Paris does not often seem like a city that needs encouragement to buy more cars – a three-mile trip across town to the exhibition centre can take an hour and a half on a bad day – but this year's motor show in the French capital brought a raft of exciting new metal, much of it ready to go on sale within the next few months.
Local favourites Citroen, Peugeot and Renault all trotted out exotic concepts to sit alongside their new production models, but this did feel like a show firmly founded on what's available now - or, at least, in the very near future.
We had big-volume new arrivals in the small car class, such as the Hyundai i20, the Skoda Fabia and the Vauxhall Corsa. There were mainstream fleet staples including the latest Ford Mondeo and VW Passat, plus Jaguar's XE executive saloon and Land Rover's Discovery Sport. The run of baby SUVs continued, with new offerings from Fiat, Honda and Suzuki.
There was plenty, then, to tempt you if you're in market for a new car or planning to change in the next 12 months. Here are the cars from the show halls that would have us checking out the finance options.
Audi is playing catch-up with BMW and Mercedes, trying to fill niches in its line-up to take on rivals like the X4, X6 and CLA – and hoping to find a few new favourites of its own. The TT Sportback could be one of those cars, because while it should ostensibly be seen as a competitor for the CLA and, let's say, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, it's really somewhere between those two.
The Sportback is a concept designed to show what a five-door TT could look like. Audi has experimented with 'TT variants' before, showing a couple of concepts with raised ride heights. However, most insiders believe that the stretched five-door variant will be the first to see production.
The five-door TT is 29cm longer than the regular coupe, and even slightly longer than Audi's A3 Saloon. The concept is a hatchback, though, with a rakish profile that does rear headroom few favours. Even so, as an option for those who want a style-focused five-door and who only need to carry small adults or children in the rear cabin, it's easy to see how the TT Sportback could fit in.
The smart money is on this one making production, and for the SUV-themed earlier concepts to also reach showrooms within the next five years. Audi knows the strength of the TT 'sub-brand', and is keen to give existing owners a few reasons as possible for leaving the stable.
French manufacturers always trot out a bit of styling puff for their home show, but Citroen's creation, the Divine DS, is a bit more significant than that. The official line says that it is just a pointer to how future DS models could look, but it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to see how it could be a strong hint at a future DS4.
Citroen's problem is that while the DS3 has been a huge hit, the sub-brand's other models have struggled to attract anything approaching the same number of buyers. The current DS4 crossover has failed miserably, so reinventing it as a premium, lavishly finished five-door hatchback could be a smart move. The concept is a clever shape, with a cabin set far back in the profile and complex texturing along the flanks. At its heart, though, it's still a five-door that could wouldn't take too much watering down to reach production.
DS is now a brand in its own right, incidentally, and its bosses believe it can exist globally with a line-up of just six models. By our reckoning that means two large SUVs, two saloons and two hatchbacks, which means there could still be room for a DS4. As long as it looks like this.
Fiat's love affair with (and reliance upon) the 500 brand continues apace, and the 500X is another example of this. The Italian giant has been caught short without a direct, conventional rival for the VW Golf and Ford Focus; what you get instead are a small MPV, the 500L, and the new SUV, the 500X.
In the metal it's an interesting sight, with clear cues from the 500 on a noticeably larger, more chunky body (it's actually based on the chassis underpinnings from the Punto, not the 500). Still, we see how it will retain 500 buyers who've had the sort of 'lifestyle change' that would otherwise force them to shop away from the brand; Fiat is trying to stop this from happening, much in the same way that Mini has launched the Countryman and five-door Cooper.
The 500X's mechanical make-up sounds comprehensive enough, with four petrol engines and three diesels on offer, and the choice of a five- and six-speed manual gearboxes or a new nine-speed transmission. They'll even offer it in four-wheel drive, although it seems very much more road-focused than its sister car, the Jeep Renegade. While the examples on the stand looked more sensible than the regular 500s, the full gamut of personalisation options will be offered.
