Post-crisis Paris car show goes electric, looks to Asia

Automakers gathered Thursday at the Paris Car Show hoping the huge Asian market will let them put crisis behind them as they premiere dozens of models and a bevy of electric cars ready to hit the road.

More than 300 firms from across the world will be represented at the two-week exhibition that opens to the public from Saturday - after two days of press previews and a visit Friday by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Glamour comes in the form of Ferrari's drop-top SA Aperta - just 80 models will be built - and French automakers Renault and Citroen's showcasing of cars they built in partnership with fashion brands Lacoste and Miss Sixty.

More than a million visitors were due to flock to the exhibition halls to ogle gleaming vehicles and see for themselves the latest innovations in the art of driving.

Among the cars on show are Kia's three-seater electric "Pop" concept, featuring "butterfly-wing" doors that open both upwards and forwards.

Mercedes unveils its new CLS which mixes coupe styling with the four doors of a saloon. Ford will be unveiling to European buyers its new Focus ST, while the future of family cars may be hinted at in Vauxhall's GTC Paris Concept.

Peugeot features its upgrade for the 407, the 508, and visitors will get a peek at the new Citroen C4.

The economic crisis savaged the car industry and it is now setting its sights on emerging markets like China to compensate for the stagnating sales and fierce competition in Europe.

But it is "still much too soon" to say that the crisis is behind us, said Mark Fulthorpe, an analyst with CSM Worldwide consultants.

With government "cash for clunkers" schemes coming to an end, "the economic fundamentals are not sufficient to convince people to buy cars," he said.

European carmakers are expecting a drop of 7.0 percent in sales this year. But car sales in China are continuing to rise rapidly, making it the biggest market in the world and the new eldorado for the car industry.

"Europe and the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are the keys to the market," said Bertrand Rakoto, an analyst with RL Polk.

"In Europe, carmakers have to defend their positions, and in the BRICs, they have to work out what are the right vehicles for those markets," he said.

Ever tougher regulations on carbon dioxide emissions by cars, environmental worries and uncertainty over oil prices are all major concerns for the automobile industry.

Carmakers are continuing to invest heavily in new technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and to slash energy consumption.

Electric cars will once again be stars of the show at the Paris exhibition.

Renault is presenting the electric Fluence ZE (zero emission) saloon and its Kangoo Express ZE van, which are expected to go on sale next year, and it is also to unveil a near-final version of its flagship Zoe model.

PSA is displaying the runabouts Peugeot Ion and Citroen C-Zero, derived from the Mitsubishi i-Miev, and Nissan will be showing off its Leaf saloon.

"We have now moved from electric concept cars to cars you can actually buy," said Carlos da Silva of IHS Global Insight. "Paris will be the first car show in the world where there really will be five or six cars you can choose from."

Manufacturers are in parallel continuing to develop hybrids, with PSA due to bring out a diesel-electricity hybrid next year.

But improving traditional engines remains a major goal. Innovations which can reduce motor size without also reducing performance result in cars like the two-cylinder TwinAir Turbo that Fiat is showcasing.

"New technologies are the tip of the iceberg, but in fact what continues to sell and what makes up the bulk of sales are traditional cars," said Carlos da Silva.