Geneva Motor Show 2012
The car world is a fickle one. For the last couple of years we have been teased with a promise of a future urban setting free of the traditional automobile. We were sold a compelling picture where carbon-free hubs transport us autonomously in this wirelessly connected utopia.
Alas, at this year's Geneva Motor Show there was a conspicuous shortage of such visionary vehicles - a little disappointing given that this is one of the only global car shows where conceptual studies and future thinking are positively encouraged. Instead we were fed a range of pragmatic cars that fit our current (less ideal) urban landscapes, and a host of dreamy sex-fuelled sports cars.
Lamborghini's show car, the Aventador J, is a one-off roadster version of its flagship car, promising 700-horsepower from its 6.5-litre V12 powerhouse. It is undeniably desirable even if to be enjoyed by just one customer (who reportedly bought it for £1.76m). As is Ferrari's F12 Berlinetta, which certainly attracted the most attention at the Geneva Motor Show - the hot red car was barely visible on the stand for the media scrum.
Porsche exhibited the all-new Boxster. Designed to be differentiated from the flagship 911, new doors and subtle tail lamps that integrate into the spoiler succeed in giving this entry-level sports car much more of an individual identity.
On the practical side, Audi and Mercedes-Benz went face-to-face over the small car territory with their respective A3 and A-Class redesigns. In true Audi form, the A3 is chiselled, almost flawless in its execution, if lacking a little in soul. That is not to say it isn't a handsome product and completely right for the marque.
In contrast, the A-Class is bolder - the face exposing an almost jewel-like grille; the sculpture a great deal of surfacing - expressing Daimler's yearning to shed its dated reputation in the design department and jump on the success bandwagon of its German rivals Audi and BMW, who are making relevant cars that resonate with customers all over the world. Whether the A-Class will attract a younger buyer remains to be seen, but it is a vast improvement on its former awkwardly tall predecessor.
With much of Europe in a less than agreeable financial state, carmakers are naturally eyeing up the BRIC markets with hawk-like eyes. It is the needs and wants of Chinese, Indian and increasingly Brazilian customers that is directing what is being designed and engineered in Munich, Stuttgart, Ingolstadt and Coventry.
For example, the main message from Jaguar Land Rover at Geneva was its imminent plans for a joint venture with a Chinese partner, which they have since announced will be Chery. The Tata-owned Jaguar Land Rover was on great form at Geneva - oozing confidence and optimism that was far less visible with some of the other car manufacturers. This is unsurprising given JLR's recent growth and hefty profits, all thanks to some intelligent product planning (with six new launches promised this year).
Jaguar has just 1% share of the premium market in China. Adrian Hallmark, global brand director, told Wallpaper*: 'That is 99% of opportunity. Our tailored-for-China approach helped achieve global XJ growth of 45% in 2011.' Jaguar's show offering, the XF Sportbrake, is production ready. Much like the XF, the estate version is elegant and thoughtful, a simple uptake on Jaguar's heritage with a modern edge. Design director Ian Callum mused that estate cars are very much a European preference, bought by younger customers who associate these smaller estates with sporty lifestyles. In this context it is nice to see Jaguar also focusing its attention in Europe and not completely bowing to other markets.
Land Rover's Geneva offering was the Range Rover Evoque convertible concept. Launched last year, the Evoque has been an incredible success story for the company, bringing swathes of new customers to the marque. The intention of the car was to seduce young female buyers and entice customers from markets where the brand is less known. The convertible's design is an acquired taste, but according to LR's head of design Gerry McGovern he will modify it for production depending on the reaction received. There is no doubt that it would attract an even larger audience, even in its current form.
Rather more compelling is the DC100 concept vehicle. Shown for the first time at Geneva's Palexpo halls, this is the marque's vision for a modern Defender - surely one of the most difficult cars to redesign given its almost cult status amongst its loyal customers, ranging from the Queen to the army. The DC100 softens the square edges, adds a little fun to the light graphics yet crucially maintains the utilitarian vernacular of the Defender. However, unlike the Evoque convertible, this car could polarise the more established Land Rover customers.
Motor shows wouldn't quite work without some eye dazzling concept cars from the traditional Italian design studios Bertone, Pininfarina and Italdesign Giugiaro. Of the three Giugiaro is the only one not mired in financial worries - it has sold a majority stake to Volkswagen. The other two historic design houses still have lucrative contracts with other carmakers but once these expire, their debts place them in a fragile situation.
Harsh reality aside, all three carrozeria put on a great show at Geneva, with Pininfarina leading the way with its intelligent Cambiano concept, a seductive three-door saloon-coupe featuring a wood interior crafted from recycled Venetian palinas. Bertone's offering Nuccio is much louder, a little bit of show theatre - the concept is based on the 1970s Lancia Stratos Zero concept.
Finally it was down to Bentley to create a rather big stir at Geneva with its provocative sports-utility proposition. The EXP 9F is an all-wheel drive concept study examining a potential third product to join Mulsanne and Continental. There is certainly economic logic in a Bentley SUV - the customers have asked for it - but perhaps this wasn't the right answer to the question. The somewhat vulgar exterior design, with its massive grille and 23-inch wheels, was a rare disappointment from the marque. Inside, however, the car expressed an entirely different message, with a crisp cabin design hinting at a rather more fun side of the Bentley design team. As for the exterior, new head of design David Hilton did not hide his concerns, reassuring us that 'there is work to be done on the exterior to get it more refined' for the second and final version - possibly - at the Paris Motor Show in September.
Once again, however, the show's biggest draws were hefty luxury cars powered by 12-cylinder engines. Geneva is historically the best auto show for fantasy designs and future speculation, but in recent years it's rather lost its edge to Frankfurt and Tokyo as the place to go for true technological innovation. The 2012 show reinforced that steady shift.