The cabin seems more grown-up than the 500's too, with better materials, and while the low floor means a big step over the sill as you climb aboard, there's plenty of headroom for tall adults, even in the back.
Will it sell? It's hard to see why it shouldn't. If Fiat stays sensible with the pricing then the 500X should be a really competitive rival for everything from the Mini Countryman to the Nissan Juke. It may even snare a few Golf and Focus customers along the way.
The launch of the latest Ford Mondeo has been a protracted affair, but after at least two delays the new generation of the car was present, in European specification, on Ford's vast Paris stand.
The Mondeo features more efficient powertrains, an upgrade in perceived quality and a host of new equipment, plus a range-topping Vignale version that includes even plusher finishes and a bespoke customer experience (or at least a free car wash every time you pass by the dealership).
In practice, the cabin feels a little roomier than before, and the button-strewn dashboard has been toned down, with a central touch-screen in its place.
The new Mondeo gets a range of three diesel engines and a couple of petrols, but the motors most likely to be popular are the 2.0-litre 148bhp diesel (less than 110g/km of CO2) and the 1.6 Econetic diesel, which emits just 94g/km. Ford's excellent 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine is also destined to appear but, once again, we'll have to hold on just a little longer for it; expect it in spring 2015.
We do worry, however, that the cabin quality isn't going to be a match for the latest VW Passat's. Ford needs the Mondeo to be able to take on executive models that are coming down into its territory; only time will tell if it's done enough to achieve that.
Honda is desperately late to the baby SUV party, but it moved another step closer to getting a Nissan Juke rival into showrooms by showing the final European preview of the HR-V.
This car is already on sale in Asia as the Vezel, although Honda has reworked the cabin for Europe, and will offer different engines and transmissions. The company hasn't revealed specifications, but we'd certainly expect 1.4-litre petrol and 1.6-litre diesel motors to be at the heart of the range.
A hybrid is another possibility; the HR-V is based on the mechanicals of the latest Jazz, and that car is offered with the combination of electric motor and petrol engine.
In the metal the HR-V looks sharp and distinctive, with a dramatic crease along its flanks that starts at the front of the driver's door and swoops up to the tail-lights. It seems better proportioned than the CR-V, because its rear pillars are much narrower.
Just one point, though; Honda showed this car, the European Jazz, and the latest version of the Civic Type R, as 'concepts', but it seems like we've been seeing some of them for years already. Even if all three models are finally expected to reach showrooms in 2015, it seems bizarre that it's taken so long for this engineering powerhouse to bring them to market.
Hyundai has been inching ever closer to the established order in many key markets – and ahead of them in a few, such as city car – so the Korean brand's Paris offering is a significant one. The outgoing i20 is referred to by Hyundai management as the 'last of the old breed'; indeed, the new model finishes a complete overhaul of the model line-up that's taken barely five years.
The new-generation i20 is safely styled, which is to say that for all Hyundai's hype about a 'floating roof' and a blacked out pillar behind the rear seats, this remains a car focused on value, quality and practicality over pulse-quickening styling (there's the three-door i20 for that, allegedly). However, conservative sells in this market – witness the entirely evolutionary VW Polo and the frankly rather staid Skoda Fabia – so we can see the i20 doing serious numbers, and making further gains.
The cabin will help with this. It's extremely logical and neatly laid out, and some of the fabrics used are a definite step up from those that we've seen on previous Hyundais.
We do wonder if buyers may be put off by having to use their own mobile phone as the infotainment system. VW and Skoda have the natty MirrorLink set-up, which shows specially approved phone apps on a large screen integrated into the dashboard - but Hyundai thinks most customers will be happy enough using a well-mounted smartphone on the i20's fascia. It's either a cost-efficient masterstroke or a decision that could make the i20 look old hat within 18 months.
The build-up to Jaguar's long-awaited rival to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class continued in Paris, with the public debut for the XE. It was encouraging for Jag officials to see huge crowds at the reveal, and perhaps even more noteworthy to watch the heavy hitters from the German premium brands poring over it soon after.
