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+++ ELECTRIC car prototypes and plans are set to dominate the Paris auto show as the Volkswagen diesel scandal and falling battery costs persuade executives and investors that plug-in vehicles are ready to go mainstream. The expected flurry of announcements signals a threat to pioneers of the current generation of battery-powered cars, such as Tesla and Renault-Nissan, who will now have to work harder to defend their lead.

Volkswagen is leading the charge, keen to turn a page after its exposure last year as a U.S. emissions test cheat. The German carmaker will showcase new electric vehicle (EV) architecture underpinning a staggering June pledge to achieve annual sales of 2 million-3 million electric cars by 2025. “Everyone’s watching Volkswagen – they’ve set out some very high expectations,” said Ian Fletcher, an analyst with consulting firm IHS Automotive. “Brands like Renault, Nissan and Tesla are still going to be mainstays, but there will be far greater competition for electrification.” Nissan’s 2010 Leaf kicked off the contemporary crop of battery-only cars, joined 2 years later by alliance partner Renault’s Zoe. But scarce charging points, a driving range limited to around 160 kilometers and cheap fossil fuel stifled mass-market demand. Renault-Nissan, whose Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn had promised to deliver 1.5 million EVs by 2016, has logged barely 350,000 sales to date. The Leaf accounts for two-thirds of those, more than any other electric model. Tesla meanwhile stormed the premium market with its Model S sports car, tallying about 130,000 sales since its launch the same year as the Zoe. Its success proved that consumers were prepared to pay $72,000 for an EV that can do 425 km on one charge. But that kind of range is about to be matched by mass-market vehicle brands at much lower prices, thanks to a leap in battery technology that is mirrored by sales projections. Electric cars may claim 15 percent of registrations in 2025, Barclays analyst Kristina Church predicts, compared with 0.4 percent last year. Chevrolet’s $37,500 Bolt, arriving in U.S. showrooms late in 2016 and in Europe as the Opel Ampera-e next spring, covers 383 km with its 60 kilowatt-hour battery from LG Chem (051910.KS), General Motors announced earlier this month. “Opel is democratizing the electric car with the Ampera-e,” Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann said at the time. Tesla had promised to do that with its promised Model 3, but the new vehicle will trail the General Motors launch by at least a year, with a shorter expected range. The Bolt also travels further between charges than the entry-level Model S. “Tesla is the champion of EVs, but long-term success not guaranteed,” Church said in a note to Barclays clients. “Traditional manufacturers are better prepared to face future mobility trends than some believe.” In Paris, Renault will unveil a longer-range Zoe “LR”, with an upgraded 40 kWh LG battery that can power it almost as far as its larger General Motors rival, company and industry sources told Reuters. The new version will go on sale almost immediately. But affiliate Nissan, which builds its own batteries in a venture with NEC, will not be in a position to follow suit for another year, the sources said – leaving its flagship Leaf outgunned by the Bolt in the interim. Mercedes will show an electric car in Paris and outline plans for as many as 9 production models, a source told Reuters recently, as part of a push by German luxury heavyweights to challenge Tesla. BMW bosses are staying home to thrash out plans to follow their i3 with an expanded EV lineup, people familiar with the matter said. They are not the only executives taking a pass on Paris, where the outcry over “dieselgate” and weak emissions regulation has sharpened enthusiasm for electrified motoring. Ford and Volvo are among the absentees. As if to underline growing hostility towards combustion engines in congestion-clogged cities, the French capital held its biggest ever “Car-Free Day” the Sunday before the show. Lawmakers voted the following day to pedestrianize the Seine’s right bank, permanently closing a major traffic artery. Autonomy, a new Paris gathering of ride-sharing startups and other “urban mobility” operators, is also giving the traditional automotive fest a wide berth, setting up camp in a diametrically opposite corner of town. “The car show is for people who see vehicles as objects of desire,” said organizer Maureen Houel. “Autonomy is for city-dwellers who need to get around effectively.” +++

+++ EURO NCAP has awarded the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the upcoming Peugeot 3008 with its top, five-star safety rating in its latest round of tests. Both cars scored well in the four areas measured by Euro NCAP – adult, child and pedestrian protection, and safety systems. The E-Class scored marginally higher in the safety systems test because it offers Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) as standard. The technology is only optional on the 3008. Despite the E-Class’s five-star rating, though, safety group Thatcham Research says more needs to be done to make some of the car’s most sophisticated safety systems available as standard. These include its semi-autonomous Drive Pilot function, which is currently part of an expensive Driving Assistance Plus Pack. Thatcham’s director of research, Matthew Avery, said: “The E-Class is head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to advanced safety features. However, we know that the take-up of optional safety features is typically less than 10%, so more needs to be done in terms of standard fitment to make these superb technologies more widely accessible.” The company has also highlighted what it calls the ‘gulf’ in safety standards across the world, pointing out that some of India’s newest cars, including the Renault Kwid and Honda Mobilo, are offered without even airbags as standard. By comparison, when Euro NCAP began testing cars in 1997, most European models had at least a driver’s airbag. Speaking after both the Kwid and Mobilo were re-tested earlier this month, secretary-general of Global NCAP David Ward called on Renault and Honda to make their Indian models safer. He said: “They have the know-how to make all their Indian cars much safer. We expect them to start doing so now.” +++

