This very nearly didn’t happen.
Three hours after leaving our hotel, a theoretical ten minute drive from the Paris Expo centre at Porte De Versailles, we are still circling the showground, desperately hunting for a parking space. It had made sense to travel by Maserati GranSport the night before, sailing down the empty Autoroutes into Paris but as we inched forward towards the already full car parks, the heat from the exhaust system started to find its way into the cabin and the CambioCorsa gearbox began to complain. A smell of clutch filled the air in our locale.
But then a break – a shortcut out of the city passing the very last car park and a quick word with the parking attendant revealed that there were four spaces left in the whole park. We got the last one and, revelling in our good fortune made our way into the show. Another five minutes and you would be reading about the Eiffel Tower.
It’s clear that the Parisians love their motor show. A bi-annual event, it draws crowds from far and wide including ourselves. Basically, it’s now our local motor show. It’s very hard to think of somewhere, in London certainly that has the space to host this size of event. That it can be done so close to the heart of Paris is quite remarkable. There are people everywhere.
This is the second weekend of the show and coming on a day like this was always going to be a bit of a mistake. It was a warm, sunny day too – adding to the crowds no doubt.
We made our way to Lamborghini’s stand first. These days, the only way you can do this is with an invite. For those lucky enough to have one, it’s fantastic. For those without, on a busy Saturday you will be lucky if you manage even to be able to take a decent photo of what’s there. From the stand, we have a fantastic opportunity to see what has been presented. There are two Gallardos, but the focus is the amazing Sesto Elemento concept.
About the same size as the Gallardo, there is a clear family resemblance but this car is all about future direction for Lamborghini. It also explains why there is no Murcielago present. Production stopped months ago, to clear the decks for an almost entirely new factory concentrating on the carbon fibre replacement for the old 12 cylinder, range-topping monster. Lamborghini have invested tens of millions of Euros into the future of their supercar and the Sesto Elemento hints at what is to come.
A carbon fibre tub and cladding reduce weight, the core of the car being very evident on squinting though the window. The potential of the car is mouth-watering but alas, this must remain a product for the show stands. At Geneva 2011, you can expect to see some of the features of this car on the long awaited Murcielago successor, which will share the concept’s weight reduction almost certainly to a significant advantage in performance, and manoeuvrability.
Expect to see the double bubble roof and certain stylistic features too. We are assured the new model will feature an enormous integral rear wing, something in the region of 700BHP and a superfast paddle shift gearbox as standard equipment. The new architecture will make the cabin a less claustrophobic place to be, although purists will be pleased to hear that the trademark scissor doors remain.
A short walk round to the Bentley stand and the environment changes from the intense to the serene. We are shown around by the company’s representative who tells us about the new Continental Coupe.
It is the first in a revised Continental line that will see convertible and Flying Spur models eventually revamped and at first it is difficult to see the difference. But a few rotations of the display model show the car to have a wider, lower and meaner stance. Attention has been paid to the front and rear lighting area to maintain the family appearance which has recently been bolstered by the presence in the range of the new Mulsanne. The interior features a new TFT screen and navigation system but retains the charm of the original without feeling overly retro. It’s an appealing place to spend time, very much like the car it replaces and it’s clear that the people at Bentley have thought long and hard about what their customers want. The outgoing car has been with us for about seven years now, which is the extent of the typical model cycle in 21st century Europe. The small amount of meddling with what has been an enormously successful model for Bentley makes it clear that if it isn’t broken, it shouldn’t be fixed.
Model cycles are something Bentley never used to be too concerned about – the now defunct Arnage being a case in point. That car could trace its ancestry back decades, beyond the Vickers era of combined Rolls Royce and Bentley ownership, and although it had a loyal following, all good things have to come to an end. It has been replaced by the Mulsanne, a four door saloon in the same mould but which manages to be even more imposing than even the mighty Arnage could manage. The car is enormous, pointing to its function as a car to be driven in but not forgetting that on some occasions, it will be driven by its owner. The ‘six and three quarter’ turbocharged petrol V8 remains, and this is a good thing as torque and effortless performance was never a problem for this powerhouse. In heavily-revised form, it now has cylinder deactivation and the ability to run on bio ethanol to decrease the car’s impact on the environment. A bit..
The biggest crowds are to be found around the Ferrari stand. This is nothing new at motor shows as Ferrari never disappoint with what they bring & at the Paris show they remain true to form. It’s a blessed relief to be admitted onto the stand to take a closer look at the 599 SA Aperta – the soft top version of the 599 Coupe which has been with us a few years now. It’s probably the only time we will see one, only eighty cars are to be made and all of them are sold. Featuring a light soft top roof, the car maintains the same distinctive appearance without managing to appear awkward as can often happen when decapitation is carried out some way into a car’s life.
A few changes have been made to reduce weight and ensure the driving experience is preserved. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try the car out and see if they had met their objectives here, but we will assume that the way the car drives will be adequate to those lucky eighty.
Enjoying a drink and canapé in the behind the scenes bar, there are opportunities to review the rest of the range on the stand, including a beautiful black 458 Italia. It’s always exciting to see something like this in a colour other than the ubiquitous red.