In the metal the XE has definite elements of XF around its front end, but its short, stubby bootline makes the bonnet look longer. The cabin feels a little narrow, and packaging in the rear makes headroom an issue for anyone over 6ft, but the driver-focused environment makes it feel great from behind the wheel.
Jaguar has already announced some pretty impressive figures for the XE, with CO2 emissions of just 99g/km on the cleanest diesel model with a manual transmission. BMW isn't hanging about, though, and on the eve of the show it announced that its revised 3 Series – due only a few weeks after the XE's arrival in showrooms in spring – will manage to dip beneath 100g/km with its eight-speed automatic transmission.
Paris proved, then, that Jaguar is on the right track with the XE, but it also showed how tough the battle for customers is going to be. We do wonder if that rear cabin accommodation may prove a sticking point for some buyers.
The choice of washed-out brown colour scheme didn't do it any favours, but Kia's latest generation of big SUV still made an impression on its global debut in Paris. The Sorento has turned up quite some time after its sister car, the latest Hyundai Santa Fe, but the new arrival still promises to shake up the market for large, value-oriented SUVs.
Nearly 10cm longer than the outgoing version, the new Sorento is available only as a seven-seater in the UK. It gets a more dramatic appearance than the old car, too, with a large chrome-ringed front grille and chunky body cladding. The core engine will remain broadly the same – it'll be a version of Kia's 2.2-litre diesel – but we'd expect Kia's engineers to slice a decent whack off the existing car's CO2 emissions of 155/gkm.
The biggest step should come in the cabin, though, where Kia has already made strong recent progress with the latest Soul. A similar level of upgrade appears to have been applied to the Sorento, so you get better-quality plastics than before and a much more sophisticated infotainment system. The boot grows, too; with only two rows of seats in place there's 605 litres on offer, a gain of almost 20% on the old car's capacity.
There are more SUV offerings than ever on the market, and standing out among them has never been more difficult. However, if Kia plays its usual smart game on pricing (and particularly its finance offers) then we can see a spot for the Sorento as a big-value carry-all. Buyers may just be pleasantly surprised by the quality and standard equipment, too.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
Land Rover actually launched its new Discovery Sport – the replacement for the Freelander – at a spectacular pre-Paris show event on the Seine. However, the new SUV was still present in serious numbers inside the hall – and in some lurid colours. You'd need to be bold to order the bronze-orange version pictured in our gallery above.
Paint shades aside, the Disco Sport looks seriously impressive, for a five-seater. The cabin is a major upgrade over the Freelander's (it puts the existing Discovery's to shame, in fact) and there's plenty of head-, shoulder- and legroom for four adults, or five at a slight squeeze.
The Discovery Sport doesn't really claim to be a seven-seater for seven adults, and that's just as well, because the third row is really designed for occasional use by modestly sized teenagers. However, as an extra option, it's great to have the flexibility.
Our verdict? One of the most impressive cars at the show, and one that seems to have stayed right on message by delivering greater practicality and a premium cabin more befitting of the price. This one will sell well.
Speaking of staying on message, Mazda has boiled down the spirit of MX-5 to come up with the fourth generation of the world's best-selling roadster, which was making its European debut at Paris. The new edition looks beautifully proportioned – much better in the metal than in images, frankly – with a sharp nose and cute round tail-lights. In an era where cars just seem to get bigger and bigger, the new MX-5 is 10cm smaller than the car it replaces.
Better still, the seating position feels fantastic, the pedals are just where you'd want them and the interior quality is a major step forward. We already know Mazda gearboxes can have sweet shift mechanisms and the latest range of Skyactiv naturally aspirated engines should give enough grunt, as long as you rev them hard enough.
The original and Mk2 MX-5s had reputations for driving brilliance, but that purity was lost somehow in the larger, heavier, more complex Mk3. We feel optimistic that we're going to see a return to form here.
