Lunchtime Roundup: Geneva show stumbles towards the future, with one eye firmly on the past

Motoring’s most important car show can’t seem to decide whether to look forwards or backwards. Or both at the same time.

Opel’s GT concept: a glimpse at the future with a nod to the past, in keeping with the overall show

Opel’s GT concept: a glimpse at the future with a nod to the past, in keeping with the overall show

 

I think I’d put the mood of this year’s Geneva motor show at cautious optimism. It’s not quite the full-on bombast of a couple of years ago, as the recession clouds began to part and buyers began to return to showrooms, and nor is it the somewhat downbeat feeling that hung in the air at the recent Detroit motor show. There’s no doubt that the motor industry is facing into a whole world of potential trouble right now.

Any number of global crises, triggered singly or jointly by a Brexit, a growing Syrian refugee crisis, a slowdown in China’s economy or the dreaded prospect of President Trump could have buyers once again stashing their cash in their matresses and leaving the tumbleweeds to once again take hold of Europe’s showrooms.

For now though, the general atmosphere is bouyant and light and relatively good-hearted. Everyone’s looking forward to a decent 2016 in sales terms, so by and large, what we’re hearing and seeing is all upbeat.

But is it looking forward or looking back? That’s a little hard to tell, and it’s almost as if Geneva’s exhibiting car makers have taken a leaf from the playbook of Yes, Prime Minister’s Jim Hacker - if you’re going to announce something radical, make sure you do it against a reassuring backdrop of leather-bound books and a solid oak desk…

Thus it was that talk of 500km range electric hatchbacks and the death of the steering wheel were spoken of against a backdrop of multi-million-Euro mid-engined supercars, the return of the seventies-special matte-black bonnet and a stylistic throwback to the 1920s that came with an electric motor and batteries. Even Doctor Who might have been confused by this much temporal displacement.

Displacement of another kind entirely was found on the Bugatti stand where the new Chiron supercar (if super is quite sufficient) was unveiled. Packing a monstrous 1,500hp engine and a 420kmh top speed, it certainly won the numbers game at Geneva (albeit by less of a margin over the Swedish-built Koenigsegg Regera than Bugatti might have hoped) but there were mutterings of it being an overweight dinosaur. Still, Volkswagen will be pleased - far from losing money on this Bugatti, it looks as if the Chiron, with 180 of the planned 500-strong production run already sold, could turn a profit.

Similarly successful in sales terms, and just as Jurassic in outlook, was the Lamborghini Centenario, which sought to upstage Bugatti with a €2.1-million price tag, but had to settle for just over half the Bug’s power output from its 6.5-litre V12. Designed to celebrate the 100th birthday of company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini, 40 will be made and all have been already sold. Like the dinosaur it most certainly is, many will probably end up in museums or covered in dust sheets in private collections.

If the supercars and hypercars are dinosaurs, then the compact crossovers and SUVs are most definitely the adaptable small mammals in this evolutionary war. You couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone’s new 4x4, and VW Group again led the way with its T-Cross Breeze concept and the Audi Q2. The T-Cross, a cute and pugnacious little crossover based on next-generation Polo mechanicals, uses a dinky 115hp 1.0-litre turbo petrol triple (no mention of diesel around these parts, no siree) and will go into production some time next year. The Audi Q2 is a little more conventional, although there’s little doubt that it will find a rich seam of well-heeled, fashionable buyers. Small but practical and expensive looking, it will also be pretty expensive to buy.

But while the T-Cross’ touch-screen interior is said to do away with the need for buttons (the only physical switches on show are the column stalks and those for the electric windows) VW was also speaking of getting rid of steering wheels altogether. Shock, horror but it’s true - at the VW press presentation the night before the show (somewhat more modest and down-sized compared to recent years) there was much talk of VW becoming a leader in autonomous driving and robotic cars, and that such vehicles could do without an internal wheel, much to the benefit of packaging and safety. How far away is that reality? VW execs demurred on a specific timeline, but they’re advanced enough in thinking about to be talking openly in front of journalists, and the unspoken bleak thought at the end of the chat was ‘what point is there in any of this show-business stuff when people aren’t even going to be driving..?’

At least more immediately available new models were seen fitted with reassuring round things sprouting from the dash. Renault’s new Scenic MPV cut quite a dash, far more stylish than its forebears, but still practical and with a very Volvo-esque cabin. Renault is promising improved quality, a mild-hybrid 48-volt diesel and standard 20” alloy wheels on all models. Enough to tempt people out of their SUVs and back into MPVs?

Perhaps, but they’ll have to get past the Volvo V90 estate. We’d seen it before the show, but the shooting brake Swede was getting its global public debut at Geneva, and it still looks fabulous. One of those cars you’d like to just sit in, drive it off the show stand and all the way home.

The same could be said for Skoda’s Vision S SUV. Seven seats, chunky bodywork and a frugal and low-emissions plugin hybrid drivetrain make it one of the most desirable Skodas yet, and it should sell strongly when it comes to the market badges as Kodiak. Does it mark Skoda’s turn of the corner from budget brand to quasi-premium appeal, just as the similar Santa Fe once did with rival Hyundai? Could be…

Also playing the simple card was Fiat’s new Tipo. Cheap to build (and made in a low-cost factory in Turkey) the Tipo is designed to compete with the likes of the Ford Focus and VW Golf, but not to challenge them head on. Instead, it’ll be notably affordable (Fiat Ireland has promised us some seriously eye-catching price tags when it arrives later this year) and have good equipment, as well as plenty of cabin space, a big boot and a long warranty.

All sensible stuff, but our eyes kept wandering to the Abarth 124 Spider across the stand. A hot version of Fiat’s new Mazda MX-5-based roadster, the Abarth 124 even had the classic seventies matte-black bonnet, a throwback to our distant youth and one enough to have us reaching for a chequebook. 170hp, you say? You had me at matte-black bonnet…

Opel was aiming for a similar vibe with its GT Concept, a tiny, MX-5 rivalling two-seat coupe with a diminutive 1.0-litre turbo engine and a black-red-silver colour scheme that just screams ‘Hot Wheels.’ Originally slated as being merely a styling concept, Opel boss Karl-Thomas Neumann was actually making noises about a possible business case at the show. Opel hasn’t had a proper sports car in the range since the seventies GT, so it would be a welcome return if the sums add up right. Hopefully too the business case will add up for right-hand-drive versions of the Ampera-e electric car.

Porsche was having a bit of a seventies revival too with the 911 R - based on the 911 GT3 RS, and packing 500hp from its naturally aspirated engine, it does without air conditioning or a sound system to save weight, comes with a six-speed manual gearbox and (relatively) skinny tyres and has been engineered to be the most thrilling 911 to drive, rather than the fastest against the stop-watch. A very seventies sentiment.

You want to go further back than the seventies? That we can do - how about the Morgan EV3 - an electric, battery-powered version of Morgan’s full-open three-wheeled sports car? A car based on a 1920s design, but one fitted with the latest electric car technology, including a claimed 250km range. Madness, but pleasing madness for all that.

There is much that Geneva still has to reveal to us. A new Aston Martin for a start, and a new Jeep crossover (of course) too. Given that Aston will be namechecking its classic sixties DB range and Jeep will be celebrating its 75th anniversary, you can expect these potential show stars to be as forwards-backwards looking as the rest of the 2016 Geneva show.