You could almost hear the organisers of the Paris Motor Show saying it out loud: thank God for a domestic motor industry.As the first crowds started arriving at the bi-annual Mondial de l'automobile – at the usual exhibition centre, not far from the Seine, which sets records for its confused layout – there was a palpable feeling of credit-crunch pessimism.Car sales were in shreds, financial commentators were talking Wall Street crash of 1929. How could this be a good show for an industry that relies so much on expansiveness and optimism? And yet, you know, it was. The first day of the Paris Mondial de l'automobile turned out to be one of the most absorbing for years, mostly through the efforts of Renault, Peugeot and Citroën, who had important mainstream models to launch (Citroën C3 Picasso, Renault Megane and Megane Coupé) but supported them with a dense selection of eye-catching concepts.My show star was undoubtedly Citroën's brilliant Hypnos, a study of a big touring car of the future, with a 200bhp diesel-plus-electric four-wheel-drive system they're promising we'll see in a future production model.The car had a beautiful exterior, but its asymmetric cabin design, full of twisting surfaces and extraordinary textures and colours (the work of British designer Leighanne Earley) was a true tour-de-force worthy of the trip to Paris on its own.The fact that Citroën supported it with a Porsche-like supercar design, the GT, which anyone will be able to drive (albeit electronically) in the next version of the Gran Turismo computer game, made the whole thing better.
Peugeot had a concept for a Nissan Qashqai-fighter, the Prologue, which was clearly close to production. It wasn't actually ugly, but it did showed how much improvement Peugeot design still has to make, even if there are many unique facets of the Lion marque's design style.One undercurrent of the show was the abrupt departure, a few days earlier, of Peugeot's recently installed design boss, probably because his Citroën equivalent had been made director of the whole PSA styling shooting match. The best thing about the Prologue concept was that it further showed off the diesel-plus-electric hybrid system (also used by the Hypnos), which can be configured so that the transverse diesel in the nose is assisted by an electric motor between the rear wheels — or vice versa. Peugeot also had the reverse system in a big, rakish rear-engined saloon called RC. But chuck in a ho-hum new 308CC, and you can plainly see where Peugeot needs to progress.Hybrids of various types were everywhere. They were so prevalent in Paris, as with all recent motor shows, that it was easier to count the cars which didn't have some kind of electric assistance…Renault, thankfully, had a quirky moment by showing an all-electric concept for a radicalised Kangoo, and there was also a more conventional large touring car called Ondelios, but their big deal was the reveal of the new Megane and its three-door (aka Coupé) offshoot, whose neat styling was received without much rapture because it lacked the adventurous spirit of its shake-your-ass predecessor. Right across the show, hacks looked forward to hearing Carlos Ghosn (seen as the instigator of Renault's new – and many think less successful – design style) on what future Renaults will look like, but though the little man was very prominent in toothless interviews for the likes of CNN, the question was not put.Ford was cock-a-hoop about having two fine-looking little cars to sell, the Fiesta from this month and the new Ka from the turn of the year.Both were much admired, and both are a little more 'grown-up' than their predecessors, without losing cheekiness, which is just the thing to attract buyers who are induced to move south by circumstances and fuel prices.I stood for a while and watched people walking past the new VW Golf without stopping: the car really is very similar to the Golf V, which has also provided large lumps of its underpinnings.Closer examination would have shown that VW is right back on top of the perceived quality pinnacle it achieved with Golf IV, and the new car will surely sell in huge numbers. Indeed, it may be just the thing in conditions like these, when buyers who must make a change are induced to hang the adventurism and go with brands they know and trust.Audi had the so-so Q5 and lots of other white cars, including a five-door A1 – hybrid, naturally – which looked okay without setting anyone's trousers on fire. For traditionalists, a red RS6, with superb charcoal trim wheels, was the true traffic-stopper. I traipsed into the exhibition centre's back-blocks to find GM's vast stand, which featured an opulent-looking Vauxhall Insignia wagon (reputed to be roomier than the vast, outgoing Vectra estate despite preserving the saloon's wheelbase) and, of course, the production version of the Chevy Volt, which will become a Vauxhall-Opel in 2010.This 'electric-car-with-range-extender' looked much the same as the concept we've already seen, even though they've changed many of the details, and seemed to have the right character and size to be European.GM Europe chief Carl-Peter Forster told me they'd decide within about 18 months of launch here whether to make the car on this side of the Atlantic, but that European manufacture would present “no problem”. And so to the expensive stuff. Ferrari's new front-engined California, with its V8 engine and foldaway hood, looked ultra-practical, but also as if it should have come out five years ago. It'll be rushed, you can bet, in the place whose name it bears.Aston Martin, not remotely cowed by the collapse of its European sales, showed a mock-up of its proposed £1.2m ‘one-77’ concealed by a pin-stripe cover, tailored in Savile Row.Just one corner was lifted, and the plan of mercurial boss Ulrich Bez was to keep it that way through the entire show, though many doubted whether he'd be able to resist pulling it off.The four-door Lamborghini looked terrific, especially its steely colour, and I kept wondering how, if this really was a new Audi A8 underneath, they'd managed to keep the bonnet height so low.Paris's first day, in total, seemed remarkably successful. Though there's a crisis, the French haven't quite felt it yet, because the demand for smaller cars is still being buoyed as the French government pays buyers anything up to €1000 to get older, more polluting cars off the road.Even in these tough times, people like Land Rover and Jaguar could talk about continuing decent export performance. Most downbeat was Volvo, which packed its eight-car stand with low-C02 models emblazoned with a DRIVe badge. There was room for one example of its brand new model, the XC60 soft-roader.But then, they're in the middle of changing chiefs (ex-Ford man Steve Odell is the first non-Swede to lead the company in history) and a shake-up is promised before the end of the month. For them, things are serious.