PARIS European consumers have been buying far fewer cars in recent years; Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne says the auto companies "have lost three million (sales) in five years."
That poses an epic challenge for Europe's struggling carmakers: How to rekindle automotive lust in crisis-sated, climate-conscious consumers and lure them back to showrooms.
One not-so-obvious solution was on display this week at the Paris Auto show - green supercars.
No one expects the average customer to shell out the 416,500-euro asking price for the new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive, the "most exclusive and dynamic way to drive an electric car," according to the German luxury brand.
With a combined maximum output of 552 kW and a top speed of 250 km/h, the flagship performance model will likely be the fastest and most powerful production electric car on the road when it goes into extremely limited production in 2013.
Mercedes admits the battery-powered SLS is reserved for those lucky and affluent few who are "enthusiastic about ambitious high-tech solutions for the future of motoring."
But corporate parent Daimler clearly believes the mere presence next year in Mercedes showrooms of the high-performance two-seater, with its signature gull wings and four powerful electric motors — one for each wheel — should attract curious shoppers who just might walk away instead with a new garden-variety A-, B- or C-Class.
Rival BMW is thinking along the same lines. Its i8 plug-in hybrid, first shown as a styling concept at the 2009 Frankfurt show and reprised in Paris, has been described by the company as its "new-generation sports car". It is expected to cost well over 100,000 euros ($128,600) when it arrives at dealers in 2014.
So far BMW has shown several versions of the i8, including a four-passenger coupe and a two-passenger spider. The futuristic i8 features advanced electronic systems and extensive use of lightweight carbon fiber. Like Mercedes' SLS Electric, all four wheels on the BMW are driven, but with a 96kW electric motor powering the front axle and a 164kW turbocharged three-cylinder gasoline engine at the rear. That's a fraction of the muscle supplied in the Mercedes, but given the i8's ultra-light weight, it's enough to propel the car from 0-100km/h in less than five seconds, while returning a frugal 2.7 litres per 100 kilometers.
Meanwhile Daimler's crosstown rival Porsche continues to stretch its brand with an unlikely derivative of the four-door Panamera, a wagon-like plug-in hybrid it has dubbed Panamera Sport Turismo and tentatively slated for production around 2015.
The Panamera Sport Turismo uses a more advanced version of the electric motor and gasoline engine that power the current Panamera Hybrid, which is priced from around 100,000 euros. It is not nearly as potent as the all-electric Mercedes or the hybrid BMW, but its single motor and supercharged 3.0-liter engine deliver a combined 306kW, and the wagon can be driven in pure electric mode at speeds up to 130 km/h. Fuel consumption is less than 3.5 litres per 100 km, while CO2 emissions are less than 82 g/km.
Conspicuous in its absence is the long-awaited and oft-rumored "New Enzo" from Ferrari. Intended to fill the slot left by the ultra-short production run of the original Enzo (named for the late company founder), the new supercar will now be formally unveiled in January at the Detroit Auto Show, with the first customer deliveries slated to begin late next year.
Here in Paris, Ferrari elected to tease the faithful with a sculpture-like piece of carbon fiber it described as a piece of the new car's chassis, adapted from its highly successful Formula 1 racing cars.
The New Enzo will be Ferrari's first production hybrid model, which it says "will be produced in a limited-edition, special series" rumored to have a starting price tag well in excess of 660,000 euros — the price of the original 2002 Enzo. Likely to ignite even the most jaded Ferraristi, racetrack-style performance will be provided by a massive 600kW 12-cylinder engine mated with a 90kW electric motor, a combination that could rival the output of the mighty Bugatti Veyron.
While all these green supercars are in the pipeline for production, Paris also produced a genuine rarity: An eye-popping concept car with a high-performance hybrid powertrain adapted from racing and a stunning, sharply chiselled body that had seasoned designers like Italy's Giorgetto Giugiaro drooling.
The car — a surprise hit of the show — is the Peugeot Onyx, from the troubled French automaker better known in recent years for its humdrum family cars and dogged determination to sell diesel-powered hybrids to a dwindling base of customers.
Everything about the Onyx marks it as a one-off technological tour de force that is unlikely to see an assembly line: Fenders and doors hand-crafted of copper, a "double bubble" roof made of a special acrylic and a 450kW V8 diesel hybrid system derived from Peugeot's Le Mans endurance racecars.
Sandeep Bhambra, the car's exterior designer, said his mission was simple: "I wanted to show that there are still many dreamers inside Peugeot."
(Editing by Sophie Walker)