandish Sesto Elemento carbon-fibre overture may not have been the recognisable Murciélago replacement everybody was expecting, yet it was pure supercar pornography none the less.

Beyond its contorted Reventon-inspired styling, the Sesto Elemento’s 999kg kerb weight is remarkable and an example of the promising new trend in lightweight engineering principles – aimed at improving efficiency, whilst as a welcome aside boosting agility and performance too.

Prettiest car of the show was undoubtedly Jaguar’s 75th birthday present to itself, the XC-75.

Jaguar’s design boss Ian Callum dotingly admired his team’s handiwork as showgoers swarmed around the concept supercar all of Thursday and Friday. Its styling harmony and fluid surfacing were made possible by the unencumbered packaging afforded to Callum and his team due to the XC-75’s hybrid drivetrain, with four electric motors and twin gas turbines.

Without an oversized internal combustion piston engine amidships (requiring packaging and styling compromises to accommodate the powertrain), XC-75’s shape is one of the most arresting in concept car history.

It's worth remembering how easy (and conceited) an exercise it is to simply produce an over-elaborate, wedge shaped supercar concept. Penning something combining heritage and contemporary identity, especially when it involves a company with such a rich design history such as Jaguar, is an altogether more admirable achievement. Therefore the XC-75, Coventry’s first supercar design study since the ill-fated XJ220, was widely celebrated by visually literate critics.

Although it will not germinate into a production supercar, some of the XC-75’s styling details have been confirmed as executable and will form the template for future Jaguar designs.

Better than the XJ220 in every way

Turbine cars

Beyond the XC-75’s multitude of aesthetic design merits the car’s twin turbines, nestled beneath a rear see-through hatch, are perhaps its most novel feature.

Due in no small part to the British engineering community’s preoccupation with turbine jet design for the military aviation use during the 1960's, it is hardly surprising to see a British brand revive this hugely efficient method of power generation. The XC-75’s turbines have a peak operational speed of 80 000rpm and can be fed on a supply of diesel, biofuel, compressed natural gas or liquid petroleum gas.

Able to supplement the XC-75’s four 148kW electric motors (one at each wheel) by an additional 140kW, the turbines can also charge the drivetrain’s lithium-ion battery set, ballooning theoretical range to nearly 900km.

Turbines are hugely efficient and small, possibly making them the combustion component of choice in future hybrid drivetrains. In fact, the sole issue with turbines in a motoring application is the problem of high exhaust-gas temperatures.

Bearable lightness of being

Clear of Lamborghini and Jaguar’s enticing supercar concepts, there were an assortment of show cars with particular interest to South African buyers.

Lexus’s new CT200 hatchback’s flat-slabbed rear styling was contrasted by an avant-garde cabin design while BMW’s third-generation 6 Series looks more elegant in person than its does as a digital image.

Toyota's Verso-S is cleverly packaged and should be a hugely popular addition to the world's largest manufacturer when it lands here too.

Opel has just introduced its new Astra to the local market and the company's GTC two-door concept looked particularly fetching and should find favour with local fans if it finds its way here.

A very important little Range Rover

Land Rover’s miniaturised Range Rover, the Evoque, has been brilliantly executed and should broaden the brand’s image way beyond its usual Defender adventurer and horsebox-towing Range Rover brand cachet.

Two years ago the Paris auto salon was a rather retiring affair, infected with the early pessimism of those erudite analysts who saw the start of a severe recession ahead. The 2010 year’s event showcased how necessity truly is the mother of invention.

Lotus founder Colin Chapman, observing the goings-on in Paris from that great pits lane in the sky, surely broke into a knowing smile as those lightweight supercar concepts were unveiled last Thursday.

Chapman must pointedly have wondered why it took nearly four decades, unprecedented environmental awareness and a monumental recession to finally get the management of car companies to knock on their engineering departments' office doors, peek inside and ask: “Could we make the new line of cars a touch lighter, perhaps?”


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