At the Paris Motor Show, where the little English sports car maker Lotus stole the limelight with major plans and five new concepts
Lotus in bloom
Last year was a difficult time for the car industry. Sales bottomed out, companies filed for bankruptcy and some car brands just plain disappeared. But all that has changed for the better this year and, with sales rebounding up for just about every car maker, there is a sense of optimism and relief. Though the Paris Motor Show was rife with electric cars from almost every manufacturer, eager to boast about their green initiatives, the unofficial theme of the show was more about that optimism and confidence felt by everyone.
And at no other booth was this belief more apparent than that of Lotus. The tiny English sports car maker, currently boasting a lineup of three cars - Elise, Exige and Evora - introduced a sportier version of its 2+2 Evora and no less than five new concept cars it plans to put into production within the next five years. At probably the most anticipated unveiling event of the show, with its booth lined with journalists trying to get a peek, stars such as Mickey Rourke and Naomi Campbell helped pull the wraps off the vehicles and, ultimately, the future of Lotus.
"What you are about to see is the result of a year of a lot of blood, sweat and tears," said Dany Bahar, the Lotus CEO, right before the first unveiling. "A year which we tried to deliver the strength and spirit of the Lotus brand, and move onto a higher playing field. "Make no mistake, we still respect [company founder] Colin Chapman's Lotus DNA, such as performance through lightness, and superior ride and handling. But we need to move towards the future, and move the brand to a higher place."
The five new cars form a complete lineup for Lotus, starting with a new version of the Elise, keeping its smaller dimensions but sharpening and tightening up its form and sporting a 2.0L, 320hp four cylinder; the Elan name returns to the company, as does the Esprit (top-of-the-line with a 540hp V8), all having mid-mounted engines. The Elite is a front-engine, hard-top convertible, while the Eterne forms a departure for the company as a four-door sports car.
"Lotus is known for certain type of cars," said Bahar, "and if you were to introduce one model that is outside the range, people will not understand why we moved outside that segment. But if we show the world the future of Lotus as a complete sports car lineup, from entry sports car up to premium sports car, it makes the story more credible, more appealing and more understandable where Lotus is going in the future."
None of the cars are fully funtional; four of them are rolling prototypes while the Eterne was simply a moulded body. According to Bahar, Lotus plans to roll out the Elan in 2012, the Elite in 2014, and the Esprit, Eterne and Elise in 2015. But is this a feasible projection given the company is currently not profitable? "The announcement certainly took everyone by surprise," said Henner Lehne, the global director of vehicle demand forecasting at IHF Automotive, the car industry analyst firm located in Germany. "Most people expected one or two new models, not five. It's very ambitious.
"Financially, it could possibly be done. The company has Proton behind it [the Malaysian car company that bought Lotus in 1997], and possibly the Malaysian government itself - you saw Malaysian government officials at the unveiling of some of the cars. It could be a plan to push the brand, to make it more profitable. There must certainly be investors behind it." Bahar said Lotus is planning on producing 8,000 cars by 2015, up from the 3,000 it produces now. It will also keep Toyota as its engine supplier. "Our plan is to have more models and lower volumes, as opposed to Ferrari with fewer models and higher volumes," he said.
Lotus officials say its Hethel factory in Norfolk, UK, can handle production of the cars, but the company is in talks with the British government for a £40 million (Dh233 million) loan to improve and expand the lines. Until that happens, they say they can't guarantee all the cars will be built there. The increased production would also create an estimated 1,000 new jobs, on top of the 1,500-strong workforce employed worldwide by Lotus.
The car company already has four dealers in the Middle East - in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman - and has plans to open dealerships in the UAE by 2012. When asked who the local dealer would be, Bahar coyly replied "one of the major players". Lotus currently supplies chassis and other components to Tesla, the electric car company, which was situated just beside the Lotus booth. Across the aisle from Tesla was another US electric car maker, Fisker, and Henrik Fisker, the former Aston Martin and BMW designer behind the luxury extended range EV, also had reason to be positive.
"We start deliveries in Europe and the US in March. The car you see here is the first production vehicle off the line from Valmut [the production facility in Finland where the four-door Karma is produced]." Fisker said there have already been 3,000 orders for the Karma (priced around that of a BMW 7 Series), and the company plans to produce 15,000 per year. Plans for another Fisker model - known only as "Project Nina", which Fisker says will be a smaller car priced around that of a BMW 3 Series - are well under way with the recent purchase of a factory in Delaware, US. The enthusiastic Fisker spent the entire day talking with and showing anyone who ventured to his booth the luxuries and technologies of his Karma.
But it wasn't just smaller companies that brought their electric cars; all the big players had some form of alternative energy vehicles on display, some in concept form, while others were already road-worthy. Ford, Mini, Renault, Nissan and other major manufacturers all showed off their electric cars. Along with debuting its much- anticipated new CLS four-door coupe, (see our road test on mo3), Mercedes directed a three-prong EV barrage at urban dwellers, starting with its all-electric A-Class E-Cell small car. Production will start this year and the vehicles will initially be leased to customers in Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Along with the E-Cell, Mercedes had its hipper, smaller brand, smart, come out with the smart ForTwo electric car, the escooter and the ebike. The escooter features a blind-spot warning feature and fold-out passenger seat , and both vehicles operate with an iPhone as not only the information gauge but also the key to operate them. But, as Lotus proved, electric vehicles just aren't as sexy as fast, powerful supercars, though Jaguar certainly turned the tables on that thinking with its C-X75 turbine-electric car. But the wildest concept had to have been the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. And as if its extreme edges and sinister matte paint couldn't stand on their own, the supercar manufacturer's booth was populated by the tallest, leggiest, female "booth professionals" of the show; how very Italian.
Its rival from down the road, Ferrari, showed off its latest, the SA Aperta roadster. Based on the 599, it's a bit more conventional, but you can really only say that when comparing it with the Lamborghini. However, don't bother taking out your chequebook: all 80 have been sold. Whether your thing is fast cars or clean-running EVs, the show has it. But what it has most of all is the glamour that's been missing from the industry for a while. I guess Paris can do that to you.
The Paris Motor Show runs until October 17. See more of the cars at the Paris Motor Show by visiting www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/motoring