"So, we're well into show season - and there's no car show in Britain quite like this weekend's Silverstone Grand Prix. Before we head off to the petrolheaded version of Glastonbury we were thinking about the changing nature and aesthetic "
Geneva Salon Roundup
I’m not the greatest lover of motor shows. They’re all titillation and no consummation. I’ve never really understood their appeal in the same way I don’t get strip clubs. Just looking at cars is the same as looking at an attractive member of the opposite sex; very pleasant, as far as it goes, but you only get about ten per cent of the pleasure that should be had.
And it may be also that motor shows will wither away. The British show was once one of the most important but has effectively died off. Even the mighty Detroit, Tokyo and Frankfurt shows have been clobbered by the recession: non-attendance by a big carmaker at one of those was once unthinkable, but as the recession struck they bailed out in such numbers that last year’s Tokyo show was almost cancelled.
But it’s superfast broadband that might finally kill the motor show. Why would you travel for hours to a grim part of town to traipse around a draughty exhibition hall when you’ll be able to download hi-def, 3D renderings of the latest models which you can configure with your choice of colour and trim, look at without the backs of other people’s heads getting in the way, and then get into (virtually), start up and drive?
But if one show survives, I hope it’s Geneva. For a start it’s five minutes’ walk from the airport, so you can Sleazyjet in from anywhere. Second, it’s small enough that your feet won’t hurt by the end of the day. Third, despite the size, all the major carmakers and lots of insignificant but insane ones are here: nobody bails on Geneva, yet.
I’ll get to the important cars of this year’s show in a moment, but those tiny, loopy tuning firms alone make Geneva worth the trip. You’ll see stuff you just won’t see elsewhere; really outrageous cars that it would be completely unacceptable to launch anywhere else. Thought the flagrant, aggressive SUV was a thing of the past? Oh no. Maybe it’s because Switzerland is neutral territory and non-EU that Hamann feels safe revealing its Range Rover Sport-based Conqueror II, or its BMW X6-based Tycoon Evo M. Carlsson brought its €429,000, 735bhp, Mercedes SL-based C25, whose environmental impact will be limited only by the fact that just one will be supplied to each of 25 countries. Swiss tuner Mansory has somehow managed to get hold of a Rolls-Royce Ghost already and pimped it with a shocking electric blue and gold paintjob, which looked even more garish alongside its more subtle but otherwise entirely pointless carbon-fibre bodied Mercedes G-wagen.
Ugliest was probably the Malaysian-made, V8-powered Bufori Geneva limo: slogan, ‘A Statement of Pride,’ though ‘a statement of staggering bad taste’ might be more truthful. Who in their right mind buys these things? Is Switzerland so awash with idle cash that these excrescences are needed to soak it up? Even Bentley wasn’t immune, displaying a foul purple-and-cream Continental.
The design houses like Giugiaro have always used Geneva to show their own work, unfettered by the restrictions of a commission from a big carmaker, and these cars are another good reason for coming. Pininfarina’s take on an Alfa spider is bewitching; Bertone’s Pandion, a variation on the same theme, more challenging. But you’ve never seen anything like the Pandion’s rear grille: a mad, asymmetric jumble of spikes, somewhere between a porcupine’s quills and broken glass. This is proper, free-thinking car design; you wonder if a big carmaker would have the balls to put it into production.
There were some great-looking cars from the major makers, though. The show-stopper was unquestionably Porsche’s 918 Spyder. It was a genuine surprise; when the covers are whipped off new cars at motor shows they have almost always been leaked in advance or shown to car magazines so they can put them on their covers in time. But this was a genuine shock: a plug-in hybrid supercar with over 500bhp and a 3.2sec 0-60mph time, yet returning 90mpg and 70g/km of CO2. Those figures are greener than a Prius, and Porsche is not in the habit – unlike some other car firms – of making claims it can’t prove. For once, looking was almost enough; the 918 manages to appear compact, delicate and light but raw and aggressive all at once. It also looked bored on that stand; bored being looked at when it’s built to be driven. And you just know it will be incandescent to drive.
The most significant car of the show is probably Audi’s A1, because it sits at the nexus of a series of interconnected trends. Audi is on a roll, despite the downturn. People want cool small cars again for a bunch of reasons and they want a premium badge. The Mini better watch out. Ford showed its new Focus, more significant than the A1 in terms of numbers, but the looks are a little Korean and you just know it will be more of the same from Ford; great dynamics, great quality, and a car that doesn’t treat the ‘ordinary’ driver like a schmo.
Alfa’s new, Focus-sized Giulietta was much better-looking, but like I said, the looks are only ten per cent of the appeal.
Elsewhere, like every other motor show for the past two years, pretty much every big carmaker had some sort of electric/hybrid/whatever concept on display, but there’s a big difference between just saying your new concept runs on manure and emits only butterflies, and actually putting an appreciably greener car into profitable mass production.
And like every other motor show, Geneva’s halls are crammed with car-anoraks festooned with cameras and laden with brochures, with the garishly-dressed and bouffanted ‘valued clients’ being buttered up by the more exclusive carmakers (so that’s who buys a Bufori…), with teams of Chinese engineers taking digital pictures of obscure parts of the latest models, and with the angular, architectural, intimidatingly beautiful stand-girls.
I’ve never quite understood this either; if a carmaker wants us to look at its new model, why does it distract us with beautiful women wearing very little? And why does the car industry continue to get away with a ‘marketing’ tactic that should have died off at the same time the Miss World contest was taken off TV? Maybe there’s a parallel with motor shows in general; maybe predictions of their demise are premature. A few more will die off, certainly. But if you don’t mind just looking, go to Geneva.
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