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We Pick: AutoWeek Editors’ Choice Awards From Paris

Rafay Ansar

BEST-IN-SHOW

Lamborghini Estoque



The Lamborghini Estoque was clearly, unequivocally, not the best-looking car at Paris, but that didn’t stop it from being named Best-in-Show.

That it didn’t win on its looks is a testament to the ideas behind it and the future ahead of it. Lamborghini almost certainly will build it. It almost certainly needs to.

And people certainly will buy it. It is a big car--longer in the wheelbase even than the stretched version of the Audi A8. Plus the roof isn’t high, so the overall impression leaves an incredible impact.

The details aren’t so convincing, though. The front end feels too derivative of the already-old Murciélago, and the lines slope away without conviction. The best part, the folded and crinkled shape around the rear wheel, likely will have to be softened to build in the numbers Lamborghini is hoping for. Visually, it doesn’t set the standards the Muira or the Countach do.

But, when Lamborghini has stretched its brand, made more money and secured its future with this car, we will all look back and remember the day we first saw it.

That’s more than we can say about the other Paris BIS contenders, such as Ferrari’s oft-spotted and visually underwhelming California, BMW’s return-to-form 7-series, its less-ugly-than-the-X3 crossover dubbed X1, or Saab’s impressive 9-X Air concept, which lost points because few of Saab’s impressive concepts ever translate into things you can buy.

So, for the second major show running, it’s Lamborghini’s award.

MOST FUN

Audi S4

Audi’s new 333-hp, supercharged V6 is powering the S4 to the Most Fun award at Paris this year. The S4 also packs an impressive 325 lb-ft of torque and works in combination with Audi’s new seven-speed, double-clutch gearbox. Also very cool: the four-wheel-drive system doles out power with a distinctly rear-biased split.

Throw in developments such as a heavily redesigned chassis that places the new, more-compact engine further back for improved weight distribution, and a newly designed steering rack, and you’ve got the recipe for what promises to be a highly memorable driving experience.

The S4 comes wrapped in a svelte-looking body with just the right amount of visual muscle to communicate the sort of pent-up performance that lurks within. And it boasts an inviting interior full of all the trademark attention to detail.

In the end, it was enough to lift the latest Audi performance model above the others on our short list--the Ferrari California, Fiat 500 Abarth Essesse, Lexus IS 250 and Volkswagen GTI.

MOST SIGNIFICANT

Honda Insight

Honda’s concept Insight received several mentions for the Best Concept award, but when looking at the potential impact this new gas-electric hybrid has not only for the company, but for the small-car market in general, it was the runaway winner for our Most Significant honor. Honda launched the first Insight in 1999 (with the last ones sold in 2006), and while that two-door, lightweight model with insectlike styling was more like an advanced science experiment than a mainstream car, it got the company and the industry on the hybrid train.

This new Insight is even better. It’s a five-door car powered by a 1.3-liter gasoline engine coupled with Honda’s integrated motor assist using nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

And it looks different. “Unique hybrid styling” is how one Honda official put it, aiming the car directly at Toyota’s hybrid Prius. Other Honda hybrids have lagged in popularity, in part because they look too much like other cars. Honda engineers have made the new hybrid powertrain smaller, lighter--and even more important--less expensive.

The production car will make its debut in Detroit, with cars expected in U.S. dealerships by spring 2009. Honda would not confirm a base price, but expect it to start at about $19,000, several thousand less than the Prius, the leader in the segment.

Honda chairman Takeo Fukui, in Paris for the car’s debut, said Honda expects to sell 200,000 Insights annually worldwide. Couple that with new hybrid versions of the Civic, the CR-Z and the new Jazz that also debuted in Paris, and the company expects to sell 500,000 hybrids annually once all the cars are in full production.

“We will have a hybrid for everyone,” Fukui said.

Others considered: Audi A1, Pininfarina Bolore, Mercedes-Benz Concept Fascination, Volkswagen Golf.

BEST CONCEPT

Peugeot RC HYmotion4

Give us a racy design like the Peugeot RC HYmotion4 concept to speed home in, and we immediately warm to the dreamlike craziness of a mid-engined, French four-door supercar.

There’s more than a little Le Mans credibility to the diesel-hybrid-powered Hy4. It’s the second Peugeot concept to explore a cabin/powertrain layout, which is ignored without exception and with good reason by every other global carmaker.

So despite having no real-world future and there being exactly zero hope of seeing this in the United States before the next millennium, the HY4 gets our award for its sheer exuberance, sense of style and pure automotive enthusiasm.

Just look at the aggressive roofline. Finished in semimatte silver-metallic paint, light zings across those exaggerated hood creases like reflections off a polished P51.

That hood, the grille and the cranked lower air intake are the real reasons the HY4 exists. There’s a new design boss in town, and he’s looking for a new front-end graphic to lift Peugeot’s meat-and-potatoes sedans and hatchbacks.

The diesel-electric hybrid powertrain is another reason to love the HY4. Diesel hybrids have been absorbing Peugeot R&D Euros for a decade, and a production crossover arrives in 2010, promising near-70-mpg fuel economy.

So the HY4 would theoretically be capable of Prius-type mileage, yet rip-roaring performance. That’s a green car anyone can get excited about.
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