Road Cars

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It’s not often that the Brits get to upstage the entire motor industry at a foreign motorshow, but that’s precisely what happened in Paris at the end of September. The only question was whether it was for the right reasons.

I am a long-term concept-car sceptic. While some portions of the motoring press find them endlessly exciting, my perhaps too cynical nature always wonders whether they are not more motivated by a desire to have something to show on the big occasions than providing any great insight into the future. Sometimes this is demonstrably not the case as Land Rover proved when converting its LRX concept into Evoque reality almost without visible change. But what we are to make of the Jaguar or the six new Lotus models that were revealed is another matter altogether.

For its ability to stop a show in its tracks, the Jaguar C-X75 (below) knew no equal. For its ability to tick every box on the showgoer’s must-have menu, it was probably also unsurpassed. It was striking, beautiful, clean, green, forward-thinking in its implausibly impressive statistics (nearly 1000bhp, yet with a range of 68 emission-free miles, albeit not at the same time) yet backward looking in its clear visual homage to the original XJ220 which first showed its face some 22 years ago. Which makes me feel rather old.

There was also some genuinely original thinking within its outlandish shape. There’s nothing new in it being a lithium-ion powered plug-in hybrid (a concept now so familiar it seems strange to think none is yet freely available for sale in the UK), nor is the fact that it is driven by four separate motors, one at each wheel, exactly a novelty in the concept car world. But its use of gas turbines as the means of extending the car’s range once the batteries are depleted – well, that’s truly novel.

Jaguar says the technology is serious and could be made to work, but the truth is, of course, that they say so from the comfort of not having to make any firm commitments because, after all, the C-X75 is just a concept car and any production version inconceivable in the next five years, if at all.

Whereas the Lotus Elise (above right), Elan, Esprit, Elite and Eterne are all meant to be destined for the showroom. Lotus has a five-year plan to transform its business which involves not simply the launch of these five models plus a compact city car and the transformation of the Hethel factory and facilities, but dragging the Lotus name so far upmarket it will become natural for people to consider Lotus a rival to Aston Martin, Maserati and Porsche.

The news makes me quiver. I know of no other brand to have successfully undergone such a radical repositioning in so short a period: the Elan is eyeing up the 911, the Esprit the Lamborghini Gallardo. The Elite is a coupé in the style of the Maserati GranTurismo while the Eterne is Lotus’ answer to the four-door Aston Martin Rapide. Even the Elise, the Lotus staple these past 15 years, will be faster, heavier and far more expensive.

I’m petrified that while Lotus might feel it needs these cars to compete on the world stage, the world might not share the same view. For myself I need Lotus to build small, light, technologically clever cars that can be afforded by the many rather than the few. Nobody else is making such cars in any number at all, while the market for the kind of products Lotus now aspires to make is bulging with competitors with more money in their petty cash tins than Lotus has seen in its life to date. I hear talk that it’s all just posturing, that Lotus is being fattened up for sale but Lotus itself is adamant it’s all for real. If that’s true it is attempting what many people far cleverer and more in touch with the car industry than me regard as no less than impossible.

I was much more encouraged by the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. It looked so outlandish, so unreal that it was easy to dismiss it as just another publicity stunt concept rather than spot it for the technological breakthrough it contains. In fact it’s incredibly exciting and not because it has a 562bhp V10 engine and four-wheel drive. Rather more compelling is its 995kg kerbweight and the innovative way it has been achieved. As you might expect the Sesto Elemento is made almost entirely from carbon fibre, but instead of being cooked in resin for hours it’s pressed in a tool for less than 10 minutes. Not only does it offer the light weight and much of the strength of traditional carbon without the hideously expensive and time-consuming production process, you can also stamp it into some pretty wacky shapes as the Sesto Elemento shows.

Look at it this way: a one-tonne Lamborghini would need only 390bhp to maintain the power to weight ratio of the current Gallardo which has 552bhp. It could do that with a normally aspirated 3-litre V8 engine (whose specific output need be scarcely any higher than a Ferrari 458 manages today) which would enable huge follow-on weight savings in transmission, suspension, wheels, tyres, brakes and so on. Light weight breeds light weight. Think of the fuel and CO² savings if you like, but above all, think how much more fun such a car would be! As Lotus looks to add power and weight to its cars, surely the future lies with cars that do precisely the reverse.

It’s innovations like this that really get me excited. They’re real, their benefits are clear and quantifiable and they can be put to use right now.

The same can be said, albeit at a rather more humble level, of the Fiat 500 TwinAir. Trust Fiat to see the relevance of a return to two- cylinder power. It has built a 900cc turbocharged twin with power of up to 105bhp, an output for which you’d need a normally aspirated four-cylinder engine at least half as big again both internally and externally. And by applying its clever multi-air control system to the inlet valves which allows their timing to be advanced, delayed or even for them to be opened twice within the same combustion cycle, Fiat claims its fuel consumption and emissions are 30 per cent better than conventional alternatives. I’ve not driven it yet but for those looking for a viable solution for small car transport – the hybrid option being altogether too cumbersome and heavy for such cars – the TwinAir sounds as convincing as anything I’ve yet heard.