Given the number of mid-market sedans on view, this year's Paris auto show might be dubbed the Family Car Show. Consider some of the stars in the Paris lineup: Citroen's new C5, Renault's new Laguna, Volkswagen's restyled Passat and Ford's redesigned Mondeo.
The contrast with North America is instructive. In the New World, automakers have completely caved in to the sport-utility phenomenon. Automakers now are disguising both cars and pickups to look like sport-utilities. The front-wheel drive version of the Ford Escape is a wagon that wishes it were a truck. The Subaru Outback is little more than a Legacy with extra body cladding. And now we are seeing short-bed pickups with four doors and all the conveniences of - what else? - a sport-utility.
All this seems faintly ridiculous, so it comes as a relief to visit an auto show where cars are cars. In Europe, automakers are forced to put much of their effort into a vehicle's performance. Customers expect superior ride and handling, and they expect a choice of diesel and gasoline engines. Woe betide the automaker who wants to believe that one size fits all.
Cynical readers might note the debut of the Fiat Doblo in Paris. It's a compact sport-utility that will carry an all-wheel- drive system designed by Suzuki or Isuzu. But the Doblo actually fits the same category as the Citroen Berlingo and the Renault Kangoo. These vehicles are all about utility, not looks.
Granted, North American automakers are beginning to conduct similar experiments. The popular Chrysler PT Cruiser and the doomed Pontiac Aztek are two examples. Distinctions between cars, sport-utilities and minivans are fast disappearing. But U.S. automakers still seem more concerned with a vehicle's looks than its versatility.
I think Europe and Japan will continue to lead the way in the design of cars and all-purpose vehicles. Meanwhile, automakers in the United States will produce every conceivable variation of sport-utility.
You can e-mail David Sedgwick at [email protected]