Three new vehicles debuting at the Paris motor show this week will show investors and consumers the challenges facing the global car industry as it grapples with the biggest technological changes in a century.
A new BMW 3-series sedan, the latest in a line of cars that defined the concept of a premium sports sedan, will aim to reinvigorate a range that has ceded ground to SUVs and electric drives, while the Mercedes GLE marks an attempt to take an SUV to a new level, with some autonomous driving features.
And the Peugeot e-Legend concept stands for what car makers need to do next, and fast: design electrified vehicles that are appealing and profitable.
The new generation BMW 3-series sedan will immediately fight for attention with a different car bearing the "3" designation — Tesla Inc’s electric Model 3.
Tesla’s Model 3 is now out-selling the BMW 3 in the US, although BMW 3 by far remains the bigger seller worldwide.
Tesla’s all-electric car challenges BMW and other traditional premium brands for technological leadership with software that can be constantly upgraded to improve the car’s performance and driver experience, and to add features.
The new BMW 3-series will also fight for attention in Paris — as in the marketplace — with the worldwide shift to SUVs. That phenomenon will be represented by the new generation of the Mercedes GLE sport utility vehicle, among other models.
The new GLE, which goes on sale next year, will come with a new 48V electronic suspension system that can vary the shock absorbing function at each wheel, individually. Inside the cabin, drivers and passengers can view information on two 12.3-inch screens.
The GLE also takes another step toward automating the process of driving, with a system that can steer and vary the speed of the car within a marked lane up to 60km/h. The GLE can effectively pilot itself in rush hour traffic jams.
Mercedes will offer in the GLE a 48V electrical system that gives the vehicle an electric boost away from stops. That offers a modest reduction in fuel consumption at a time when regulators worldwide want car makers to eliminate their oil-burning, internal combustion technology and go all-electric.
The GLE highlights the auto industry’s conflicted response to the regulatory and consumer pressure to dump diesel technology and accelerate the shift to all-electric vehicles.
Petroleum-fuelled SUVs such as the Mercedes GLE generate the bulk of profits for global car makers. The all-electric Tesla gets praise for its innovation, but is scrambling to show a profit in the third quarter after a tumultuous year.
The challenge for established manufacturers is to design electric cars compelling enough for consumers to pay a profitable premium to own them.
Legacy car makers have tended to produce electric cars that are drab, small or strange.
PSA Group’s Peugeot e-Legend concept aims to break that pattern with a battery-powered homage to the 1968 Peugeot 504 that looks like it could have starred in a late 1960s French New Wave movie.
While not destined for production, the e-Legend does reflect a dilemma facing car makers like PSA — and its track-racing boss Carlos Tavares — over how to reconcile connected, autonomous cars with more traditional product traits such as driving pleasure, where their expertise really lies.
While the Peugeot fantasy car is self-driving, it can also be driven manually, or flipped into a "sharp" autonomous mode that accelerates and steers more aggressively -because, as the company said in promoting the concept, "boredom is not part of our DNA".
Meanwhile, as Mark Smyth reports, motor shows have changed in recent years, as one realises while wandering the halls of the Paris one this week.
The glitz is still there, but you really have to look for it. The glamour is mostly gone, although some new entrants still try their best.
This week’s show was more a chance for the industry to network, to discuss the challenges it is currently facing and for journalists to interview multiple executives in one space. Yes there were new models, but even some of these lacked the big trumpeting of years gone by. BMW revealed its new 8 Series, the Z4 and the X5.
Mercedes also had some big reveals in the form of the new A-Class sedan, B-Class and the A35 AMG and the stunning EQ Silver Arrow race concept.
Kia showed its new e-Niro and Proceed and Hyundai showed its cool i30 N Fastback.
Many of the stars were not on the big stands though. It was a home show for Peugeot and it went big, certainly as far as the giant metallic model lion was concerned, but the focus was more on the superb E-Legend concept, a car that follows the retro theme we have already seen in the Nissan IDX and Honda Urban EV.
Toyota has its new Rav4 and the debut of the new Corolla but without the song and dance of years gone by for the world’s biggest selling model. Porsche had its facelifted Macan and we got our first glance at the new Monza SP1 and SP2 models from Ferrari.
But in what could be seen as a sad reflection on the current state of the motor show game, some of the stars were not of the big reveal variety. Jaguar Land Rover had an immaculate Series 1 and classic XJ ,which attracted a great deal of interest. Maybe the industry needs to find more "different" if motor shows are to remain relevant.