There’s no getting away from it: the predominant colour — and major buzz-word — at this year’s London Motor Show was Green.
It’s everywhere – on signs and a record-breaking number of cars. Both main halls have green car areas stuffed with electric cars of various viability, and every major manufacturer had at least one special ‘green’ model, usually dubbed Eco-something, and demonstrating its maker’s commitment to a low-carbon future.
In stark contrast to the increasingly vocal ranks of green futurists —including our magnificently under-briefed Prime Minister — the volume car-makers know that before the world can be filled with new low-carbon models, which they’re well capable of building, the majority of buyers has to be prepared to pay for them.
Interestingly, the boldest use of green was on the stunning new 300 bhp Ford Focus RS, which sported a brilliant metallic paint-job mainly because the when the car was being developed, the order came down from Ford’s carbon-conscious bosses: “Whatever you do with that car, guys, make sure there’s a green angle.” Team RS boss Jost Capito, acting literally, painted the RS in a shade he dubbed Ultimate Green, but some of us wondered whether it wouldn’t have been better dubbed Ivory Tower Green. The car itself is brilliant, a painstaking development of the ST in every high-performance direction. There’s a cunning tweak to the strut front suspension which changes the strut angle to reduce wheel fight when you deploy the full 300 brake. Capito says the RS has less tortque steer than the ST - which has hardly any to start with. Lotus definitely crew the biggest press-day crowd with its late-morning unveiling of the new Evora, whose awkward name — announced by the Proton chairman at the show — didn’t cause as much negative comment as expected.
The car looked terrific, and won respect from other designers (Esprit designer Peter Stevens and Elise designer Julian Thompson were both in the crowd) but no-one was allowed to try and squeeze into the back to test the two-plus-two packaging because this solitary prototype has lots of work to do and they wanted to keep it pristine. Other significant high performance cars included the magnificent Chevrolet Camaro, a model soon to be made with an “economy” engine that shuts off half its cylinders when cruising, and the carbon-bonneted, roll-caged Renault R26R, which recently became the fastest-ever front-drive saloon at Nurburgring, and whose development was assisted by our own columnist and consummate wheel-man, Steve Sutcliffe.
Other stars included Honda’s OSM a pretty two-seater roadster dubbed ‘low emissions’ though its precise mechanical package wasn’t specified. It looked good enough, and practical enough to drive away from the show stand. After its London success two years ago with Corsa, Vauxhall followed through on its promise of another London world debut by unveiling the new Insignia, which most agreed looked terrific. The Insignia changes everything about Vauxhall’s staple family car. The forward-looking styling lays down ground rules for new Astra, coming next year. I’m with the Peugeot boss Jean Philippe Colin, who recently observed that the mainstreamers are closer than to the likes of Audi and BMW than ever before. Most of the German premium makers haven’t favoured London show with their presence this year (honourable exception: Mercedes-Benz) which I believe is an act of gross disloyalty to British car-lovers on the part of a group which trades at other times on customer loyalty and has made huge profits the UK from buyers’ preoccupation with high-spec cars.
The situation does throw focus, however, on how little influence the UK outposts of VW, Audi and BMW have on their core companies. Their managements are strictly car-shifters, and here’s the proof. I call down a plague, at least for the duration of the London Motor Show, on their houses. I’m interested in electric cars, as long as their potential and impact is kept in proportion. Pure battery-powered cars are starting to make attractive progress, mainly because good money and good brains (notably that of ex-Lotus MD, Clive Dopson) are being deployed to make them better. But they’re always going to be short-range vehicles that need daily down-time.
The biggest surprise of the show for me was the all-electric Lightning, a big, handsome super-coupe produced by a little company in Peterborough. The whole project started less than two years ago, yet the car seemed worthy of an Italian coachbuilders, and the stand showed footage of the car running in trials. Main impressions of the show? It was hugely enjoyable, though at least one of the organisers’ decisions was hard to fathom. Why hide the best-looking — McLaren SLRs, Ferraris and other top-end stuff — in an extra-cost Platinum Lounge away from the core of the show? It’s what your punters want to see.
Can the show survive? Sadly, I’d say that will come up for serious debate all over again. If 20 percent of your core manufacturers won’t commit, and the foreign hacks (imported by GM for the Insignia launch) can’t find things to do on press day, you’ve got a problem. Sure, London deserves its own motor show, but whether it can make it work is a starkly different question.