The Paris Motor Show opens amid a war on cars

For a few fleeting hours last weekend, central Paris was devoid of all cars. Cyclists and pedestrians filled wide Haussmannian boulevards on Sunday afternoon, as they did around this time last year, as part of a municipal campaign for a cleaner, less noisy French capital. But cars will reclaim the spotlight this weekend at the Paris Motor Show, where many automakers are adapting to a new landscape.

There are big reveals planned for this year’s show, including new models and concepts from Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, and Volkswagen, though there are conspicuous absences, as well. Major manufacturers like Ford, Mazda, and Volvo have all skipped the event, as have VW’s Bentley and Lamborghini brands. And unlike previous Paris shows, where new diesel models took center stage, much of the buzz this year centers around hybrids and electric vehicles — underscoring a broader shift across the industry.

Diesel-powered cars have dominated the European market for years, accounting for more than half of all new passenger cars in 2013. (In the US, diesels comprised just 3 percent of total auto sales in 2014.) But in the wake of VW’s diesel emissions cheating scandal, and amid growing concerns over the environment, many automakers are touting EVs and hybrids as viable diesel alternatives.

“Nobody knows exactly when there will be this tipping point, and the whole industry is preparing for that very moment,” says Mathias Jens, product manager for alternative powertrains at Mercedes-Benz.

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The show opened to the press on Thursday under gray skies and heavy security, though there was still plenty of glitzy kitsch. High-end sports cars rotated slowly on meticulously lit platforms; men in pointy-toed shoes ferried croissants and espressos to visibly jet-lagged attendees; and incessant basslines echoed throughout the maze of convention halls spread along the southern edge of Paris. At just about every exhibit, women in cocktail dresses smiled impassively at passersby as they stood next to shiny new cars — a slightly more understated (yet equally sexist) take on the “booth babe” phenomenon that continues to pervade major tech events.

As far as the actual cars go, EVs and hybrids are certainly the main attraction. VW, eager to move on from the diesel emissions scandal, unveiled a battery-powered I.D. concept car that it likens to its iconic Beetle. Mercedes showed off its own electric concept — theGeneration EQ SUV — that can last for as long as 500km (310 miles) on a single charge. Even French companies like Renault, which has long been a juggernaut of diesel manufacturing, gave top billing to its new Zoe EV, which can travel as far as 400km (250 miles) on a single charge.

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