Diesel's demise and Brexit bluster: why this year's Paris Motor Show is the gloomiest yet

Paris Motor Show 2018
Sports cars like the new BMW Z4 are at risk of becoming extinct under new regulations Credit: KIYOSHI OTA /EPA

Despite the Zones à Circulation Restreinte traffic restriction policies of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, the capital’s roads are as chaotic and as heavy as ever, with vans, trucks, taxis, dustcarts and swarms of scooters mixing in a cheerful melee as we travel down the Rue Des Barres from the Gare du Nord.

They might all carry a Crit-Air Vignette badge, but the clouds of exhaust remain as heavy. Nor does the Boulevard Périphérique ring road appear any less busy these days. Circulating over 270,000 vehicles a day, it is one of the busiest urban highways in Europe. I once rode my Honda round it at rush hour with an old school chum; he’s a much more experienced motorcyclist than I, yet we both agreed it was one of the more terrifying experiences of our lives.

To get on to it, our driver pulls off the most audacious manoeuvre by driving down the side of the long filter lane and swooping in to turn at the last moment. We’ve saved at least ten minutes of queuing and I am about to congratulate him when he narrowly avoids hitting a static car in front as he’s been consulting his mobile phone. I keep silent.

UK car production has fallen for the third successive year, the automobile in general faces new regulatory and political obstacles, and Brexit is poised to disrupt manufacturing on our islands. So as we Brits gather our most fashionable vetements for a biennial motor show in the world capital of romance and dog poo, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all bad news.

Well, it is and it isn’t. The first and most important trend to note is the industry's waning love affair with certain marketing practices, engines and body styles. So out go massively complex price lists with endless wheel, trim and tyre derivatives, in comes a new era of simplicity which makes the new WLTP fuel consumption test procedure less expensive and time consuming.

UK buyers might have noticed some cars disappearing from price lists as manufacturers struggle to meet the “Worldwide harmonized Light vehicles Test Procedure” testing deadline. This new standard caused a 20-year high in August registrations (some 1.17 million cars shifted) as brands offloaded inventory tested under the old NEDC regime, which would become virtually unsellable a few weeks later. But this was a one-off last-minute rush.

"It beggars belief really," said one senior executive in the UK. "We knew everything about it, when it was due, and what we had to do to meet it, and the fact that we haven't is quite shocking. It makes you wonder how the industry is going to meet the next set of deadlines."

The demise of diesel has been well documented, and the latest report by data specialist JATO notes a fall of between 11 and 13 per cent in diesel uptake across the C-segment, including among non-premium C-segment SUVs, which had until recently been a bit of a diesel redoubt.

It will be difficult for OEMs to meet forthcoming EU CO2 requirements with fewer of these superficially more economical diesel power units in their model line ups. There might be a few work-arounds and fudged exceptions, but the 2021 95g/km fleet requirement was tough already, tougher under new WLTP testing and tough squared without diesel. And now the the EU is musing that by 2025, cars will have to 15 per cent more economical still...

The diesel scandal has done damage all over the industry, not just in Germany Credit: Sean Gallup /Getty

Car makers bleat that modern Euro VI diesels are economical and clean, but in the face of potential city and town diesel bans to meet air quality requirements, and a general miasma of uncertainty taking in the potential for higher taxes and fuel prices, buyers aren't having any of it.

Another ongoing tragedy is the demise of the conventional saloon and hatchback in favour of the SUV and crossover. Indeed in some parts of the market it's more helpful to think of SUV/Crossovers as the new conventional, with hatches and saloons a bit left field. This might be fine and dandy for the urban cowboys and school-run mums, but as JATO points out, SUVs are showing the biggest discrepancy between NEDC fuel consumption and reality. We at Telegraph Motoring have been warning of this for at least the past  20 years, so our response is not one of sympathy.

As we drive en masse to France (though there are a fair number of manufacturer no-shows in Paris this year) it's interesting to look at what how our host nation buys its cars. In the first six months of the year the top sellers in France were predictably French; Clio topped the list with sales of 83,936, followed by the Peugeot 208 (68,850), the 3008 SUV (58,431) and then Citroën's C3, Renault's Captur, Dacia's Sandero, 2008, 308, Duster, and Mégane. Market share winners include FCA, Hyundai-Kia and Renault-Nissan while the losers include PSA, Ford and the BMW Group.

From a UK perspective, our first half-year exports to France were down six per cent to 65,600 units. Our strongest exports to France were the Nissan Qashqai, up 16 per cent with sales of 20,596, followed by Mini, down two per cent (9,249) and Nissan's Juke, steady with sales of 9,062. Also crossing the Channel in reasonable numbers were Toyota's Auris, Nissan Leaf, Range Rover Evoque, Mini Clubman, Honda Civic, Vauxhall Astra, and Range Rover Velar.

Even the most cursory glance shows that SUVs are up by almost a third in France, and that voiture ordinaire are down (executive cars were down 4.5 per cent, mid-sized cars down 24.6 per cent). Jato confirms as such with year-on-year, first-six-month sales of big, medium-sized and small SUVs up 48, 25 and 38 per cent respectively. It's worth noting here that small SUVs are predominately sold as front-driven cars, which means owners look ridiculous when it snows and they get their huge pseudo-macho soft-roaders stuck in the car park.

While the alt-fuel market in big SUVs is down, the battery-electric proportion of that market is expected to grow with the arrival of cars like Mercedes-Benz EQC, Jaguar's I-Pace and Audi's e-tron, which debuts at the show. Similarly the market for tiny city cars is growing (up 25.2 per cent), although the French have always loved these urban tiddlers. Just look at the amount of original Renault Twingos still on French roads.

One particular headwind (an industry euphemism for “problem”) is the adoption of plug-in hybrids to meet forthcoming CO2 requirements.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles are terrific in principle, but in real life aren't as useful as they seem

"They cost a lot of money, they don't make their fuel consumption claims unless buyers actually plug them in, the charging infrastructure isn't mature enough and they don't hold their value. Talk to the finance guys if you can make sense of them between the sobbing," commented my contact.

This is about the tens of thousands of plug-in hybrids which will hit the market in the very near future.

"It's not a case of the customer wanting them, but of manufacturers having to get these vehicles registered. If they don’t, they will be penalized under EU rules, and they won't take that penalty.”

The other aspect of this 95g/km requirement is the potential demise of the sports car, which is particularly sad considering BMW is showing its new Z4 in Paris. Premium sports cars are down 14 per cent according to JATO, which comments that "sports cars are slowly disappearing from the roads as they are being challenged by supercars on one side and coupe SUVs on the other".

All three might be threatened as car makers contemplate just how tricky it is to meet those EU emissions requirements, and just how much tougher those barely-profitable sports cars will make it. Something's gotta give and I've a feeling it might be the jolly old two seater…