If the recent Paris Motor Show is any indication, the auto industry risks careening down a road to a ghetto filled with fleets of bland, uninspiring transportation appliances. As a harbinger of the four-wheel future, Paris could mark the beginning of the end for the car business as we've known it for 100 years.
Personally, after Paris, I'm preparing for the wake. I am worried because without passion, energy, vitality and chutzpah, the business of making and selling cars is no different than the washer/dryer industry. At least in the broad sense, Paris lacked passion.
Seven winners from Paris
You had to go to the Jaguar exhibit and its C-X75 concept car to see an example of how car companies large and small can inject joy into the electrified future that all the experts say awaits the auto industry.
I mean, if it's true that "progress" for an auto maker is, as Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told reporters in Paris, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class flagship luxury sedan powered by a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, then we're not far from snapping shut the casket lid on what used to be a sexy, fascinating and thrilling business.
Who really cares if Mercedes-Benz is the world's most fuel-efficient premium car maker? Does it matter if Mercedes is the "efficiency world champion?" Perhaps some day, but certainly not to today's image-conscious Merc buyers. They buy the three-pointed star for power and prestige, not low CO2 numbers and fuel economy from a diesel powerplant.
Zetsche and his team say they would never debase the S with an underpowered oil burner of an engine. Never. Their engine will be different. It will be a Mercedes engine. But a four-banger S-Class? Unheard of in the 100-year history of Mercedes.
But we saw a lot of the unheard of in Paris and much of it was symptomatic of the serious illness starting to afflict the industry. The telltale signs are dullness, and a high level of conformity to the orthodoxy of the so-called "green agenda" sweeping not just Europe, but North America and Asia, too.
Paris - the auto show that sets the table for new-car introductions in the coming year - was alive with European auto makers hustling to market a slew of electric and hybrid vehicles, mainly for low-carbon urban driving. Saving the planet is an admirable goal and if it's possible to do so with racy electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids, count me in.
On the other hand, well, big chunks of what the industry is planning can be summed up in one word: Boring.
For every V-8-equipped Lotus Esprit (all 620 hp of it) there were five, no 10, Renault Zoes (a four-seat electric minicar) and Honda Jazz Hybrids (the Jazz being the Fit in Canada). We fell in love with the Esprit not because it's officially a hybrid (an optional regenerative braking system qualifies it as such) but because it's a gorgeous monster of a super-car. The Zoe and the Fit/Jazz are - let me be kind here - people movers.
The French auto maker expects to produce about 150,000 all-electric Zoes a year, representing about two-thirds of the company's EV sales in Europe. It's important as a piece of the Nissan-Renault Alliance's grand scheme to become a powerhouse EV company. But was I ready to pop the cork on the champagne just at the sight of it? Ah, no.
Truth be told, the Zoe is not an unattractive car, but it won't set your heart a-fluttering - not even if you are a true believer, a committed environmentalist right down to your Birkenstocks.
The Jazz/Fit Hybrid is another bit of transportation. Sure, it's a wonder of packaging, a subcompact minivan-like runabout with astonishing fuel economy. But it's shaped like a bread box and drives like one. Honda Canada wouldn't be able to give away Fit Hybrids, and won't have to try. While the Europeans and Asians will get the car, we won't, not here in North America. Canadians and Americans are not willing to pay a premium for so little driving excitement, even if it's possible to stuff a hockey team and its gear inside a Fit.
As far as the concept cars in Paris, well, it was hard to get excited about the Kia Pop. The wedgy Pop is the Green Party's dream ride: it has an 18-kilowatt lithium battery that makes a stunning 68 horsepower and powers the vehicle to a top speed of 87 mph. The Put-Put would be a better name for the Pop.
The thing is, the great downsizing of vehicles does not need to be marked by a great surrender to political correctness. It's possible to create vehicles with both style and what you might call "green" substance.
Case in point: Renault's stunning Dezir red coupe concept. An EV, sure, but one for the craziest of gearheads - or, in this age of EVs, should I say traction motor heads?
We're always happy to see a French car company do something right in Paris, but it's even more fun to see a British-based automotive icon steal the Gaullist show. That's exactly what Indian-owned Jaguar did with its C-X75 concept, a 780-hp, we-might-build-it-if-demand-is-there turbojet-powered hybrid.
Stunning to look at and dripping with clever technology, Jaguar's electric super-car concept landed in Paris to celebrate 75 years of the Leaper and the Growler. The C-X75 can reach 330 km/h and sprint from rest to 100 km/h in just 3.4 seconds. It will do 80-145 km/h in just 2.3 seconds, yet for a range of 110 km puts out zero tailpipe emissions while running solely on lithium-ion battery power.
"The C-X75 is everything a Jaguar should be. It possesses remarkable poise and grace yet at the same time has the excitement and potency of a true super-car. You could argue this is as close to a pure art form as a concept car can get and we believe it is a worthy homage to 75 years of iconic Jaguar design," design director Ian Callum said.
The Jaguar concept is as far from a golf cart as anything on four wheels can be. It has four 145 kW electric motors - one for each wheel - that, combined, produce 780 hp. Using individual motors has benefits in terms of weight-saving and distribution, packaging and efficiency.
Each motor weighs just 50 kg and putting a motor at each wheel makes this concept a four-wheel-drive ride. Two micro gas-turbines, spinning at 80,000 rpm, can generate enough electricity to extend the range to 900 km, while emitting just 28 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
The well-considered technology here is exceeded only by the design of the car. The overall look steals from the XJ220 super-car and XJ13 concept, but its curves are original, and the pooled expanses of sheet metal comprising the hood and rear deck lid are to die for.
So Paris had a handful of concepts and potential production cars to suggest that a green and ultimately electrified future might not be all bad for the auto industry.
Still, there were too many worrisome signs of an industry struggling to find traction in a world where the loud voices of car-hating environmentalists are being heard too well by heavy-handed regulators who seem determined to squeeze the fun and the life out of every car company in existence.
In the face of that, let's toast the likes of Jag's C-X75, celebrate its creativity and passion. This is what car companies need to tease us with and ultimately build. If they don't, we'll be passing around the bottle at the industry's wake.
Seven winners from Paris