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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 27, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    Peugeot comes out fighting.

    Neil Briscoe

    We all knew that Paris 2012 was going to be analogous to Detroit 2009. At the Detroit motor show three years ago, the gloom was palpable, the sense of impending doom hanging in the air over both the American economy and, more specifically, its motor industry. Within months of the show, both General Motors and Chrysler would seek bankruptcy protection and the motoring world would never quite be the same again.

    Plus ca change. Here we are at the Paris Motor Show and while GM, Ford and Chrysler are once again riding high on the crest of recovering car sales in America, here in Europe, the gloom has settled in, taken off its shoes and is flicking through the TV guide. The European car industry is in crisis and with even the big German premium players starting to notice the icy draughts coming in under the door, the situation looks worse every day.

    So to have a glitzy, upbeat motor show in the middle of all this seems to be more than a little grotesque. Banks of shining new cars, ever-smiling stand staff, the hoopla of press conferences and announcements, all at a time when you’d half expect to see a closing down sale hanging on the door of Porte de Versailles.

    Still, everyone’s here, so we may as well get on with the party…

    Of the big European makes having widely reported problems, Peugeot (along with its sister company Citroen) is probably second only to Opel on the critical list. Recently bumped from the CAC40 stock exchange listing, facing down the barrel of a massive re-organisation with attendant job losses, Peugeot is struggling hard with slipping sales and encroaching competition.

    Yet, it has come out in seriously fighting mood at the motor show with three major debuts and more news in the offing. Its stand seems positively populated with exciting stuff at a time when some rivals are struggling to wheel out a couple of special edition seats-and-stickers models.

    As if the first official sighting of the much-anticipated new 208 GTI wasn’t enough, then there’s the almost-ready-for-production 2008 crossover, which will give Peugeot a much-needed rival to the likes of the Skoda Yeti and Nissan Juke. It may not be as purely emotive as the GTI but it will likely be an even bigger seller and it has that rare quality of looking exactly right, first time. Please Peugeot, don’t change a single thing on it.

    And then there’s the Onyx. Now, flights of fancy on a motor show stand are nothing unusual, but this one takes the biscuit, cream filling and all. Its exterior is a mix of carbon-fibre and copper panels. The cabin has no seats, just a floor with clever cushions. The drivetrain is a massively powerful 3.7-litre V8 diesel hybrid, lifted straight from Peugeot’s stillborn hybrid Le Mans racer and pumping out 680bhp, all in a car that weighs 1,100kg. Brilliant, but at a time of austerity and market contraction, you’d have to ask why? So we did. And Emma Toner, Marketing Manager for Gowan Distributors, the Irish Peugeot importer, told us:

    “Peugeot is now over 200 years old and it’s not going to collapse overnight. Yes there are difficult decision to be faced over the next while, but the brand must go on and it will continue to be one of the biggest in Europe. Equally, the Onyx wasn’t dreamed up overnight, it was planned for some time and why not bring it to Paris and show it off? It’s a demonstration that Peugeot has a very strong future ahead if it.”

    That future looks to contain a return to the rallying stage that Peugeot once dominated. The 208 R5 rally prototype at the show looks suitably mean and lean and should help push up the profile of the road-going 208 GTI, which should in turn help raise the profile of the regular 208. Which it seems doesn’t need much raising; the word from PSA Peugeot Citroen HQ is that the 208 has already been a smash hit, exceeding its sales targets in several markets, which must be helping to ease the financial pressure somewhat.

    So while others draw in behind the battlements at this time of financial turmoil, you’d have to admire Peuegot’s swinging-for-the-boundary approach. It’s certainly a more exciting way of dealing with a crisis, even if its effectiveness is a long way from being proven.

    Perhaps in some way, that mad, never-for-sale Onyx supercar is a bit of a totem for Peugeot as it seeks to find a new niche for itself in an uncertain world. Sandeep Bhambra, the car’s designer, says that the copper panels are there because they will change over time, gaining a patina of age. Set off against the matte-finish black carbon panels of the rest of the car, would it be too poetic to see the copper finish as a bright, ever-changing beacon against a dark background?

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