Geneva Motor Show 2011
Geneva 2011 saw a mad mix of environmentally responsive vehicle design and downright aggressive macho metal. This, mixed with quite a few heritage cars on show, created an almost surreal atmosphere - perhaps exposing car companies' desperation to prove their multi-faceted credentials. That's not to say the show lacked credible design and innovative design thinking.
Starting with power, Jaguar unveiled the XKR-S, its fastest production sports car to date that promises to be one of the cleanest fast cars around. Design director Ian Callum had this to say: 'This is the cleanest car in its class, producing under 300g/km so it is relatively efficient.'
The XKR-S stood in complete contrast to last year's CX-75 electric concept car. We asked Callum how he explains these two very different propositions: one is finding a contemporary Jaguar aesthetic that is in keeping with zeitgeist and environmental concerns; the other is a showcase for power.
'You're right we have to find a balance,' he answered candidly. 'We are a performance car company so we have to have something up there saying we are capable of doing this,' he continued, adding, 'The challenge in the future is to have a car like this with extremely green credentials. We've developed the technology for the CX-75 and it would be a terrible shame not to build it. In my view it is everything the brand stands for.'
Jaguar also celebrated 50 years of the E-Type on the eve of the show. Earlier that day we were taken to du Parc des Eaux Vives on the edge of the city, the very place where Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons first unveiled the car half a century ago. Here the company had gathered a range of E-Types, coupés and convertibles, from the heritage museum and through private owners, themselves present, their personal narratives lending a human touch as we relived the 1961 test route up a nearby hill climb and by Lake Geneva.
In 1961 the E-Type caused an immediate sensation, with striking design, sporty driving dynamics (it could reach 150mph) and competitive pricing. Enzo Ferrari called it: 'the most beautiful car in the world'. Brigitte Bardot, Tony Curtis and Steve McQueen owned one - and it became the symbol of modernity and the free-spirited 1960s.
Nowadays our priorities have shifted. Speed - in some circles anyhow - is no longer the indicator of modernity, and car designers are almost apologetic about showcasing the power beneath the metal. Or so it would seem.
Back at the show, new launches came thick and fast. Aston Martin unwrapped the cover off the Virage, a V12-engined GT that sits somewhere between the DB9 and DBS; and Lamborghini the Aventador, another cartoon-like supercar to replace the outgoing Murcielago.
Ferrari presented the Pininfarina-designed four-wheel-drive FF GT. Exhibited in red on the Ferrari stand, and in a much more subtle white at Pininfarina, it is an interesting proposition by a marque eager to capitalise on new markets and female buyers.
A notable theme that's been at the forefront of current vehicle design is the search for new vernaculars for the family car, forms that are compact yet also spacious. Volkswagen's Bulli, for instance, is a small modern day 1950s Camper van concept with six seats - aimed at younger buyers who would need to double up their car as a mobile office.
Renault also had some inspired cars on display. The French marque has been rethinking its position under its present design boss, Dutch designer Laurens Van der Acker. He has been pushing for a new design language that highlights the human, more populist Renault heritage with the three concept cars DeZir, R-Space and Captur. Sadly these are predominately conceptual ideas although the firm is committed to applying many of the features, especially from the interior, to its upcoming production cars.
Audi's A3 Saloon concept, on the other hand, is almost production ready. Speaking to us at the show, head of Audi design Stefan Sielaff said: 'We feel a strong renaissance of the original compact, efficient, smaller saloons especially in markets like China and the US where the taste is a little more conservative and so the demand for saloons is quite high.' In typical Audi fashion, the car is meticulously designed and boasts material finishing and an attention to detail rarely found in this category.
The Range Rover Evoque was no doubt the star of the so-called 'soft off-roader' category. Clearly, and unashamedly, aimed at the non off-roader buyer - young, female and design conscious - the Evoque hails a new design direction away from overtly utilitarian one for the brand.
Speaking with Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern at the show, he admitted the car is 'more of a design approach. The vehicle still has the overall integrity and the capabilities, but it is capability that is relevant today,' he said.
'People say you're glamorising the brand and that is probably true but so what,' he continued. 'I wouldn't call it overt bling though. We're making a transition from selling four-by-four vehicles to luxury products.' Incidentally, the Evoque was selected as the best production car of the year by the people's vote at the Car Design of the year that evening.
Not surprisingly, sustainable driving featured high on the list with almost all manufacturers showing both zero-emission production cars and advanced design thinking in this area. Peugeot showed the EX1 electric racecar and Nissan the Esflow - both designed to convey how the electric powertrain can open up so much scope for designers to make sexy cars and supercars.
Head of Nissan Design Europe Victor Nacif told W* that 'the mentality of a sports car is the same as the electric car. The sports car is also about pure efficiency, to get there as quickly as you can and as efficiently as you can. Having an electric engine in there makes sense.'
Peugeot's Gilles Vidal echoed a similar philosophy. Referencing the EX1, a record-breaking two seater electric sports car, he told us that 'the idea is to show that electric driving isn't just for slow city cars. It can be about performance, driving experience and driving pleasure.'
Yet, it was left to BMW to truly make a statement with some real advanced thinking wrapped inside the Vision ConnectedDrive concept. 'This is not conceptual,' Adrian Van Hooydonk told W* as he explained the thinking behind this visionary car, but rather, a bed of ideas that are doable and ones that genuinely push forward driving and mobility in the real world.
'Two years ago we showed Vision EfficientDynamics that was also dealing with a new technology, mainly lightweight. With this car we're showing something that is invisible but is about connectivity,' he said. 'Internet connectivity is all good and well but the deciding factor will now depend on how you deliver this information to the driver and the co-driver.
'Our Megacity Vehicle, out in two years, will be zero emission and will have that kind of connectivity to its immediate environment in the megacity. This car is more for the current city - somewhere like London and Paris,' he concluded.