British International Motor Show: What's the (environmental) damage?

Electric cars, bio-ethanol cars... The London Motor Show demonstrated how manufacturers have responded to calls for 'greener' vehicles.
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Maybe it was the searing temperature outside the air-conditioned oasis of the ExCel exhibition halls, but there was a recurrent theme to the London Motor Show that suddenly seemed very relevant. That heat, sufficient to make showgoers think twice about venturing outside to the BMW Group plaza, could easily be spun into a carbon-fuelled, man-made road to disaster. Whatever, electric cars, bio-ethanol cars, promises of huge investments in research and development, all these took on the flavour of absolution from past sins. Never has neutrality, provided it's carbon neutrality, seemed so positive.

Saab showed a hybrid 9-3 convertible with an engine able to run on bio-ethanol. Ford announced that its Focus Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs), which like the Saab can use petrol or bio-ethanol in any mix and were the first FFVs on UK sale, will henceforth cost no more than regular petrol versions. Land-Rover announced a CO2 Offset Programme in which buyers of new Land-Rovers will pay a premium of between £85 and £165, money that is passed on to an organisation called Climate Care which plants trees, installs wind turbines and renewable-energy cookers in India, and other such CO2-offsetting schemes. The price premium is based on the new car's predicted CO2 emissions over three years at an average 15,000 miles a year. Clearly a lot of assumptions are being made, but it's a start.

Ford of Europe's Chief Executive Officer (CEO), John Fleming, pointed out that a bio-ethanol Focus 1.8, running on E85 bio-ethanol (which contains 15 per cent petrol), emits under 100g/km of CO2 when the amount absorbed by the bio-ethanol crops is taken into account, and he called for tax incentives to encourage a bio-ethanol infrastructure as there are in Sweden (where 40 per cent of new car sales are now FFVs), Norway and Germany. And UK chairman Roelant de Waard suggested that FFVs could reasonably be exempt from the London congestion charge, given that their total emissions are lower than those of hybrids. Assuming their drivers have managed to find some bio-ethanol, of course.... Ford has already committed £1bn of investment in the UK for research into greener motoring, and predicts that a typical Ford Focus of the future will routinely return 70mpg while emitting under 100g/km of CO2. As the announcements issued forth, Ford's full-size ice sculpture of the new Focus Coupé-Cabriolet became just a little smaller and wetter.

Elsewhere in ExCel, Smart showed the limited-production version of its EV, or electric vehicle, as driven by The Independent at the end of last year. The conversion is carried out by the British company Zytek, which receives engine- and tank-less Smarts from the factory in France. It will run up to 72 miles or at up to 70mph, but not both, and 200 examples are to be leased to British organisations as part of a carbon-use-monitoring project. A new Smart ForTwo is in the offing, and Zytek hopes to be involved with a full-production electric version.

With all this earnest greenery hanging in the air, it was almost a relief to witness the sense-assaulting unveiling of the Jaguar XK/R complete with forward slash. Jaguar's Managing Director Bibiana Boerio announced that 1,000 orders had been taken already for the 420bhp, supercharged supercar. Next door, Land-Rover's new Freelander went down well; design director Geoff Upex told me that one reason why it had to be bigger than the old car was that certain large US potential buyers simply couldn't get into it.

Morgan, still producing traditional sports cars with wooden body frames and a style dating back 70 years, has finally installed its more powerful engines in the four-seater body option. These are 2.0-litre and 3.0-litre Ford units, the latter a V6. The BMW-powered Aero 8 has been restyled for the second time, too; each time it edges back a little closer to the archetypal Morgan look. Nearby, Lotus showed the production version of the Europa coupé and a new entry-level Elise to bring back the simple, no-frills appeal of the first Elises. The 134bhp Elise S still costs nearly £24,000, though. Other significant open-topped debutantes included the Bentley Continental GTC and the V10-engined, M6 version of BMW's 6-series convertible.

The "supercar paddock" looked as if it had been lifted bodily from the Goodwood Festival of Speed a fortnight ago, and the Caparo T1 - a sort of Formula One car for the road - and the Maybach Exelero concept car. It has a twin-turbo V12 engine, 700bhp and a menacing presence designed to frighten green-tinged electric microcars back into their burrows.

Back in the real world, Mazda showed the MX-5 Roadster Coupé with a folding three-part hardtop that disappears in 11 seconds and, uniquely for a coupé-cabriolet, does not eat into boot space. Vauxhall had the most significant debut of all with the new Corsa, which went all urban on us with skateboarders and BMX bikers doing acrobatics in the background and Vauxhall folk kitted out for the urban jungle. The Corsa is a little bigger than the old one but promises to be a keener drive. A 180bhp VXR version joins the range later.

Vauxhall was also behind the Dockside Story, a tale of car-flavoured romance on which I'm unable to report because I was too busy looking at Chrysler's new Sebring saloon. This Mondeo-sized car looks like a Crossfire at the front, with its grooves on the bonnet, and it contains a 20GB hard drive for music and cupholders able both to cool drinks and heat them. UK sales start next year.

Alfa Romeo's main news, apart from revealing the Spider we tested last week, was a major reorganisation not just of its dealers but of the whole way the company supplies them. Alfa sells 7,000 cars a year here but thinks it could reach 30,000 with the right sales and service experience. Antonio Baravalle, Alfa's CEO, says that the UK project is a practice run for Alfa's re-entry to the US in 2009: "If we are not able to serve a premium dealer in a premium way, we will go away."

Even Citroën had a British dimension to this very British motor show. Designer Leighanne Earley, a graduate of Coventry University's transport design course, came up with the cute C-Buggy with four-wheel drive and an intriguing surface finish. "The carbonfibre body is sprayed with a metal powder that looks like sugar," she said, "and then it's rubbed down to this finish. The copper and steel goes into orange and green streaks as it weathers, as if it's alive." An organic car. That suited the mood of the show rather well.

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