Citroën's bold new look
Citroën's C-Métisse looks set to wow the Paris motor show. Sean O'Grady is impressed by its flair and style

Nowadays the Concept Car comes in two varieties. The first is the genuinely forward-thinking project, designed to showcase a manufacturer's capability, or at least its imagination. This is what concept cars started out like, the first being a Volvo about 70 years ago, but the idea really got motoring in the 1950s, when the big American firms got inspired by the jet age, nuclear power and the dawn of space travel.

The second category is a much more recent one. It emerged in the 1980s when manufacturers began to stick the label "concept" on what was basically a production-ready vehicle due to come out in less than a year. The term "concept" became debased, and the concept car just another weapon in the motor companies' pre-launch advance publicity machine. It's enjoyable to get a glimpse of the near future, but its a bit rich to call it a concept.

Nowadays the car makers can't even wait until the big motor shows open to let us see their latest concepts. So it is that last week we were treated to a variety of "previews" for the Paris show, which begins at the end of the month. By far the most striking was this, the Citroën C-Métisse. Although Citroën and their parent/partner Peugeot have been as cynical as any other from time to time, it's fair to put this latest Citroën concept firmly in the great old tradition of thinking the unthinkable.

For a start (and readers may prove me wrong here) I don't think anything quite like this has been unleashed on the public before. Nothing quite so low, nothing quite so lithe and nothing that combines quite so many sharp angles and bulbous curves in such a harmonious whole. So it looks pretty good, and even better "in the metal" because it is only when you get quite close to the real thing that you realise how low it is to the ground.

The lines are continued inside, once you get past those gullwing (front) and scissor (rear) doors. These open to reveal open space without a central pillar. This has been seen on concepts from Citroën, Nissan and Toyota before, yet few car makers seem to have made it a reality. Mazda managed it with its RX-8, but it was a relatively short space between the door pillars. Maybe Jaguar (cousin of Mazda in the Ford family) will beat Citroën and Toyota to the first proper "open space" saloon.

Inside, the Citroën designers have picked up where Virgil Exner (Chrysler), Harley Earl (General Motors) and Saab left off a half a century ago and taken the ergonomics of an aircraft cockpit into a car cabin. Except that nowadays it's not an affectation, it's a necessity. Even the most humble family cars now have such a bewildering array of dials, switches, buttons and levers for the driver to deal with. Why not plant a few on the roof console, as in this C-Métisse? With your starter button up there you can even more realistically pretend to be in a jet. Comfort and safety might benefit from a head restraint plonked up there too, instead of just extending from the seats.

However, when it comes to what makes the concept move around, Citroën seems to have thought the unthinkable and scuttled back again. It is a diesel hybrid, like other recent Peugeot/Citroën projects. Now, Citroën engineers may be right to argue that this is the way forward, and, as they have said to me, the Peugeot-Citroën group has the engineering skill in-house to create the sort of hybrids that Toyota and Honda do. However, there doesn't seem to be much sign of any hybrid vehicles actually making it to production. In other words the diesel engine/electric motors that power the C-Métisse shouldn't be on that car but on today's showroom Citroëns. It is odd for a company to showcase a concept that other manufacturers already have on sale now. Still, it is distinctive, with two electric motors, one on each rear wheel, rather than running in tandem with a petrol engine as with the Japanese companies. And a diesel internal combustion engine is a better starting point than a petrol one, for sure.

The only question is why Peugeot and Citroën have spent so much time and effort in trying to tell the world that hybrids were a waste of time and money and that smaller, more efficient diesels were the answer. The C-Métisse also boasts an admirable drag coefficient of 0.30. In a world where brick-like SUVs still dominate the executive car market that's suggestive of a brighter, greener, quieter, more efficient future. (Although it has to be admitted the 1982 Audi 100 had much the same impressively low drag, a sign of how much the automotive industry has come to neglect functional aerodynamics in the intervening period).

More than anything though, the C-Métisse confirms that Citroën is alive and well. Last month the company topped the charts for private car buyers (ie, excluding fleets). It was a one-off, but confirmed the cars' appeal.

Three decades after it was bought by Peugeot, Citroën is still demonstrating its idiosyncrasies and flair. It is a fine monument to the efforts of Peugeot-Citroën group's Jean-Martin Folz, who pioneered the "one company, two brands" philosophy. He has recently departed. They should give him a C-Métisse as a retirement present.

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