Guardian Environment Network

This Guardian story was written by reporter Bibi van der Zee. Grist is a member of the Guardian’s Environment Network.


The Paris Motor Show is so dazzling, so enormous and so festooned with models, champagne bars and plasma screens that it almost convinces you that everything is marvelous. The car salesmen are all smiles and handshakes — but what they would really like to do is fall to their knees and plead with you. Buy our cars! Please!

The truth is that the motor industry is in freefall. In the U.K., between September 2007 and September 2008, new numberplate registrations fell by 26 percent. In the U.S., the market is vanishing; manufacturers are looking to George Bush for a $25 billion bailout. In Japan, Toyota’s September sales fell from 213,042 in 2007 to 144,260 this year. China’s car sales, after months of rapid growth, have slumped, and in Brazil, Mexico, France, Germany and India sales also fell: there is almost no one in the world, it seems, who feels that this is the right moment to buy a new car.

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To make matters worse, the financial turbulence comes just as restrictions on carbon emissions are finally catching up with car makers. Of all industries, the car sector has been the slackest at reducing its CO2 levels. Attempts at self-regulation have failed and now the authorities are stepping in; the European Commission will shortly ratify new targets that will require car manufacturers to reduce emissions to an average of 130g per km.

Some companies, such as Peugeot, Renault and Fiat, seem likely to hit this target, but many will miss it, which means more fines, higher costs and prices rising again. Meanwhile, despite the recent fall in the price of fuel, motorists are still concerned by the issue of running costs. A tankful may be less this week, but who knows what will happen next week?

As a result, although most manufacturers are feeling the pinch, it is the makers of high-performance gas guzzlers who are suffering most: in August, sales of Porsches and Land Rovers fell by nearly 58 percent, and Chryslers by 66 percent.

However, sales of what are usually known as “city” cars have risen by 17 percent: consumers are going for the smallest, cheapest options. Smart cars, for example, have confounded the market with a 9 percent sales rise year-on-year. And although this is the sector of the industry with the narrowest profit margins, no one cares any more. At the Paris show, the real buzz is small.

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Small comes in two forms. First, you have the electric plug-ins: Nissan’s Nuvu, Renault’s ZE Concept, Tang Hua’s Chika, Ligier’s X-Too and Chrysler’s Zeo. These cars are everywhere at the show: boxy, cute and decorated with stencils of leaves and grass to emphasise their greenness.

For now, though, the infrastructure is not really in place for electric cars, so many of them will probably stay at the concept stage. As Ben Lane of What Green Car says: “The problem is that you need to get to an electric point to power up. Once you have limited the range of the car, and also limited its size, most car manufacturers are not convinced the market is really there.”

The serious buzz in Paris is around small petrol and diesel cars that are already in production. Perhaps mindful of consumer eco-fatigue, “blue” is the new “green” here; Peugeot has introduced Blue Lion branding to make its green cars easier to identify, Mercedes is pushing its C200 CDI Blue Efficiency, Volkswagen is extremely proud of its Polo 1.4 Bluemotion, and Hyundai is showing off a new range called the i-Blue.

Hyundai has been taken aback by the popularity of its little i30 (119g/km), which has a waiting list, and at the show it launched an even greener version, the i10, which will emit 99g/km. The Peugeot 107 (109g/km) looks likely to be the bestselling low-emissions car of 2008 in the UK, while Nissan, which is in danger of drastically missing the EU emissions targets in 2010, is pinning its hopes on the new Pixo (103g/km). Mini is showing its latest Cooper (104g/km), Citroen has the new snappy-looking Citroen C3 (115g/km) and Daihatsu produces my personal favourite of the show, the boxy, funky Trevis (114g/km).

Might small cars be the future? For the past few years the race has been to get emissions below the magical 100g/km, but now at least four manufacturers have broken through the barrier, with the Smart Fortwo hitting 88g/km. All over the show, next to the neat-bellied city cars, the big saloons begin to look oddly lumbering and old-fashioned. Not only are these cars tying the hands of the manufacturers — the cost of getting the emissions of a saloon below 130g/km will be considerably larger than the cost for a small car — but they are not selling.

At the Audi stand, I ask one of the salespeople why the company is still showcasing a large car, unlike almost every other stand. He juts his chin out and says defiantly: “That’s Audi’s business, big cars. That’s what we do.” He doesn’t look very happy about it though.

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