The crowd pressing its way into the Geneva show at 8am on launch day was in a funny mood. To the many who love it, the Swiss show has always been a gigantic gathering of car-minded friends, impatient for Europe’s automotive new year to get going. But this year many in the queue were expecting the show to be a recession-addled disaster, full of dull cars and sales projections heading for the carpet.
Such forecasts were wrong. It’s no secret that the car business is in big trouble, but the initial shock is past, and all good companies moved to survival mode months ago, one important strand of which is to concentrate on launching ‘core’ models you’re pretty confident will work.
Thus Geneva this year wasn’t chock-full of speculative new models. Rather, brands set about emphasising their core strengths and their faith in the future. Citroen, for instance, concentrated on injecting much-needed glamour into the small cars that have always sustained it. Aston Martin succeeded in convincing sceptics that its apparently far-fetched One-77 project was plausible, by displaying the sheer magnificence of the new car’s engineering. Most big players had new ‘core’ products to show. Geneva’s bit-players — the likes of Heuliez, Koenigsegg and Fioravanti — were still there, too, though showgoers wondered, even more than usual, what keeps them afloat.
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This is a big show for Aston Martin. It showed the million-pound One-77’s impressive carbon fibre tub and the hand-crafted magnificence of the hand-made, mostly alloy parts that will both propel and clothe it. It also unveiled a new Lagonda Concept, which shows that today’s Aston management sees the famous-but-moribund marque as the place for a giant coachbuilt crossover, the one major model type they don’t have.
Prominent among big manufacturers sticking to their knitting was BMW, which at last revealed its much ballyhooed 5-series Gran Turismo, an appealing, slightly taller 5-series hatch with variable loading and seating options.
Having at first feared it would turn out to be a car of weird format, like the X6 SUV, we have instead been given a desirable, extra-spacious 5-series.
Citroen showed its DS3. Project leader Mark Lloyd says the appealing little Mini-sized breadvan concept is 98 per cent similar to the production car we’ll see next year.
Volkswagen slipped its new Polo onto the stand, but it looks quite a lot like a Golf Mk6, especially from the front, so you had to look twice to notice. However, VW group product chief Ulrich Hackenberg promises a car with the Golf Mk6’s suspension and reckons it’ll work far better on British roads.
Skoda’s long-awaited Yeti soft-roader looked neat and agile, but you couldn’t say the same for the bizarre Fabia Scout, an estate with plastic cladding along the sides. Note to designers and marketing people: plastic cladding has never worked and never will…
Geneva was promised a visit from Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, but he was laid low at the last minute with “a high fever”, so MD Amedeo Felisa stepped in, emphasising Maranello’s impressive assets for surviving recessions: waiting lists, a great name, and one large factory working just one shift. Felisa is confident sales of the new California could swell ’09 sales beyond last year’s buoyant 6500 units, but says Maranello would rather not force the market.
Undoubted star of Ferrari"s stand was the 599XX, a barmy, track-based lightweight coupe, which the 30-or-so owners will be allowed to keep at Ferrari’s Fiorano test facility. Among other tweaks, the car has a couple of fans in the boot floor, which suck the car onto the track just like the Brabham BT46 "fan-car" did in F1 30 years ago. That Brabham’s designer, Gordon Murray, was actually at the Geneva show, but we couldn’t find him to get a view…
Rolls-Royce’s star young exterior designer Andreas Thurner was on hand with project chief Ian Cameron to take the plaudits for the 200EX saloon concept, soon to become smaller Rolls the company will put into production late this year. Still no news on the V12 engine, but more and more are betting on a new-generation 6.0-litre BMW unit.
Video blogs from the show floor
The Opel-Vauxhall Ampera, Europe’s even better-looking version of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, was mobbed all day. Even VW Group boss, Dr Martin Winterkorn, who spent a few minutes sitting in its driver’s seat, seemed impressed by the Ampera’s look and feel, though when we tackled him about the concept itself, he was quite firm that the car’s greatest potential problem would be the battery, for all the well-known reasons.
The subject of electric cars was raised a lot at Geneva this year, especially with reference to the French manufacturers, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault, which have joint ventures and well-advanced production programmes in place. But we’re still waiting to discover what a real, live French battery car actually looks like. Perhaps Frankfurt will tell us more.
The Japanese barely distinguished themselves. Used to decades of success, some have been displaying signs of near-panic recently. But Infiniti did well with its clever Essence coupe, a DB9-sized GT design study that won lots of praise from rival designers for the excellent resolution of its complicated surfacing. Toyota took the wraps off its useful, but hardly glamorous, Verso MPV, but blotted its copybook by cancelling a press conference on launch day “to save money”.
The real reason turned out be an apparent unwillingness to deal with hacks’ questions over a report from Japan that the world’s biggest car company, widely thought to have bottomless reserves of cash, had just approached the Japanese government for temporary funding to help it through the recession.
One of launch day’s biggest events was the Tata press conference. Everyone scrabbled to see, hear and photograp chairman Ratan Tata, whose reputation for truthfulness, restraint and far-sighted management just seems to grow. Signs of Tata progress were everywhere: the crashworthy, airbagged Nano Europa (promised last year) was present, looking plausible as a city car.
Tata also showed a production-ready, Norwegian-engineered version of its well-known Indica hatchback (1000 cars will be built for the Nordic market next year, 5000 the year after). We were also treated to first sight of a pretty Pininfarina-designed saloon prototype, the Prima, intended for Indian production but deemed suitable for Europe, too.
Ratan Tata says he wants to improve his brand’s (and India’s) reputation for making nothing but low-budget, low-quality cars. Since Tata owns a slice of Pininfarina, and Pininfarina has a car-manufacturing arm, you could imagine the Prima eventually being made in northern Italy to feed an improving European market. Especially since Tata confirmed that the Prima will use Fiat mechanicals. Tata’s chairman is good friends with Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne, and sits on the Fiat board, so such a scenario seems more than possible.
Geneva cars: news and images
Chery DR, Ferrari 599XX, Ford Iosis Max, Frazer Nash Namir, Hyundai ix-onic, Infiniti Essence, Kia No3, Lagonda Concept, Lamborghini Murcielago SV, Land Rover Freelander TD4_e, Mazda CX-7, Mini JCW Cabriolet, Mitsubishi iMIEV Sport Air, Nissan Qazana, Renault Megane RS, RUF Greenster, Skoda Fabia vRS, Skoda Yeti, Tata Nano Europa, Toyota Prius, Volkswagen Polo