Gavin Green's review of the 2012 Geneva motor show

Published: 07 March 2012

There is surely no surer sign that the good times are back: the stars – or rather, the most talked about cars – of the Geneva show were a new Bentley and a new Ferrari, both 12-cylinder powered. They are big, they are decadent, they will be stratospherically expensive (clearly aimed at China’s affluent and Russia’s richest, rather than we insolvents of Western Europe) and they guzzle fuel as extravagantly as pale lager consumed during Oktoberfest.

The Ferrari, the F12 Berlinetta, is magnificent: stunning to the eye, sonorous to the ear and, although I haven’t driven it yet, no doubt achingly seductive to every other manly sense. What a car! As a fan of front-engine Berlinettas, I have a feeling this may be one of the finest Ferraris of all.

Bentley’s vulgar sports utility vessel

The Bentley, on the other hand, is a lumpily styled sports utility vessel, which looks like the progeny of a Russian tuning house rather than this regal car company. About as understatedly British as Elton John on stage, this surely is the pinnacle of the ‘f*** you’ school of car design, from a Volkswagen group that knows a thing or two about up yours 4x4s (Cayenne, Q7, now this).

The promo video, right behind the beast, implied it was a noble continuation of the hallowed Bentley brand, complete with mono footage of dear old WO. You must be joking! This new king of bling would look more at home sailing down the Mersey, gin palace lights glowing, than storming down the Mulsanne, headlights ablazing. Mind you, rivals always said that company founder WO Bentley built ‘the world’s fastest trucks’. That may soon be literally true.

‘You may dislike it,’ a Bentley high-up told me on the stand. ‘But the Chinese and Russians will love it.’  He may be right.

I can see the commercial logic of a Bentley SUV. I can see – more important – that there is probably a demand. But Bentley is better than this. Its latest production car, the marvellous Continental GT V8, is proof, if any were needed.

Apart from the Ferrari, my favourite sports car at Geneva was the new Porsche Boxster. It leavens the best styling features of the old Boxster with a dose of Carrera GT thrown in. The Boxster, at last, looks designed both for Brands Hatch as well as for bouffants. I can hardly wait to drive it. The new BMW 6-series coupe was also spot-in in style, simple, clean and beautifully proportioned.

Stepping out of Swiss millionaire motor territory, there were many new cars but few stand-out stars. The sliding door mini-MPV Ford B-Max impressed with its packaging. So did the Fiat 500L, although it’s a shame those felicitous 500 proportions have been lost in translation from hatch to MPV. I’d rather buy a Panda, the most cleverly conceived of all small cars.

Peugeot 208: the choice of the mass-market hatches

The new Peugeot 208 impressed, as the best looking new big-volume hatch at Geneva. The GTi version looked great – a spiritual successor at last to the 205GTi of fond memory – while the XY ‘luxury’ concept was Peugeot’s signal that it covets a share of the posh small car Mini-style sector, and has the credentials to succeed.

I’m also impressed by Renault’s Zoe EV hatch, the best looking new electric car by a mile, a notch ahead of Nissan’s Leaf in range and technology, and sensibly priced to boot (£14,000, plus battery lease cost). If any car can finally persuade doubters to plug in, not fill up, it should be the Zoe. Renault’s and Peugeot’s styling, so wayward just a few years back – all gaping mouths and awkward angles and big overhangs – finally seems to be crystallizing into something elegantly Gallic rather than eccentrically gawky.

The new Kia Cee’d also impressed. It is a car of European and Japanese design standards, no buts or maybes. Design boss Peter Schreyer, ex-Audi, has done wonders for the Koreans.

Back on the premium plane, Volvo’s new V40 is a handsome evolution of the XC60/S60/V60 Peter Horbury/Steve Mattin design language, and a welcome alternative from Sweden’s sole surviving car maker to all those shiny and increasingly anonymous German hatchbacks.

Disappointing new Mercedes

Two new five-door mid-sized Germans were previewed at the Palexpo: a predictable and barely discernibly different A3 and a disappointing Mercedes A-class that, if you took away the hallowed Star, could just as easily be a Kia or a Toyota. Unlike the commendable outgoing A, it is also technically unimaginative.

Mercedes styling misdirection is becoming worrying, with no apparent rhyme, reason or, more important, beauty. I wish they’d get back to solid elegant Bauhaus German design – of which Mercedes was once master ¬– and forget about the swoopy curvy Latin-mimicking stuff.

The Germans do not do romantic language well. After all, the German for nipple is ‘breast wart’, which is about as practical and unromantic as you can get. Stick to great functional design – as epitomised by the better old E-classes, S-classes and SLs – I say.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience