New model army

THIS YEAR'S PARIS MOTOR SHOW surpassed itself in points of interest, with new models from Jaguar, Porsche, Volkswagen, Renault, BMW and Bentley, which unveiled its long-awaited Continental GT. The Bentley is an entirely new grand tourer capable of traversing continents at unabated speed. Powered by a twin-turbo, six-litre W12 engine - effectively two V6 units joined by a common crankshaft - maximum speed is claimed to be 290km/h while the 0-100km/h sprint is achieved in less than five seconds. This is a luxury supercar housed within a four-seater body. And the rear seats are no mere token buckets; they are supremely comfortable and will house a six-footer with ease.

Designed in-house by Belgian Dirk van Braeckel, the Continental GT is based on the recently launched Volkswagen Phaeton platform, but there the similarity stops, with the Bentley featuring a shorter front and rear overhang, conventional springs instead of the Phaeton's air suspension and a rear spoiler that deploys at speeds of more than 190km/h to maximise stability. Permanent four-wheel drive splits available torque 50:50 in normal conditions and has a torque-sensing centre differential which allocates power to those wheels with most traction if required. A six-speed automatic tiptronic transmission is incorporated with steering wheel-mounted paddles. The system can be used as a fingertip manual gearbox or left to its own devices in fully automatic.

Australian singer Kylie Minogue was on hand for the launch of the new Ford StreetKa, a roadster version of its popular Ka. Quite why the Ka has found such a strong following (apart from its low cost) is something of a mystery because it is a basic, outdated machine and is only available with a manual gearbox. The StreetKa is built in Turin by Pininfarina from Ka components supplied by Ford's Spanish plant at Valencia. Power from its 1.6-litre unit gives a modest top speed of 174km/h, but StreetKa provides wind-in-the-hair motoring at a fraction of the cost of many rivals.

The Smart was prominent in Paris and DaimlerChrysler showed the Smart Roadster, an attractive, lightweight sports machine somewhat reminiscent of the Lotus Elise. Reports that it corners better than virtually anything else on the road are unsubstantiated, but its tiny 700cc turbocharged engine provides vigorous performance combined with prodigious fuel economy.

Porsche has all but reinvented the SUV, combining awesome performance with strong off-road agility in its new Cayenne. Opinions are mixed on its styling, but on paper its credentials are impeccable. Two versions are available, with the top-of-the range model featuring a twin turbo 4.5-litre V8 producing a staggering 450 bhp (331 kW). Top speed - and remember this a full-size SUV - is an incredible 265km/h. The entry-level Cayenne also sports a V8 but without turbochargers. It is still credited with 340 bhp (250 kW) and a maximum speed of 242km/h.

Developed in parallel with the Cayenne was Volkswagen's new off-roader, the Touareg, which also made its debut in Paris. While not as radical nor as luxurious as the Porsche, the Touareg takes Europe's largest motor manufacturer into a new market segment. Touareg, incidentally, is the name of an ancient tribe from the Sahara, known as the knights of the desert and famed for their ability to adapt to difficult conditions.

The new aluminium-bodied XJ8 Jaguar was on display for the first time in Paris, with the show car in unpainted, polished aluminium. Featuring the industry's first use of rivet-bonded technology for the entire body structure, aerospace epoxy adhesive is used to join the aluminium pressings and castings. In addition to the aluminium panels and support members, a magnesium cross beam is used - magnesium is 30 per cent lighter than aluminium - to support the dashboard and instruments. As a result of all this weight saving, the car is 200 kilograms lighter than its immediate predecessor, yet is up to 60 per cent stiffer.

Engines on offer when the new XJ goes on sale next year will be virtually the same as those in the smaller S-Type, with a 4.2-litre normally aspirated V8 and a road-burning supercharged unit that produces an impressive 400 bhp (294 kW). There will also be a new 3.5-litre, 262 bhp (193 kW) V8 and a 240 bhp (176 kW) entry-level V6, the first time for a number of years a six-cylinder unit has been available.

Over at Mazda, company president Lewis Booth introduced the little Mazda2. Produced in Japan and Spain, the Mazda2 takes over where the popular Demio leaves off. Also on the Mazda stand was a prototype of Mazda's four-door sports car, the RX-8. Expected to go into production next year, the RX-8 features 'suicide' doors with no central pillar for easier access, while power comes from a low mounted rotary engine, giving almost perfect 50:50 weight distribution.

Another welcome sports model was on the BMW stand, where the angular Z4 made its debut. The popular but unattractive Z3 has made way for a much improved car with the Z4, although many commented on its slab-sided appearance. It is nowhere near as beautiful as the low-production, aluminium Z8, which sadly never made it to Hong Kong.

Ferrari's latest supercar, the Enzo, combines as many Formula One features as it is possible to achieve in a road car. Even the nose is styled to resemble Michael Schumacher's championship winning F1 machine. A hefty 660 bhp, six-litre V12 is stashed in the back - good enough for 350km/h and an astounding sub-four-second time for the 0-100km/h dash. The Enzo is the first road car Ferrari has produced to feature carbon-ceramic disc brakes, while sophisticated aerodynamics suck it down to the ground to ensure high-speed stability.

Slightly less formidable, but nevertheless a welcome new model, is the latest Renault Megane II. The outgoing Megane has consistently been one of Europe's top sellers and the new version is expected to perform in a similar fashion.

Fellow French marque Peugeot introduced its convertible-coupe version of the 307, an attractive looking car with an electric, folding metal hardtop. Whereas the 206cc looks somewhat abbreviated with its folding roof, the larger proportions of the 307 lend themselves to a more balanced appearance.

Audi presented the latest A8, although a casual observer would be hard pressed to spot obvious differences to the older model. Industry insiders, however, claim this is the best Audi yet and a worthy flagship for the VW-owned Ingolstadt manufacturer.

Space limits prevent a full run-down of all the exhibits in Paris but, suffice to say, this was one of the best late season, international motor shows for many years.