It really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that most of the innovation in cars these days involves electronics. Not just electric motors to drive the wheels, but also elaborate logical structures that rely on the computational speed of dozens of discrete or integrated devices that perform manifold actions to make driving safer, cleaner and more comfortable than it has ever been. So it seemed natural that the flow of electrons was the central theme of the Mondiale in Paris this year. It appeared that every manufacturer had a pure electric model, either as a concept or – in a few cases – something that could be bought, registered and used for personal transportation.

And of course hybrids were big news, although some companies abused the term. Peugeot had what is claimed to be the world’s first diesel hybrid, a promising idea, but the firm also held that a diesel engine equipped with a “stop and start” system is a hybrid. That sort of thing is stretching the truth, but it does show the universal interest in being associated with “green” technology and electronics. And in fact, the starter is an electric motor…
Honda offered both its CR-Z coupé and the new Jazz hybrids, and Lotus, which produced five new concept models for the Mondiale, says that all of them will be available as hybrids, using technology from Toyota, supplier of most of the engines it expects to use in future. Henrik Fisker’s Karma was present in its final production form.

The car on the stand was made from production tooling, but is not yet a vehicle available for delivery. Add in already extant hybrids – many of them SUVs – from Toyota, Lexus, Hyundai, Porsche, BMW and others, and you have a full range of electrified purchase possibilities. The long-awaited Chevrolet Volt “extended range electric car” (and its sister under the skin Opel Ampera) was revealed to be a particularly sophisticated hybrid, with the thermal engine providing some mechanical drive to the wheels under certain conditions. GM maintained a fictional description for three years as it developed new ideas and patented them.

High performance cars with electric augmentation of their conventional powerplants were present as well, still in concept form. Audi showed a hybrid variant of the R8 roadster that will share showrooms with the all-electric e-Tron models in future, Porsche has announced that it will build the Geneva concept 918 hybrid, having garnered more than the 1000 orders needed to justify limited production, and Ferrari is committed to its racing-related kinetic energy recuperation system in future models.

Probably the most exciting car shown at the Mondiale, not withstanding the outrageous Lamborghini Sesto Elemento all-carbon fiber concept, was Jaguar’s 75th anniversary coupé, the CX-75. Like other mid-engine coupes, the engine compartment can be viewed through glass. But there is no V-8, V-10 or V-12 there. Instead you find two science-fiction gas turbine engines, tiny little things that seem suitable for a Star Wars movie, providing electric power to all four wheels. It is a little busy in detailing, but there is a beautiful future production car in its basic form, and a promising technology that is being exploited seriously.

Not quite a hybrid, yet not a typical battery electric, Honda’s FCX Clarity — a hydrogen fuel-cell electric being used by a few drivers in Japan and the US for evaluation testing — made an appearance in Paris, but is not on offer in Europe yet. Others, including GM, BMW and Daimler-Benz, have worked with hydrogen, but only Honda is taking money for leases so people can use these cars as they like on public roads. More will surely come.

In true all-electric cars, BMW had its Active prototype, which will be built in small numbers for trial use by private users next year, Citroën and Peugeot showed their variants of the Mitsubishi i-Miev, respectively called C-Zéro and Ion, and all three versions are on sale now. Of course the Nissan Leaf is now in production and available in multiple markets.

Renault’s Twizy, a frankly outré city vehicle that looks like a design student’s final thesis project, is close to production, as is the Renault Zoe, basically a re-skinned Nissan Leaf. Although it does not visually state its electric drive, it is less banal than the Japanese car, and seemed to have real potential when it does come to market for 2012. In the meantime, Renault is selling the Kangoo Express Z.E. utility vehicle, and made the Dezir pure-electric concept the centerpiece of its stand. Even resuscitated Saab is preparing a test fleet of electrics with special air-insulated batteries that will function in extreme Nordic temperatures.

Not everything was electric, of course. Mainstream family cars like the Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna were shown in restyled form, and their direct rival, the Peugeot 407, was replaced in the range by the new, bigger 508, which will also replace the 607. Ford also revised its successful C-Max and added the Grand C-Max, joining its rivals in offering two sizes of family van with the choice of five or seven seats. A slightly surprising addition to the large family four-door market was Renault’s new Latitude, based on one of its Renault-Samsung Korean platforms. Mercedes showed its newest CLS coupé/sedan, and Bentley did a complete revision of the 12-cylinder line to freshen its appeal.

Local interest centered on the change of design direction in all three main French companies. If Jean-Pierre Ploué remains overall head of PSA design, he has appointed new leaders for the group’s marques. Gille Vidal, ex-Citroën, now heads the Peugeot studios, and Thierry Metroz, formerly head of advanced design at Renault. Laurens van den Acker moved into the top spot at Renault last year, and the Dezir electric concept car is the first manifestation of his work at the largest French company. It was well received by press and public. Probably the most important production model from the French industry was the new Citroën C4, somewhat toned down from the initial model, and no longer available in two-door form. On the other hand, Citroën is expanding its “DS” line of slight variations of mainstream models, and offered the DS3 Racing, a powerful model in the mold of the Mini Cooper S or the forthcoming Audi A 1S.

Altogether Paris showed that the motor industry is reviving nicely, if not quickly, and that the range of models and styles, cleaner and more powerful engines, advanced gearboxes and new industrial relationships and changes of ownership — Chrysler controlled by Fiat, Volvo owned by Geely, Saab on its own, Jaguar-Land Rover owned by India’s Tata — are leading to what we can hope will be a true renaissance in the next decade. What seems certain is that as all the electric, alternative fuel and hybrid systems are developed, the total architecture of our cars will change. There is no need for the proportions and mass distributions of the past forty years to remain the controlling elements of design, so new design teams will be free to innovate and improvise in a way that has not been possible for a very long time.

The article continues in Auto & Design no. 185