The supercar bragging rights might have been secured by Lamborghini, with its fabulous-looking Asterion hybrid, but that's just a concept (for now). If you wanted a real performance car at Paris, your best option was the Mercedes-AMG GT.
The new creation is a strange-looking rival for the Porsche 911, in a way, because we're so used to the 911's rear-engined layout, and Mercedes' offering is so very, well, front-engined. The bonnet looks extremely long, helped by short rear overhangs and a cabin that's set far back into the profile.
There's no arguing with the interior, though; it looks fabulous, with a beautiful finish and plenty of well-proven Mercedes flourishes. Then there's the powertrain; AMG does make a special kind of V8, and the GT's twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre example should be one of the finest yet, with bags of power – 456bhp and 442lb ft of torque – and an exhaust note to die for.
Will it be able to usurp the ultimate all-round sports car, though? The 911 has seen off more than a few rivals in the past, but Mercedes and AMG are serious. It might take place at around the £100k mark, but this should be one of the most keenly fought twin tests in recent history.
Okay, so the UK won't be getting the new Espace, which made its public debut in Paris. British buyers don't buy big French cars any more, apparently, so Renault has decided to do without the costs of converting the new MPV to right-hand drive.
That's a real shame, I reckon, because while the people-carrier market has indeed declined (we all prefer SUVs these days), the Espace does look like it could have the potential to bring something new to the market. Renault has jacked up the seating level, but kept the roofline fairly rakish, so the Espace ends up looking like, well, a cross between an MPV and an SUV. It's large, too; we're not surprised that the car is being offered in five- and seven-seat configurations.
The fascia also features a new design for Renault, with a large central screen. It is conceivable, in fact, that the next generation of Laguna (and the forthcoming SUV) will get get this dashboard. We suspect that neither of those cars will match the Espace for flair and downright curiosity value, though, and that's a pity.
Skoda's Fabia has always been a budget alternative to the likes of the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo; the latest generation, which made its public debut in Paris, has the potential to take on those rivals on more than just value.
The new car's looks are deeply conservative, but there's still something pleasing to eye about the way the Fabia has been made lower and wider; it definitely has a more aggressive stance. The cabin is plain and functional, to the point of being dull - but there's no denying that it feels beautifully screwed together.
Judging from our early drive on German roads, the recipe has been improved by 10% in every area. The Fabia is quieter than before, more accomplished over bumps than before, better finished than before and more sophisticated than before. Its infotainment system – in effect, a version of the set-up that has impressed us so much in the latest Polo – is easily a match for anything you'll find on a Fiesta. There's more room in the back seats; the boot is the largest in the class. You get the idea.
The Fabia's list prices look keen, but if Skoda is anywhere near as aggressive on finance deals with this car as it has been on cars like the Citigo, this could be an astonishing amount of metal for your money. It might not have been the most dramatic car in Paris, but it's certainly one of the most significant.
Paris also marked the debut of the Fabia Combi, which seems a hugely practical small car. Small estates are a niche market within a niche market – to the point where Renault is still deciding whether or not to bring the Clio Sport Tourer to the UK – but the Fabia Combi looks like it deserves it place in the market.
Previewed in the build-up to Paris, Toyota's C-HR concept had been touted as a possible rival to the Nissan Juke and Renault Captur, but the jacked-up creation that appeared in the French capital looked a bigger thing altogether. It's still potentially smaller than the RAV4, though, and probably a decent fit for the much-touted name of Auris Cross.
Toyota released little information on the car, beyond acknowledging that the C-HR concept has a hybrid powertrain but then, this was a showcase for styling, with a dramatic, swoopy look, an aggressive front grille treatment and enormous alloy wheels. In reality, the production version will end up being a five-door and sitting on far more modest tyres.
It was an effective attention-grabber at Paris, though, and if the rumours about a production version within the next three years are true, it should allow Toyota to capitalise on the seemingly insatiable appetite for SUVs of all sizes.
