Steve Cropley’s round-up of the 2008 Geneva motor show
5 March 2008

Geneva 2008 video: The production carsGeneva 2008 video: The concept carsGeneva 2008 video: Star carsGeneva 2008 video interview: Bob Lutz on the Saab 9-X BioHybridRatan Tata: Exclusive interview

The world’s motor industry has never been so unsure about what its customers will want to buy next — the 2008 Geneva motor show displays this loud and clear. Buyers are being pushed this way and that by rushed-through crash and clean-air legislation. And just to complicate matters, the current economic slow-down is discouraging them from spending any money at all.Not that Geneva ’08 is in any way downbeat. It’s just that the new product is more varied in price and more technologically wide-ranging than ever, as car-makers struggle to cover all the buzz-sectors. All permutations were there: hybrids, electric vehicles, flex-fuel vehicles, economical supercars and luxurious baby cars. Geneva, particularly valued by car-makers and reporters because it is on neutral ground, always kick-starts the motor show year. And this year the atmosphere on the floor was ebullient - Geneva at its best. In the midst of it the techno-blizzard, it was good to see makers doing what they do best.Ford showed two versions of its Fiesta, which simply looks so good that it is surely heading for big success. Honda launched a conservative but very complete new Accord that carries the ‘alternative to premium’ message better than ever. Seat showed a small-car concept called Bocanegra – it is surely going to make a truly memorable new Ibiza supermini (and displays the underpinnings of the next-generation VW Polo). And GM showed a terrific new Meriva concept, complete with suicide rear door and yet more space and interior flexibility. Every one of these cars had a new message about efficiency and economy. All but the motor industry’s most implacable enemies must be impressed by the car makers’ relentless progress at cutting CO2 emissions and improving fuel consumption.Bentley overcooked it, though. Their normally measured and convincing CEO, Franz Josef Paefgen, made a speech early in the show and claimed: “On a well-to-wheel basis, the entire Bentley range will be capable of delivering less than 120g/km by 2012.” It was too big a boast, and it caused arguments at the ensuing press conference. The figure 120gm/km is about what a modern small-capacity diesel achieves now. Bentley’s claim was based on an assumption that an all-new powertrain, presumably diesel, would cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2012, and that by the same time, Bentley fleet emissions would have been cut by 15 per cent. That would have been impressive enough.Lancia at last revealed the Delta, the Bravo-based model that will lead this Italian luxury marque back to Britain. The Delta seemed bigger than expected, and its traditional upright grille may take some getting used to, but the car displayed absolutely no visual relationship with either a Fiat or an Alfa of the same size, and it did exude unusual luxury levels for the class.Saab revealed its most meaningful concept in years, a coupe-hatchback called Saab 9-X BioHybrid - a name that touches all bases. It will become the long-expected Saab small production car, 9-1, by 2010 or so. GM bosses whispered about production of 40,000 cars a year at the Trollhattan plant (not so long ago in danger of closure) and that was only in this one rakish body style. A five-door might push that beyond 50,000. Also on stand was the 9-4X SUV, to be made in America, which ought to counter Saab’s (and Volvo’s) problem of building cars in Europe and selling them in the dollar-depressed USA.The expensive cars were still doing their thing. Aston Martin announced that it would make up to 2000 four-door Rapides a year at Magna Steyr in Graz — a mighty demand-driven improvement on the 600-a-year which CEO Ulrich Bez first talked about when the concept broke cover a couple of years ago. Bez also announced that Aston Martin would finally break its links with Newport Pagnell, bring its Works Service customer operations to Gaydon with the rest of the company.Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo breezed into an afternoon press conference and announced, out of the blue and without his minions expecting it, that the whispered-about ‘affordable’ Ferrari planned for Aston DB9 territory would indeed be revealed at the Paris Show next October. The enigmatic Artega operation, which wants to threaten Porsche as “the new German sports car”, has been busy building a swish purpose-built plant in Westphalia. It showed production versions of its stylish and beautifully finished 3.6-litre, 300bhp V6 coupe. Former BMW/McLaren/Rolls-Royce engineering boss Karl-Heinz Kalbfell announced that its first production cars would be delivered this summer and that the company had found a practical way of making the car in right-hand-drive, because the UK market is simply too important to ignore. Nice words.Lotus likes Geneva, and had some far-sighted stuff to show off. They had boffins talking ethanol-powered engines to engineering clients, on the strength of a 270 bhp Exige standing nearby. There was a revised (and re-priced) Europa that has had interior revisions, chassis enhancements and offers yet more power from its turbocharged Vauxhall engine. It looked considerably more appetising than the first edition shown 18 months ago. They also artfully showed a chassis section and front suspension from the forthcoming Eagle supercar. Seems the V6 Eagle two-plus-two (when will they relent and call it an ‘Elite’?) and the V8 Esprit two-seater replacement will share the same superb hardware.Ratan Tata, the Indian industrialist who is about to buy Jaguar and Land Rover, drew more attention than he has managed for the decade that he has been bringing cars and commercials to Geneva, with a humble speech centring mainly on his surprise at the reception of the Nano micro-car, and his aspirations for the future. He said almost nothing about JLR (though he did speak exclusively to Autocar later in the day) and even cynics were left with the impression that ‘Mr. Tata’, as everyone called him, would be a fine custodian of the two British brands.At Geneva ’08 you could sense the beginning of a period in which the motor industry is going to struggle, but you could also sense its determination and its enduring optimism. The prominence of Mr. Tata, and what he seemed to promise for Britain’s automotive future, struck me as the most optimistic episode of all.

Steve Cropley

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