+++ FORD has dropped more hints of what’s in store for its next Fiesta ST hot hatch and it’s likely that the all-new performance supermini will use a tuned version of the firm’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost engine in place of the current car’s 1.6 turbo. Ford’s head of small cars in Europe, Darren Palmer, told Auto Express: “We’re seeing more and more of what we can do with the 1.0-litre engine in development and the signs are promising. It’s a great engine – it sounds brilliant and there’s loads of torque when the turbo comes on boost, so we’re looking into things for the next ST.” Currently, the highest output from the three-cylinder turbo in production form is 140 hp, but back in 2012 Ford specially tuned the EcoBoost unit to 205 hp in a one-off version of its Formula Ford racer. If this power level could be achieved reliably in the forthcoming ST, it would give a 12 per cent increase over the current hottest Fiesta. Palmer told us: “There’s still a huge demand for the ST – we’ve seen that with the current ST200. But we want to offer more, so expect more performance and efficiency.” The logical way to achieve this would be to use the 1.0 EcoBoost motor, and with Ford announcing it will halve production at its engine plant in Bridgend, south Wales, which makes four-cylinder engines exclusively, the manufacturer is set to increase the use of its three-cylinder unit in future models. The Fiesta ST is likely to be one of these. However, the improvements to Ford’s small hot hatch won’t just come under the bonnet. According to Palmer, the European development team at the brand’s Lommel testing facility in Belgium has “obsessed over the car’s steering. They’ve fine-tuned the calibration to make sure it drives exactly how a Fiesta should”. Palmer told Ford knows it’s got one of the most popular superminis and wants to build on the nameplate’s popularity, so it’s “going in hard with the new Fiesta”. Given the triple’s engine block is no larger than a piece of A4 paper, the 1.0-litre EcoBoost is small and light, which should bring a big benefit in terms of handling. The downsized engine should also improve on the outgoing car’s fuel economy and 138 g/km CO2 emissions. +++

+++ NISSAN is most likely to choose a Fiesta-sized supermini or a crossover to sit alongside the Leaf as its next pure-electric vehicle, according to a senior company source. The Japanese firm has sold more than 200,000 examples of the Leaf since its launch in 2010 – and it is already planning a successor to the model that will stay close to its five-door family hatchback layout. The recent appearance of a working prototype of the Bladeglider sports car has prompted speculation that the next step in Nissan’s publicly stated goal to spread pure-electric tech throughout its line-up could be a niche model for driving enthusiasts. However, Gareth Dunsmore, the man in charge of Nissan’s EV programme in Europe, told that a sports car is not a priority for the brand. Instead, he gave the strongest indication yet on what’s likely to get the green light, saying: “We’ve invested 5.4 billion dollar in electric cars such as the Leaf, so we need to ensure we’re satisfying as many types of customer as possible. In Europe, that could mean looking towards B-segment hatches [Ford Fiesta size] and SUVs or crossovers.” Dunsmore added: “The first people who bought EVs were the proud early adopters. The second people were the fleets. And the third people were families, who wanted affordability and practicality. The Leaf is well placed to deliver to those customers, and will continue to do so. If we look towards crossovers or the B-segment for the next car, those could make perfect sense.” The smaller vehicle could become a sister car to the Renault ZOE, potentially using its platform and battery technology. Such a move would help the ZOE’s production facility at Flins in France to work closer to its capacity. An EV crossover could be based on the Leaf itself. Nissan’s EV platform is said to be heavily based on the B0 architecture that underpins the likes of the Nissan Juke crossover, so it could support a vehicle with a raised ride height. Dunsmore’s comments back up views expressed recently by Nissan’s executive vice president for product, Roel de Vries. He said: “Nissan is committed to EVs making up a large part of its range, and we are looking at where we can add more electric cars. The next step would be in another volume sector, which probably isn’t sports cars.” +++

