Geneva Motor Show: Sedate show hides real fears for the future

Climates both political and environmental weighing on car makers’ minds

 

For all the pre-show hoopla and publicity, the 2017 Geneva motor show will go down as one of the quieter ones. There were only a precious few cars making their debut which had not been seen or revealed beforehand, and little that really gave much of a clue as to where the various massed brands might be headed in the future.

Hoopla

One exception to that was, possibly, the Volkswagen Cedric, a four-seat self-driving pod that looks like a knocked-over milk carton but which possibly best encapsulated the real future of motoring — electric, autonomous, remote, unenthusiastic. VW livened up the Sedric’s appearance with eye-like LED headlamps that can wink at you, but it seemed clear that many car makers were struggling to come to terms with trying to sell cars that you can’t drive, abandoning 140-years of marketing and sales techniques that played up the interactivity of driving. The Sedric’s interactivity is all in its massive OLED touchscreen, which forms the windscreen of the car. There’s no steering wheel.

You could also sense that some brands were simply putting their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la!’ to try and keep the autonomous future at bay. One such was McLaren, which showed off its new 720S supercar, all 720hp of it, all mere 1,300kg kerb weight of it, all of its wrapped in styling that looked rather sadly like a late-nineties kit car. Get up close and you could see the fantastic detailing and wonderful quality, but here again is a car which seemed to have forgotten what it’s like to step back and take in the whole shape. Can a 300kmh supercar be bland? Yes, on this basis. No wonder everyone’s looking to self-driving fish bowls for the future.

At least there were some good, realistic cars which will go on sale this year and which you might actually be able to afford. Volvo’s new XC60 looks exceptionally handsome (although the Swedish firm is falling slightly into the same trap as Audi and BMW, where each model looks much like another) and should prove to be a strong seller. There’s little that’s ground-breaking about it, but it should prove a satisfying SUV and extend Volvo’s recent strong streak.

Also on the SUV trail was, unsurprisingly, Land Rover which showed off the gorgeous new Range Rover Velar (which must be making sister company Jaguar’s F-Pace team feel rather unloved) and a special edition Discovery with a camera drone parked on the roof, designed to be used by Red Cross mountain rescue teams. Appropriate, for a Swiss car show…

Audi had as slightly low-key show, bringing along a sporty RS concept version of the Q8 (the standard version of which we’d seen earlier this year in Detroit) and a 450hp turbo V6 RS5 coupe, which could have been underwhelming but proved to be utterly enticing. More so than sister brand Porsche’s revised 911 GT3, with its superbike-style 9,000rpm redline? Just possibly, yes.

Renault provided some excitement with the jewel-like new Alpine mid-engined coupe, a Porsche Cayman rival that will probably prove too expensive to make much of a dent in the Irish market, and a hot 465hp electric Zoe hatchback, which is bonkers fast but sadly not for production.

Mercedes wowed with its 800hp AMG GT concept four-door coupe (concept? Pah, it’ll be on sale quite soon) and slightly disgusted with the vast V12-engined Maybach G-Class Landaulet, which is surely the perfect car for any tinpot dictator looking for something to review the troops.

‘We’re tech’

BMW stuck in its corner of the show floor in a bit of a huff, bringing only the new 5 Series Touring and updated 4 Series Coupe. It spent much of the show grumbling about how motor shows were less relevant to the buying public, and talking up its conversion from mere motor maker to fully-blown tech company.  

It’s a common refrain: as The Irish Times wandered the halls speaking to executives, you couldn’t swing a spanner without hitting someone who claimed their firm was a tech company or a mobility specialist. Nobody seems to be a car maker any more.

Over at the French end of things, Citroën decided to lean heavily on the SUV button with a new C-Aircross concept (again, concept? no, on sale soon enough) which will be its Nissan Juke rival and the DS 7 Crossback, the DS brand’s first SUV and a rather handsome one at that. It has gorgeous detailing inside and out, and may do well against the likes of the Audi Q5 and that new Volvo XC90, if buyers can see past their posh French car prejudices. 

Volkswagen brought along the Arteon four-door coupe fastback, which is the new Passat CC but am I alone in thinking that it’s not as good looking as either the old CC or even the current Passat? That low-set grille makes it look as if it needs to get an underbite seen to, while customer demand for bigger windows to make seeing out easier has lead to a car that looks less like a coupe and more like a saloon. 

Ford brought along the fantastic-looking new Fiesta ST with its screaming 1.5-litre three-cylinder 200hp mill, but I reckon that the king of the Geneva hot hatches is the new 320hp Honda Civic Type-R, which should get the blood pumping nicely.

Got the looks

Prettiest car of the show was undoubtedly Bentley’s electric concept convertible, the EXP12 Speed 6e. Based on the petrol V8 Speed 6, which will go into production next year, the all-electric version has been built to test public reaction to a battery Bentley, but it looks suspiciously well-finished and production ready. Either way, the two-seater’s lithe styling seems adequate compensation for the lumpen, fugly Bentayga SUV.

Nissan’s updated Qashqai will, from later this year, start bringing autonomous (well, semi-autonomous) driving to one of Ireland’s best-selling cars, but for those looking for something a little more exclusive, Aston Martin was on hand to both name its new Red Bull-engineered hypercar the Valkyrie and to announce its new AMR in-house tuning arm, which will take already rapid Astons and make them more so, as well as offering owners advanced driving tuition.

Mitsubishi’s new Eclipse Cross may have angered those who loved the old US-market Eclipse sports car, but it could be just the thing Mitsubishi needs right now — a Qashqai-sized crossover with an interior that scores much more highly in design and quality terms than anything else the firm currently makes. It’s still year away from being on sale here, though.

The new Seat Ibiza looks smart, although we’d seen it before the show, and the new VW Tiguan Allspace, with its seven seats and massive boot, looks set to increase the desirability of one of the best SUVs on the market. Where was the new Polo or Polo-based crossover though? Nowhere to be seen, which just goes to show how car motor shows have sunk in car makers’ esteem.

VW will likely launch both models at standalone events later in the year, where it can control the ‘message’ and not have to compete with other brands and models. Jaguar is set to follow the same plan for launching its new E-Pace compact crossover in May.

What next?

There’s no question that the political turmoil in America, Europe and beyond is weighing on car makers’ minds, added to which is uncertainty both in the board rooms and on the sales floors as to what customers are going to want next. An SUV, almost certainly, but electric? Hybrid or plugin hybrid? Hydrogen fuel cell, as promised at the show by both Hyundai and Honda?

Certainly, we’re in a periodic downswing of new model production, as car makers rebuild their R&D departments post-recession, but that only partly explains the drought.

Part is also car makers looking to break away from the stagnant motor show model. Part is also that no-one knows what’s coming next and no-one wants to get caught leaping the wrong way, hence the predominance of safe-bet crossovers, hot hatches and the occasional short-production-run supercar.