Back to basics was the cry from a shell-shocked automotive industry
No lesser authority than Dr Dieter Zetsche summed up the Geneva motor show for this year -- and the industry's outlook. As we rode a hotel lift together, the head of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and Chairman of Daimler AG told your humble correspondent for motoring.com.au that the show was good, but the volume-selling brands were still doing it tough in the marketplace.
Not surprisingly then, those volume-selling brands were a marketing force majeure at Geneva's Auto Salon, the first major European motor show for the year. They struck hard, with exactly the sort of products they expected consumers really wanted in these straitened times. While there were certainly supercars and EVs at the show, this was the year of the small, the practical, the basically conventional. The cars that were surrounded three deep by visitors to Geneva's Palexpo were principally vehicles such as Mercedes-Benz's appealing new A-Class, or Ford's admirable blend of style and utility, the B-Max.
Audi's new A3 and Volkswagen's up! were similarly mobbed on their stands. Indeed, some might argue the up! really stole the limelight from the new Alltrack. The up!, not even a new release in Geneva, made an impact on the VW stand in its different, themed guises. MINI's heady mix of Euro-chic and John Cooper Works performance attracted thousands throughout each day. Fiat took no chances, posing nubile young models alongside their new Panda and 500L models, as well as a limited edition of the three-door 500. It seemed to work for the Italian company.
Peugeot's 208 -- particularly the GTi -- looks more palatable than its predecessor and can be expected to do good business for the venerable French company, perhaps putting Peugeot back on the map where it belongs.
Hyundai (i30) and Kia (the cee'd wagon) drew a steady stream of the curious and the investigative -- in a context where Swiss neutrality matters for little. The Asian car companies are still seeking new ways to infiltrate the European market in large numbers... and the Europeans are still formulating countermeasures to hold them at bay. More and more the two Korean companies seem to acknowledge that to be successful in Europe, their designers and even their production staff need to think European -- which is why the two new cars at the show are Euro-influenced and even built in Europe.
Mitsubishi's new Colt was on display at the show. Previously identified by Mitsubishi as the GSC (Global Small Car), the new Colt looks, on the face of it, to be functional and serviceable, but it wasn't a huge drawcard to the stand, as far as could be seen. Perhaps Mitsubishi shot itself in the foot, placing the new Outlander SUV on a pedestal, with the Colt mixed in among the rest of the model range, albeit front and centre of the company's leased floor area. And all the cars other than the Outlander (which was finished in a bronze metallic colour) were white...
Compare the Mitsubishi experience with that of Nissan and its Invitation concept. The B-segment (light car) design study was flanked by two innovative vehicles, but was far and away the star of the show for Nissan, in this writer's opinion. Invitation, as everyone now knows, will go into production at the company's Sunderland plant in the UK. Presumably the production model won't go by that name. For the show, the concept car was the subject of much favourable comment, although in reality it might be argued that the Invitation is nothing more than Nissan's clone of the Honda Jazz. Whatever the case, it's hard to see how the production car could possibly fail in the market if it's launched retaining those looks.
Renault allowed itself an each-way bet. Not only was its highest-profile product a small car, it was also an EV. Sharing surprisingly little with the Nissan LEAF, the Renault Zoe takes the electric car out of the realm of the quirky and unknown, just as the LEAF is in the process of doing for Nissan.
Volvo fronted up to Geneva with its C30-based V40 hatch. If the numbers attending Volvo's stand to cast their eye over the clean-cut new hatch can be any indication at all, the V40 should be a huge sales hit for Volvo.
Naturally the Geneva show is hardly complete without the outrageous, the excessive or the mind-bogglingly fast. Tick off one by one the Bentley EXF 9, the Lamborghini Aventador J and the Ferrari F12Berlinetta. Then there was the usual swag of oddball cars from Switzerland's own niche-filling purveyors of the unusual and the absurd. And just in case the Swiss tuners weren't enough, they were joined by companies of similar ilk from other parts of Europe.
So you had names such as Rinspeed, Sbarro, Weismann, Gemballo, Artega, Roding, Spano, Alpina... sharing the world's focus with three famous Italian design studios, Giugiaro, Bertone and Pininfarina. Truth to tell though, each of the three companies' respective concept cars arguably lacked the elegance and sophistication we've come to expect from Italian designers.
At opposite ends of the venue, AC and Morgan pitched a dream of years gone by to show-goers. Morgan had a trio of tri-wheelers on its stand, along with the company's four-wheeled product range. Fenced in they may have been, but they were certainly getting their share of intrigued or admiring glances.
Infiniti's EMERG-E concept was a piece of art in carbonfibre. Without the end result looking ridiculous, the EMERG-E managed to incorporate themes from Japanese culture -- "intense eyes of a god" for headlights, for instance, or the look of a kimono around the rear flanks, according to the man behind the car, Shiro Nakamura. The performance potential and the environmental credentials of this plug-in hybrid are impressive too.
There were other brands with their own stories to tell in Geneva. Among them was Tesla, with its Model S; an electric vehicle that shows the potential to 'normalise' alternative-energy cars and integrate them into mainstream vehicle development faster than electrically-powered small cars have achieved to date. Offering seven seats (and the two in the rear are actually functional) with decent performance and environmental sensitivity, the Model S is a true alternative to Fisker's plug-in hybrids (also there at Geneva).
Once a brand respected and admired in Australia (although not necessarily by owners), Lancia is arguably a shadow of its former self. A cursory inspection of the Italian firm's stand revealed just the tiny Ypsilon remaining as a true Lancia design. Every other vehicle was underpinned by -- or damned near badge-engineered from -- a Chrysler platform. Thema -- a name often recalled in association with the Ferrari-engined Type 4-based 8.32 model -- is applied to a rebodied Chrysler 300. Travesty...
Which company came up with the best stand for the show? Our nod goes to Nissan. Featuring the electrically-powered version of the NV200 van to the left, Invitation in the middle and the new Hi-Cross SUV concept to the right, the Nissan stand was colourful, vibrant and warm. The three vehicles were a good blend of unusual, appealing and futuristic, and the layout of the stand was smaller than some, but cohesive and open, nonetheless. It didn't seem to have elements scattered hither and yon, and it was well located within the venue.
The Lexus stand was open, clean and simple, but was let down by lack of altogether new product, other than the admittedly beautiful LF-LC at the rear of the stand. Other companies introduced their new products with well-conceived visual effects (Opel, Audi, with back lighting, Fiat with a breaking-wave platform created by two cars rising from below the floor) while other companies used what had worked for them in the past. Ford tipped a Focus on its side to show the car's nether parts, for example -- something the blue oval brand has done in Australia in previous years.
Every motor show runs at its own pace -- usually slow. Geneva's organisers have always kept the pace up, with manufacturers' presentations to the media often taking place simultaneously, two at a time. Occasionally this leads to the amusing sight (or sound, actually) of a car company executive on one stand yelling into the microphone to be heard over dance music emanating from another stand. Tesla copped it this year.
Legendary clockwork efficiency failed the Swiss this time. Despite racing through presentations by doubling up -- and keeping journalists on their toes running across three or four halls to get from one presentation to catch the tail end of another — the scheduling on the media day stumbled, when one company's presentation dragged on much longer than expected. This set back the schedule of media events for the day by 15 minutes. Welcome to the real world, organisers of the Geneva Auto Salon...
And so that was Geneva for 2012, once again an important fixture for the automotive industry