Geneva Motor Show: Soon, robots will take care of the drudgery of driving

Ahead lie the years of autonomous cars, electric power, and ride-on-demand.

Considering that Geneva is the most important, if not physically biggest, of Europe’s big motor shows, there is precious little that is actually new nor unexpected on show this year.

Almost without fail, the big debuts have been either shown in photo form already or, as in the case of the new Range Rover Velar, shown off at at preview event last week. Motor shows are becoming less and less important to motor makers, as BMW ably demonstrated by not bothering to bring its new X3 SUV, and merely showing up with the new 5 Series Touring and updated 4 Series Coupe, both of which were revealed weeks ago.

So far, as we absent ourselves from the press conferences for a quick sandwich and a coffee, the only surprises, the only cars we had not seen previously, have been Bentley’s EXP12 Speed 6e electric convertible sports car and Volkswagen’s Sedric robo-taxi.

Both cars are redolent of what seems like an emerging trend in motoring — that within a relatively short time, robots will take care of the drudgery of driving (commuting, traffic, parking, school runs) while actual, proper driving — taking control of a wheel and pedals yourself — will become like horse riding; something done for pleasure and hobby, rather than as a form of transport. Certainly that was the view that came out of a discussion panel, hosted by Ford and Top Gear's Chris Harris, last night and the electric Bentley seems perfectly poised to be a flag-bearer for such a future.

Volvo launched its new XC60 at the show, which will do on sale here in July at an Audi Q5-rivalling €53,995 opening price. It's a very good looking car, inside and out, but you did get the feeling that while Volvo managed to keep it well hidden from prying eyes in the run up to the show, they probably shouldn't have bothered as it's basically a 7/8ths scale XC90, so all but a dedicated few would have failed to spot the difference.

New bedfellows

More realistic still was the Opel Insignia Grand Sport and its Tourer estate version. Again, we've seen and been told all about these cars before the show, but their presence in Geneva (alongside the new Crossland X kinda-SUV, kinda-MPV) came with heightened excitement thanks to the pre-show announcement of PSA Peugeot Citroen's buyout of Opel. Opel boss Karl-Thomas Neumann took to the Geneva stage in front of (old boss) Dan Amman of General Motors and (new boss) Carlos Tavares of PSA Group.

One looked grumpy possibly because he’d been paid €2.2 billion for Opel but had to hand over €3 billion back to PSA to cover retirement plans and pensions. Tavares looked cheerful, presumably for the same reason.

Neumann kept things rolling along, showing off his handsome new cars (the Insignia estate looks especially tasty) and insisting that Opel will remain a true German brand, and Vauxhall a true British brand, but there is an icy wind of potential job losses and factory closures hanging over the deal, not to mention potential conflict with the British government over how Brexit will affect Vauxhall.

Hot hatch

Those of us who love affordable fun cars were pretty well represented at Geneva. Honda brought along its storming new 320hp Civic Type-R, while Ford gave a debut to its new Fiesta ST, with its 200hp turbo 1.5 three-cylinder engine. Even Toyota got in on the act with a 1.8 supercharged hot Yaris GRMN, which (deliciously) stands for Gazoo Racing Masters of the Nurburgring. Best. Badge. Ever.

Renault also brought along its revived Alpine A110 sports car, a mid-engined rival to the Porsche Cayman and Audi TT, which closely apes the styling of its illustrious sixties forebear. With low weight and 250hp it should be stunningly good fun to drive, although quite how Renault is going to gain some traction for a revived brand in today's crowded marketplace is anyone's guess.

Peugeot’s Instinct concept looks rather gorgeous too, although its arrival was rather overshadowed by the corporate two-step with Opel. A sleek shooting brake packing a 300hp plugin hybrid drivetrain and autonomous driving capability, it could form the basis of an ideal follow-up to the storming success of the new 3008 crossover. Not only did the 3008 pick up the European Car Of The Year award on the eve of the show, but Peugeot is having to add two extra shifts to the factory that makes it to keep up with demand.

Supercars

Elsewhere, the was much in the way of meh. Bugatti's spectacular 450kmh+ Chiron supercar was on show, but it was telling that Bugatti said the car is only half-sold out, with another 250 still available to sufficiently wealthy punters. Not so long ago, a car like the Chiron would have sold out long before it hit the motorshow stands. Lamborghini showed off its new Huracan Peformante, with a 631hp V10 engine and a new Nurburgring lap record under its vast rear wing, but again there was not perhaps the hoopla around such a car as would have once been the case. Ferrari too seemed not to be trying. Its 812 Superfast is gorgeous and has the most Ronseal-esque car name ever, but it's basically a big facelift of the old F12 Berlinetta, so hardly anything that's going to rock the motoring world to its core.

McLaren’s insanely fast 720S might manage that, but again it’s a development of McLaren’s existing model range (albeit with rather more OTT styling) so perhaps not the newest. VW-owned Italdesign did show off its own production supercar, a wedgy thing called the Zerouno which is essentially a rebodied Audi R8 and which rather shows that Italdesign has lost its styling touch since the retirement of founder Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Nissan gave the always big-selling Qashqai a major update which comes with a chrome-laden new nose and some clever self-driving tech, while potentially the most fun car on show was the cute looking new Suzuki Swift, which will of course be a frugal supermini with its 1.0-litre three-cylinder and 1.2-litre mild hybrid engines, but there is also a Sport version coming with Suzuki's 1.4 turbo. Not the car of the show, maybe, but most definitely one of the cars in which we'd most like to drive home from Geneva.

A tiny, affordable Suzuki that's stolen our hearts? That may be emblematic of a 2017 Geneva show that seems slightly bereft of (genuinely) new metal and (truly) new ideas. While there is much left to see this afternoon, this is feeling very much like a show caught not just between model cycles, but between epochs. Behind us lie the years of big engines, heel-and-toeing, and Nurburgring lap times. Ahead lie the years of autonomous cars, electric power, and ride-on-demand. On top of which are volatile global politics, the ructions of the European Union and an ever-increasing clamour for cleaner transport. In Geneva it seems clear that car makers are holding back until they know exactly what way the wind is blowing.