Steve Cropley's full verdict on Europe's largest annual motor show, including pics of the show stars
2 March 2011

There's to be so much optimism for the car market's future on show at Geneva this week that you can almost feel it, hanging like a benign presence over every single manufacturer's stand. Even old hands say it's special.

The sheer number and quality of new cars launched during yesterday's triumphant preview day makes it clear now that a couple of years ago – even when the car market's decline was so severe that even the canniest of canny observers wondered whether it had a bottom at all – car companies were concluding that the only way forward was to build dramatically better and more enticing cars, and await a better day.

This week in Geneva, company bosses had clearly decided that this better day had arrived, and were in the Swiss capital's Palexpo halls – perhaps the most inviting of the world's motor show venues – to tell Autocar (and the rest of the world) all about it.

Alfa Romeo boss Harald Wester sprang a major surprise by launching the terrific little 4C transverse mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car, a model so close to Lotus proportions (including an 850kg kerb weight) that initial speculation was that the Norfolk company had contributed to its design.

However, it soon became clear that the 4C has its own lightweight carbonfibre chassis designed in-house, and makes intelligent use of the new Giulietta saloon's 1.7-litre, 200bhp turbo powertrain, with six-speed twin-clutch gearbox. It will be on sale in 2012 at an estimated £40,000. The new Alfa was so warmly greeted at Geneva that VW Group chairman, Ferdinand Piech, who wants to buy the Alfa marque, observed peevishly that under VW, Alfa's sales would treble.

Ford's Lewis Booth, who flew from the US for the show, enjoyed surprising show-goers with the new company's new B-Max MPV, complete with a novel and completely unexpected pillarless sliding door system which dramatically enhances ease of entry/exit and will definitely go injto production. Booth also signalled Ford's faith in good times by revealing that his company had repaid nearly $15 billion of debt last year, and had plans to reduce its burden even more this year.

JLR and Tata Motors boss Ratan Tata was on hand – as he has been for more than a dozen Geneva salons – to reveal Pixel, a Europeanised and shortened Nano which will serve in the near future as Tata's city car, powered by as tiny and frugal three-cylinder diesel. He kyboshed rumours that his much-admired Nano project to provide affordable cars for Indians was in trouble, citing temporary marketing and distribution glitches and claiming improvements were already taking effect.

Lotus's bullish boss Dany Bahar was joined for the first time at a motor show by the much-experienced ex-BMW engineer and marketing expert Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, recently installed as chief operating officer. Both revealed that some re-thinking was underway in the detail of Lotus's recently corporate plan, Bahar insisted he “would do it again” because it had brought the company important contact with the top-class suppliers it would need for the future.

Fast car company bosses all seemed in ebullient mood: Lamborghini chief Stephan Winkelmann with the reception given to his much-trailed Murceilago replacement, the Aventador; Ferrari boss Amedeo Felisa with the “even better than expected” customer reaction to his rule-breaking four-wheel-drive four-seater FF, and McLaren MD Antony Sheriff, who was delighted that much of Europe's motoring press had accepted Autocar's view that his new MP4-12C supercar, as a driver's car, threatens to put even Ferrari's much-praised 458 Italia in the shade.

In all, it was a celebration, not merely a show, with record numbers of fascinating new cars on display, and so many models now claiming CO2 numbers well below the previously unattainable 100g/km that the regulators may soon have to revise their view about what is a “clean” car. This was the industry doing what it does best – rising remarkably to targets that seem nearly impossible.

Best of all, there was none of the hair-shirt atmosphere of recent shows: car-makers mixed a healthy smattering of excitement with their econo-boxes – which is how it must be for the future if buyers are to be encouraged to keep helping to the profits manufacturers need to build even better cars.

Steve Cropley

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