As you walk into the Palexpo, site of the Geneva Motor Show, there is a big panel displaying the names of the 2009 exhibitors. The first curiosity, at this year’s ‘austerity’ show – and let’s face it, the Swiss don’t do austerity very well – is to look at the makers’ logos and guess which won’t be there next year.
Hummer and Saab for 2010? Unlikely.
Opel/Vauxhall? The GM Europe boss later tells us that, without government support, the cash runs out in weeks.
Chrysler and Dodge? Their corner stand is near empty of journalists on press day, no surprise when you look at the cars on show. Of the Chrysler brands, only Jeep would seem to have an assured future.
‘This is an incredibly exciting time for the car industry,’ enthuses former McLaren designer Gordon Murray, one of the few men I meet with a smile on his face. ‘We are on the verge of huge change. And about time too.’
Whether GM will be there to enjoy this brave new world is debatable. The US giant is now begging European governments to spend taxpayer’s money to save Opel/Vauxhall, just as they’ve already done to save their American operations. Who would have thought it! GM, arguably the world’s most famous manifestation of American capitalism, begging for socialist state aid! Forget about ‘Red’ Robbo, that ‘70s scourge of the British establishment. We now have ‘Red’ Rick Wagoner, bane of European governments. What’s more, such state aid will just add to chronic European production overcapacity, against which GM has been railing for years.
Ironically, one of the few visionary new cars at Geneva was GM’s Ampera, which was confirmed for production – assuming Opel/Vauxhall survives – in 2012. It may just be a Europeanised version of the Chevrolet Volt but that doesn’t dim its appeal or make its engineering any less trend setting. Ampera is an electric car that, as GM puts it, eliminates ‘range anxiety’. A fuel-efficient petrol engine acts as an emergency on-board generator ensuring you always get home.
While all European makers mouth about hybrids, Toyota and Honda are a decade or more down the production road. Both the new Prius and Insight, making their European debuts at Geneva, impressed. Hybrids’ merits may be exaggerated – mostly by posturing politicians who buy them to advertise their eco consciences – but there’s no doubting their ‘tomorrow’s world’ significance. It’s just a shame for Euro makers that their tomorrow is Japan’s today.
Elsewhere, on the evidence of Geneva, most cars makers still seem to be living in sanguine spring 2008 not murky March 2009. So we had a hideous new SUV from Aston Martin built on a Mercedes 4x4 platform, supposedly signifying the rebirth of Lagonda (instant reburial more likely); we had an XXL hatchback from BMW that at least had an elegant front-end (the new BMW ‘family face’) to temper the lardy backside and its windbreak-sized tailgate; the new baby Rolls was more old maid than flying lady; there was a shameful attempt by Citroën to give its small C3-sized concept car an innovative air by resurrecting the hallowed DS badge (more Nintendo DS than Citroën DS, I say); and we had the usual Geneva Show beefed-up heavyweight hypercars (Ferrari 599XX, Bentley Continental Supersports etc) designed for Swiss millionaires who didn’t lose all their money with Bernard Madoff or Allen Stanford.
Mind you, Geneva needed some light relief. When Ford bosses are going around high-fiving each other for ‘only’ dropping 19 percent in European sales, you know things are grim. Renault and GM sales, by contrast, have collapsed 34 and 35 percent respectively this year. Look at their respective stands and see why. The facelifted Clio was very probably the dullest looking new car at the show.
The cleverest thing I saw in Geneva was probably the show’s smallest exhibit. It was on the Lotus stand, a company that was once a byword for technical ingenuity (and light cars!) but which, until recently, has lost its way. It was a small single-cylinder two-stroke 500cc engine – but it could also be a twin, triple, four, five or six-pot unit. It can run on any type of ethanol or petrol and can magically and instantly alter its compression ratio from eight-to-one to 50-to-one, depending on its diet; thus it can run at high efficiency irrespective of its fuel type. It is small, light, real-world, inexpensive, and – potentially – frugal, fresh and fast. It is a huge potential advance on the heavily compromised ‘flex fuel’ engines that makers conveniently tout as proof of their eco creds but which, in fact, burn neither petrol nor plant-based ethanol very effectively.
It was not only one of the few really smart pieces of new technology at Geneva, but it also had a clever name – the Omnivore, neatly reflecting the broadness of its diet. Mind you, when the competition includes the Maybach Zeppelin, the Skoda Yeti, Ford Iosis Max (sounds like an energy drink and the styling is just as hyperactive) and the Dacia Duster, winning the name game wasn’t difficult. Winning the game of whose name will still be at Geneva in 2010 will prove harder.
Click here to see the videos from the Geneva motor show 2009