+++ When it comes to alternative powertrains, there is the future, and there is here and now. As TOYOTA and Lexus prepare to introduce three new hybrids to their European line-ups – the Toyota C-HR Hybrid, the new generation Prius Plug-In Hybrid and the Lexus LC 500h coupe – Toyota Motor Europe (TME) is seeing a sharp increase in its existing hybrid sales so far this year: +45% versus 2015, which was already a record year. These three new models will be on the Toyota and Lexus stands at the forthcoming Paris Motor Show. “We’re on track to sell close to 300,000 hybrids this year,” said Karl Schlicht, Executive Vice President of TME. “That is a new record for us and positions Toyota and Lexus as leaders in electrification.” The company plans to achieve more than 900,000 total sales in Greater Europe this year, with a third of those being hybrid. “This really shows that hybrids are what customers want right now – which is a great reward for having invested so early in powertrain electrification.” Toyota Motor Europe started commercialising hybrids in 2000 with the first generation Prius. To date, 1.5 million Toyota and Lexus hybrids have been sold on the continent. Europe is Toyota’s fastest-growing region worldwide for hybrid sales. Toyota’s target is to reach 50% of its European sales with hybrid vehicles by 2020, with a hybrid version in every major market segment. Amongst the most popular Toyota hybrid models are the C-segment Auris Hybrid (57,884 sales from January to August), the B-segment Yaris Hybrid (55,611), and the recently launched RAV4 hybrid (25,909). Toyota sells 7 hybrid models in Europe: the Yaris, Auris/Auris Touring Sports, RAV4, Camry, Prius, Prius Plug-In, Prius Plus (MPV), and is introducing an 8th hybrid at the end of this year: the all-new Toyota C-HR, a highly anticipated C-segment crossover. “Our retailers are extremely excited about Toyota C-HR,” said Karl Schlicht. “We started taking orders this month and are very confident this new entry in the growing cross-over segment will further help grow our sales into 2017. From what we can see so far, nearly 70% of customers will choose the hybrid version.” The new Prius Plug-In Hybrid is another big step over the previous generation, which was the first plug-in hybrid on the market worldwide when it launched in 2012. The new Prius Plug-In Hybrid offers a pure-electric range of more than 50 km and a fuel consumption of just 1 litre per 100 km (22g of CO2/km). Research recently commissioned to the University of Rome reveals how the new, fourth generation Prius operates with zero emissions for most of the time and distance covered on a typical city commute. Data gathered from more than 2,200 km of driving on a typical Rome commuting journey reveal that the test Prius cars spent an average 73.2 per cent of the journey time (62.5 per cent of the journey distance) producing no tailpipe emissions. These figures included periods when the car was stationary, with the engine automatically switched off. The results were even better in urban areas, where noise, pollution and air quality are of special concern. On these sections of the route, Prius achieved zero emissions for 79.4 per cent of the journey time and 76.3 per cent of the route distance. This level of performance was possible thanks to the quality of Toyota’s latest hybrid powertrain. Almost 45 per cent of the car’s drive power was sourced from the electric motor, with 34.3 per cent of its energy to the wheels produced by the regenerative braking system. Thus, more than one third of the power used to drive the wheels of the test cars was produced simply by the act of braking or slowing down. +++

+++ Strong British car manufacturing figures are all very well, say UNITED KINGDOM car manufacturers, but they don’t mean expected challenges posed by Brexit are over. Speaking during an event at the Eiffel Tower, where 8 new British cars were displayed on the eve of the Paris motor show to underscore the UK’s recent healthy car export performance, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mike Hawes, warned that the success had come entirely during pre-referendum trading, but that the industry could not depend on the same business environment in future. “Recent headlines have suggested that Brexit is no problem,” Hawes told an audience of industry leaders that included Minister for International Trade, Mark Garnier. “Even our own figures – 900,000 cars exported so far this year – paint a picture of a strong and vibrant industry. But these results have come about because around £10 billion has been invested in our industry over the past 5 years. It was a huge help with model development and with R&D. And best of all, we were – and still are – in the single market.” Hawes explained that the industry had become deeply concerned about future conditions since the referendum. There was a danger of investment “leaking away”, he said, because investors were less confident of the future. The SMMT saw “a window” between now and the start of Brexit negotiations early next year to get its message across and intended to take advantage. The major initiative, said Hawes, was to encourage the government to do everything possible to preserve current trading conditions by staying in the single market. There was a clear distinction between having access to the single market, he said, and actually being in it. “All our advice points one way: you’re either in the single market or you’re not,” he added. The SMMT had looked carefully at deals negotiated by other countries on the fringes of the EU – Norway, Turkey and Switzerland – and found that none would offer the market conditions that had helped to bring the UK its automotive success in the past five years. “It’s imperative that the government remembers this when negotiating,” said Hawes. “It’s the key to everything.” +++

+++ VOLKSWAGEN said on Tuesday its finances remained robust as it sought to allay concerns after a share fall which some traders linked to a media report which said the U.S. Justice Department was assessing whether fines could put the automaker out of business. “The financial strength of Volkswagen Group is still quite robust. Today, the total special items relating to the diesel issue amount to 17.8 billion euros and all consequences of the diesel topic known so far are covered,” the company said in a statement. Volkswagen shares fell 4.6 percent with some traders citing a Bloomberg sourced to 2 people familiar with the negotiations as saying that the U.S. Justice Department was assessing the automaker’s financial strength before imposing a fine. The shares were down 4 percent at 111.60 euros at 1112 GMT. VW has already agreed to spend up to $16.5 billion to address environmental, state and owner claims in the United States related to emissions from its diesel engines. It still faces billions in potential fines and must resolve the fate of 85,000 polluting 3.0-litre vehicles. Volkswagen said in its statement that it could only comment on the size of penalty payments once ongoing procedures and investigations conclude. “While the headlines should be taken seriously, we believe the language being reported infers a certain degree of ‘showboating’. No one wants to be seen to be ‘going light’ on VW,” said a note from analysts at Evercore ISI who hold a buy rating on the stock and a target price of 160 euros. +++

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