2012 Paris Auto Show: New Cars, New Concepts, Old Problems

September 27, 2012

The auto industry's been known to defy logic. At the 2012 Paris Auto Show, it seemed to defy gravity.

Europe's been embroiled in a currency crisis for more than a year. In the U.S., the economy's barely edged out of recession, and stiff new fuel-economy standards are starting to take effect. Around the world, energy prices and demand remain high, and safety regulations and pricing pressure are bigger challenges than ever.

So how to explain a dazzling new British sports car, and its companion luxury SUV? Or a $435,000 gullwing electric car? The 2012 installment of the biannual Paris show won't be remembered for a vast display of new products, but the sheer presence of so many ultra-luxury, cutting-edge vehicles suggests there's deep confidence in better economic times to come.

Or maybe just some blind faith.

The most important new cars and concepts to come from Paris this year include the following:

2014 Jaguar F-Type

The new Jaguar two-seat sportscar makes its U.S. debut in May 2013, with a base price of just under $70,000. With an aluminum body structure, the F-Type weighs less than Jaguar's current four-seat convertible, the XK. Though it overlaps the XK in price, the F-Type's more a traditional roadster--an "indulgence," says chief designer Ian Callum. It's rear-wheel drive, with a choice between a 340-horsepower supercharged V-6, a 380-hp version of the same engine, and a 495-hp supercharged V-8 that's capable of 0-60 mph runs in 4.2 seconds, and a top speed of 186 mph. For now, the F-Type is convertible-only, and eight-speed-automatic only--though officials hint strongly that a coupe model and a manual transmission are in the works.

2013 Land Rover Range Rover

The first new Range Rover since India's Tata Motors took control of the British luxury SUV maker will arrive in showrooms late this year, wearing a price tag of just under $84,000. The 2013 edition changes everything from the inside out: it's now not only clad in aluminum body panels, but the Range Rover's body structure itself is also made from bonded and riveted aluminum, like the Jaguar convertibles and XJ sedan. The move sheds 700 pounds from the SUV's curb weight, enabling an almost 5-inch stretch in wheelbase that provides much more rear-seat leg room, though overall length is only up an inch. If anything, the new Range Rover only grows more luxurious and more capable: 17 color choices, Meridian sound systems, a panoramic sunroof and surround-view cameras are just some of the available features. Power comes from either a 385-hp V-8 or a supercharged, 510-hp version, either one coupled to an eight-speed automatic, standard four-wheel drive with low range, and new Terrain Response that automatically detects traction conditions ahead.

2014 Mazda 6

Now that Mazda's divorced from Ford, it's developing its own cars with its own lightweight philosophy--dubbed SkyActiv--and its own new design language, called Kodo. The two meet handsomely in the new 6 sedan, coming for the 2014 model year to Mazda's U.S. dealers. It's expected to drop its V-6 engine, as many family sedans have done in the past two years, in favor of an all-four-cylinder lineup. In this case, the top 2.5-liter four could be rated at about 189 horsepower, through either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, for highway fuel economy of up to 35 miles per gallon. New safety features will include an available lane-departure warning system. In the past, the Mazda 6 has been assembled at a plant shared with Ford in Flat Rock, Michigan; it's now being produced near Mazda's home base in Hiroshima, Japan.

It's not due on American roads for another 16 months or so, but the next Volkswagen Golf has already had its world premiere in Paris. The good news? The new Golf is longer, lower, and wider than today's car, while weighing in some 200 pounds lighter. The design is more crisp and more detailed than today's three- and five-door hatchbacks (and performance GTI model), with thinner headlights and pillars and more lift in its roofline. Still, it doesn't stray too far from VW's successful formula--in styling, or in powertrains. The base engine for U.S. Golfs is expected to be a 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with about 158 horsepower and a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes. A 2.0-liter turbodiesel is sure to return, and the hot hatchback GTI is expected to bring with it VW's new 2.0-liter turbo four, making about 217 hp. More interior room and better fuel economy are promised, as is more safety gear, including blind-spot monitors and lane-departure warning systems; the Golf will also get a standard touchscreen audio system and dual USB ports for full music-player connectivity.

McLaren P1

No concept car was more fervently awaited at the Paris auto show than the new McLaren supercar--and waiting was required, since the P1 debut was scheduled almost at the end of the press day. In the end, more was left to mystery than was revealed. The new P1 is being shown in advance of production next year, with the intent to make it the best driver's car in the world--which could mean the fastest 0-60 mph times yet recorded in a series-production car. The problem? McLaren had no details on a drivetrain for the car, though the speculation is that a version of its current twin-turbo, 3.8-liter engine from its MP4-12C will be pressed into service, for a net of more than 800 horsepower.

Lexus LF-CC Concept

A thinly disguised look at the next Lexus IS, the LF-CC concept brought with it to the Paris show a new hybrid system with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a water-cooled electric motor. The cockpit's dedicated to big digital displays, while still wearing the latest horizontal styling themes that have warmed up the interiors of all the newest Lexus vehicles--from the LS to the GS and ES sedans. This concept coupe is expected to be approved for production, though it's unknown if Lexus will return with another hardtop coupe/convertible to replace today's disapponting IS 250C and IS 350C.

Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo Concept

It's flouted its sportscar roots, first with a sport-utility vehicle, and then with a sedan. So why not a Porsche wagon? The Panamera Sport Turismo Concept is just that, at least for now, but the German luxury carmaker's keen on competing with other high-performance five-doors in its price and performance class, including the new Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake and the Jaguar XF wagon. Neither of those will be sold in the U.S.--but since the U.S. is the Panamera's biggest market, a five-door Porsche hatchback seems more likely now than ever.

BMW Concept Active Tourer

BMW has confirmed it will build a small front-wheel-drive car, and on its stand at the Paris show was a first glimpse at that upcoming car--the Concept Active Tourer. In concept form, the styling exercise fits the size and power requirements for a compact car with more interior room than today's 1-Series BMW. It's 171 inches long, with better space for five passengers than the 1-Series, and it's powered by a turbocharged 1.5-liter, three-cylinder engine with direct injection, with power going to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The rear wheels are driven by an electric motor, making it a hybrid--a touch that's not likely to make it into production, but one that makes it a rear-drive car when run off its batteries for all of its 18 miles of pure EV range.

2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive

Finally, though it won't qualify as anything remotely mass-market, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive will have the power to move a very select group of owners, starting in 2013. It's the pure electric version of the gullwing supercar, powered not by a big V-8 but instead by batteries and four electric motors for a total of 552 kilowatts of power and 737 pound-feet of torque. Mercedes pegs its 0-62 mph time in 3.9 seconds, and sets a top speed of 155 mph--roughly the kind of performance you'd find in other AMG models, if not quite up to the gas-powered SLS. Recharging takes 20 hours on a standard Level 2 charging station, or three hours on a quick-charge station. The base price would be the equivalent of a heart-fluttering $435,000, but it hasn't been confirmed yet for U.S. customers.

(c) 2012, High Gear Media.

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