This year's Paris Motor Show has an unlikely star. The respected but tiny British manufacturer Lotus, which has been ticking over quietly under Malaysian ownership for the past 15 years, announced not just one new car, but five – six, in fact, if you count an interesting city car concept that was shown alongside the glamorous stuff. Four carry the names of previous models – Elise, Esprit, Elan and Elite – but perhaps the most interesting is the Eterne, a four-door saloon which appears to be an Aston Martin Rapide competitor, designed to take Lotus, traditionally a maker of stripped-out lightweight sports cars, into completely new market territory. Any single one of the new cars would have been a Paris highlight if it had been shown in isolation; all are scheduled to be introduced during the middle years of the coming decade.
Just about every piece of conventional motor industry wisdom suggests the Lotus plan is, to put it mildly, over-ambitious, and yet on the preview days for this year's Paris show – which runs until 17 October – journalists and industry executives could speak of little else, a great example of the excitement that well-judged motor show announcements and the chance to see beautiful new cars in the metal can generate.
The French manufacturers, too, had clearly saved up some of their more important new cars for their home show. Peugeot's handsome 508 saloon and estate confirmed that the company has regained something of its former sure touch when it comes to matters of style, while Citroë* showed its forthcoming DS4. The DS models form a new parallel range of trendier alternatives to the company's mainstream "C" models, and the first of these, the DS3, was a big hit, so the larger DS4 has plenty to live up to. Renault had updated versions of the Laguna and Espace and also showed its new big Latitude saloon.
Ford had its new Focus, C-Max and Grand C-Max, while Volvo was showing off its mid-range S60 saloon and V60 estate, with which it expects to win over younger buyers. Toyota showed its Verso-S mini-MPV, and the Japanese manufacturer's luxury brand, Lexus, displayed the production version of its new compact luxury hybrid, the CT200h. Another new Japanese hybrid was the Honda Jazz.
The mighty Volkswagen group was mainly showing updates of existing models rather than entirely new cars; an exception was the latest Seat Alhambra, a sister car to Volkswagen's second-generation Sharan, which is notable for its large and practical passenger cabin as well as its low-drag – for an MPV at least – shape. An updated Passat, a refreshed Bentley Continental GT and a sportier Speedster version of the Porsche 911 were among the other VW group highlights.
The main novelty at Mercedes was the new CLS. The original model was described as a four-door coupé and, with its dramatic swooping roof-line, it made a huge impact. It will be a difficult act to follow but under the spotlights of the Paris show, the new one didn't look too shabby, either. The biggest point of interest wasn't the CLS's looks, however, but the 250 CDI badge on one of the cars displayed which confirmed that this, one of Mercedes' most glamorous models, would be available with a mere 2.15-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, albeit one producing more than 200 horsepower, one of the most dramatic examples yet of the wave of engine-downsizing that is sweeping the industry in the interests of reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
As usual, the Korean manufacturers made a particularly strong showing. Kia, for example, was showing its large Optima saloon, which will replace the current Magentis. The Optima is just the latest in a series of handsome cars the company has produced since introducing its breakthrough model, the Golf-sized cee'd, just a few years ago, the most recent of which have benefited from the expertise of Kia's German ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer. Chevrolet, the General Motors brand which sources most of the cars it sells in Europe from Korea, showed its Orlando people-carrier, a new version of its compact Aveo, and the hatchback version of its mid-sized Cruze, a well-developed car that previously suffered in Europe because it was available only in saloon form. Also on Chevrolet's stand was the Volt electric car – although that comes from its US operation rather than from Korea. The Volt's planned European sister car, the Ampera, could be seen on the Opel/Vauxhall stand, alongside the estate and GTC (coupé) versions of the latest Astra.
Among the other electric cars on show were established models from electric vehicle (EV) specialists Fisker and Tesla, as well as Nissan's Leaf, the first really serious purpose-built mass-production EV, and the Mitsubishi i MiEV. The i MiEV was also to be seen in rebadged form on Peugeot's and Citroën's stands. Saab showed its 9-3 ePower and Skoda had an electric version of the Octavia estate, the Green E Line; both will be used in trials next year. Renault showed the Fluence and Kangoo EVs, which will pioneer the controversial notion of selling EVs without batteries – these will be leased separately.
Electric cars were also well represented among the large number of sometimes dramatic concept cars shown by the big manufacturers at Paris this year. Seat had its IBE, which, as well as hinting at the Spanish VW offshoot's vision of what it calls electro-mobility, confirms the young and sporty direction in which the Seat "look" is expected to develop in future. Audi showed an open-topped Spyder version of its e-tron EV concept, which appears to be some way off production; that shows just how far behind the Japanese the diesel-obsessed Germans are when it comes to electric cars, but at least the e-tron's sharp styling demonstrates that Audi is capable of designing a car that doesn't just look like a bar of soap. A promising design from an unfamiliar name in EVs, albeit one with powerful partners such as Michelin and Siemens, also made quite a splash; Exagon Motors' sleek Furtive-eGT attracted plenty of attention, not just for its good looks but also for its claimed range, which is greater than that of most other EVs, even without using the small petrol range-extender engine.
Another EV concept was Kia's intriguing POP city car, designed to accommodate three occupants seated abreast within an exceptionally short three-metre body, while at the other end of the scale, Jaguar caused a huge stir with its C-X75 electric supercar concept, in which two very small gas turbines operate as range extenders designed to top up the car's batteries. Jaguar's parent company, Tata, has just taken a stake in the supplier of the gas turbines used, Bladon Jets.
A common complaint of enthusiasts, of course, is that these exciting concept cars never make it into the showroom, at least not without being heavily modified in the interests of ease of production and use. One notable example of this phenomenon was Land Rover's striking three-door Range Stormer concept, which later emerged as the handsome but rather blander five-door Range Rover Sport. Now, Land Rover is making amends; at the insistence of its design chief, Gerry McGovern, it is putting its dramatic LRX study into production with almost no external changes at all. The new car is about the same size as the Land Rover Freelander but will be pitched at a higher price and badged as the Range Rover Evoque. It's a bold effort that deserves to succeed.
Foreign motor shows also provide a chance to see interesting cars that don't make it to these shores, such as those made by Lancia and Dacia, a Romanian offshoot of Renault that specialises in value-for-money cars based on the French company's technology. Dacias are likely to come to the UK by the end of 2012 but the Renault Latitude, which is produced by the French company's Korean operations, may not make it.
Conspicuous by their absence were the Chinese manufacturers, who have previously had a significant presence at recent European motor shows. This probably doesn't reflect any loss of ambition – quite the reverse, in fact. Motor shows in big emerging markets such as Russia and China used to be of peripheral importance, but now, increasingly, they are the main event. A number of this autumn's new or improved cars, including the Renault Latitude and the revised Ford Mondeo, were shown first at the Moscow Motor Show in August.
Two important Western European shows – London and Turin – have fallen by the wayside as the big ones get bigger and the others fade away. Some question the relevance of motor shows at a time when increasingly sophisticated buyers resent paying to trudge round what amounts to a giant crowded car showroom, and prefer instead the richer experience offered by events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. But there was still plenty of that old motor show magic at Paris this year.
This year's Paris Motor Show is open to the public until 17 October