Some sources have also suggested, incidentally, that the production C-HR could share a new set of modular chassis parts with not only future Auris models, but also the next Prius. Improving economies of scale could allow Toyota to reduce its manufacturing and development costs and be more aggressive on pricing. It could, in turn, pitch regular C-HRs against smaller SUVs like the Juke and opening up new buyers to hybrid technology in either the new model or the next Prius.
The new Vauxhall Corsa was unveiled to the media some time before the Paris show, but Vauxhall still tried to grab a few headlines by announcing some aggressive pricing as the event's doors opened. With a starting price of just £8995, the latest generation of the age-old Fiesta rival is primed to undercut not only Ford's offering but the raft of additional, equally new offerings from Mazda (2), Skoda (Fabia) and Hyundai (i20).
Even if you want the new three-cylinder turbocharged engine – and we can think of plenty of reasons why you would – then the Corsa with said unit will cost from £10,995; you'd pay £13,445 for a three-door Fiesta with 1.0-litre three-cylinder power.
Up close, the Corsa is pretty much what you'd expect from a very heavy upgrade of the existing car. That is to say that the core 'passenger cell' – the metal around the cabin, basically – has been retained, which explains why the side profile looks so similar to the outgoing model's. If this sounds worthy of a black mark then it needn't be, because the old Corsa focused on cabin space; sticking with much of its format means that the new edition should still trump many of its rivals when it comes to shoulder- and legroom, particularly for rear passengers.
We've driven an early prototype (with a 1.4-litre engine) and found it to be a mixed bag, with improved ride quality but steering that still feels oddly weighted. However, there's no doubt that the keen pricing and upgrades in standard equipment will make this one of the best-selling Paris debuts.
Just as Volkswagen's Golf improves by 10% with each generation, so the Passat makes a seemingly slow evolution, but the latest generation, shown in Paris, could finally be the edition that starts to make inroads into the executive car market.
VW has invested heavily in improvements to the car's perceived quality and the cabin now feels a step above a Golf's, to the point where it should at least be able to compete with the likes of Audi's A3 Saloon (while offering more cabin space). The exterior is neat to the point of being plain but then, the 3 Series, Mondeo and A3 themselves aren't known for their dramatic appearance. Subtlety sells, clearly.
UK buyers will continue to be offered estate and saloon (the wagon accounts for about 57% of sales here), but the regular petrol engines have been binned. The core units will be a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 148bhp and a 1.6 with 118bhp, although the 99g/km, 109bhp 1.6 Bluemotion version should appeal to company car choosers. There will also be a twin-turbodiesel range-topper with 238bhp and 369lb ft.
The standout version, though, is the Passat GTE, a plug-in hybrid that's set to bring some pretty remarkable figures to the large family car and executive car classes. It mixes an electric motor with a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine to deliver more than 200bhp, but it emits just 37g/km of CO2 and has a combined petrol/electric range of more than 600 miles. Tempting though the twin-turbodiesel edition of the car sounds, it's the GTE that could prove the most interesting option of all.
Volvo took Swedish simplicity to new extremes on Paris motor show press day, displaying just a single example of its new XC90 (we presume the firm will wheel out a bit more metal for the public days).
Still, there's no doubt that the new generation of the big SUV is a huge car for the Swedish firm; it's the first all-new model created under Volvo's Chinese owners, and it sits on a modular set of chassis parts that will underpin all of its future products.
The dark paint job on the XC90 present in Paris made it look low-key but sophisticated, which is presumably what the firm wants as it prepares to take on the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg. It's unmistakably an XC90, though – a feat that Volvo's design team was tasked with achieving.
The clincher in many a sales chat to come could well be the cabin, though, and in particular the fascia. Volvo has managed to blend natural materials, in particular high-grade leathers and woods, with digital displays, including a huge central touch-screen that controls many of the car's functions.
Throw in some impressive CO2 figures – not only from diesel-engined variants but also from a plug-in hybrid version – and a number of new safety tricks, and the XC90 already looks compelling. Volvo's flagship has been overdue for replacement for a few years now, but on this evidence, it looks like they've spent the time wisely.