The options for personalisation of your Ferrari are incredible and hidden away at the back of the stand is the Atelier section where examples of exterior body colours, leather options and bespoke trim are on display. Nevertheless, if it isn’t red, it won’t hold value as well, despite the theory that those in other colours are actually better looked after by owners who put more time and thought into their dream car. And dream cars are what this stand is all about, no manufacturer better expressed this desire than Ferrari and this is reflected in the number of people standing on each other’s shoulders, pushing and shoving just to get a shot of something on their phone camera.
A trip to Ferrari cannot be considered complete these days without stopping off at Maserati for a look. Clearly the crowds agree, as it takes some time to make our way onto the stand with Maserati key in hand as a way to ensure admission is granted. And surely it is. Maserati’s fortunes really changed with the launch of the 3200GT over ten years ago and this essentially reinvented what was an almost completely dead builder of cars with a fantastic heritage, but no future.
The Maserati brand clearly held its head above the doldrums of the 1980s and 1990s as many people old and young are flocking to the manufacturer despite a great many of them possibly not really understanding what the trident badge was all about, in the same way they might with Ferrari for example.
The beauty of these cars speaks for itself. The range comprises the Gran Turismo, a four seater coupe of staggering prettiness that has recently spawned a 2+2 convertible version, the Gran Cabrio.
These cars themselves owe a great deal to the Quattroporte saloon, surely the most attractive four door car currently (or possibly ever) on sale. Maserati launched a stripped out, super sports version of the Gran Turismo at Paris, the MC Stradale, with a more powerful version of the Ferrari-sourced V8 engine ensuring that performance is boosted in tandem with the low weight. This particular car has a more responsive gearchange and looks fit for the track, a remarkable achievement for what is actually a very large car of some considerable luxury.
Of the marques considered here, Bentley and Maserati have enjoyed a turnaround from neglected, borderline bankrupt companies to some of the most highly sought after brands on this earth. It’s something Aston Martin has also managed to achieve, and if their stand is anything to go by, something Lotus have extreme confidence in doing also. Taking up a massive section of one of the several halls used at the show, Lotus chose to unveil some new cars..
For any manufacturer to unveil more than one new model at a show is remarkable, but for Lotus, even more so. That the cars shown appear so close to being production realities, whilst at the same time being jaw droppingly, staggeringly good looking, leads to the strange feeling that we’ve just walked into a dream. The new Esprit, Elan, Elite, Eterne and Elise all share a common design language which takes the cars way beyond the current range.
Just the name Esprit manages to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but seeing the car in the flesh is like seeing a long lost friend. There are so many references to the previous car whilst at the same time a new confident appearance is sported.
This is backed up by the powertrain on display, a V8 petrol engine sourced from Lexus which has the potential for supercharging and some limited hybrid capabilities, which will be bolted into the carbon fibre tub. This is a game-changing car for Lotus because it takes the fight squarely to Ferrari and McLaren. If the way the car drives is as good as it looks then this will be a genuine alternative to the 458 and MP4-12C and will give both competitors something to worry about.
The new Elan shares nothing with the previous, troubled model from 20 years ago. This will be a car to take on the likes of Porsche’s 911, using Lexus power and sharing other technologies with the Esprit. Again, if the engineering is right this is a car that will race out of showrooms on looks alone. Close up, like the Esprit, it is desperately pretty, perfectly proportioned and screams at you to drive it. It’s parked next to the Elite, a four seater coupe of different intention to the mid engine sports cars on the stand.
Again, it has nothing in common with its 1970s namesake and Lotus will be striving hard to make sure that the ownership experience is without equal, because this model and the Eterne four door are cars to move Lotus from manufacturer of relatively expensive track day sports cars of niche interest, to a company that can see eye to eye with the other companies whose stands we paid pilgrimage to. Clearly, this strategy is working because in all honesty, without these developments we would not have paid more than a cursory glance to Lotus at Paris two years previously.
The show is crowded and our access passes are not of much use on the mass market stands which are free for all. Our cameras are not of much use here either, the sheer number of people present makes it very difficult to get any decent photos but for old times sake we can’t help but spend a large amount of time at Fiat’s beautiful stand.
The star of the show for Fiat is the new Twin Air engine in the 500. It’s the first time since the demise of the old 126 and Citroen’s 2CV 20 years ago that a two cylinder engine has been offered by a major manufacturer. This particular motor features the Multiair technology now being rolled out across the petrol engine range with turbocharging and balance shafts to overcome the inherent lack of refinement a 900cc two cylinder engine will produce.
This is not a problem for the Abarth 500. Paris was the first opportunity we have had to inspect the Abarth 500 convertible, available with semi automatic paddle actuated gearshift. The show car is striking in flat grey with two tone contrasts and quad exhausts and appeals to me in a way I can’t describe, other than it being akin to the feeling I used to get opening Christmas presents. Abarth also had an ‘EsseEsse’ version of the Punto Abarth, again in flat grey and sporting white, rally style wheels.
Whilst the inevitable focus at a French show is on the expertise of Renault, Peugeot and Citroen in making the best hot hatches, Abarth should not be overlooked. It’s refreshing to see how this sports brand is developing , particularly by contrast to Renault whose Gordini range is seemingly nothing more than a paint job and stripes..
You would expect us to talk about other important cars at the show, and there were many. Mercedes’ new CLS, Peugeot’s 508, the Citroen C4 and DS4, new VW Passat, Nissan’s Leaf