The Geneva Motor Show is the biggest in the calendar, and it’s a window on the entire global industry. What are the big themes and where are we heading? asks Richard Lofthouse
Geneva 2017 was weird. Well into the second press day, I simply couldn’t figure out what was going on. To recap, last year’s Geneva Motor Show show was a sunny upland of colourful product, booming sales and free whisky on the Morgan stand.
This year’s show, if anything, took all those elements to new heights, including the generous bump of 17-year old Balvenie consumed by your correspondent, at 4pm after a 5am start, against all advice but still fantastic – thank you Morgan, who went on to launch an electric three-wheeler.
There were numerous extraordinary supercars making their global debut, and everyone had bumper profits to declare. On the surface, it’s the same in the UK. Consider the brilliant results just delivered by Lookers, the continuing low interest rate environment driving PCP deals, and Philip Hammond’s benign Spring budget, where motorists are concerned.
Yet there was an underlying agitation at Geneva, just as we all know there’s a shadow over Ellesmere Port.
I was berated for a long time in a hotel lobby by a German journalist about how dumm Brexit is, and how stupid a country could be for probably volunteering to lose its car industry, or at least the (many) bits of it that were originally the result of Japanese carmakers needing an English-speaking beachhead into the European Single Market. To which I nodded sympathetically.
My new friend then added that the essential character of the Geneva car show was changing for the worse, towards virtual reality goggle displays and other circus tricks that have little to do with cars, to say nothing about the profusion of hypercars of so little relevance to the ordinary motorist that it was becoming an automotive catwalk instead of a sensible car show.
To which I nodded less sympathetically.
It’s Geneva after all. Britta Seeger, Mercedes board member for marketing and sales, actually began her speech saying that Geneva was the ‘catwalk’ of the car industry, before launching the very pretty new E-Class Coupe and a brace of crazy AMGs. Not forgetting the simply bonkers off-roader, the Mercedes-Maybach G650.
The trick is to read the strong currents beneath the froth. Initially this is not easy as you wander around in a daze of bright lights and thunderous music, to say nothing of the great heat of the trade show.
If the Spyker C8 Preliator Spyder had the craziest interior, then Singapore’s UK-developed hypercar Dendrobrium took the laurels for the craziest exterior.
If Aston Martin’s Valkyrie is a F1 car in road-legal guise, set for tiny production in 2019, then the ‘real world’ (relatively speaking) super car star of the show is surely McLaren’s extremely impressive 720S.
There were lots of other catwalk cars, but only one underlying theme that we need pay attention to: the advance of electric propulsion.
In this respect McLaren and Pagani, both flaunting conventional internal combustion engines, are exceptions proving a new rule. The Dendrobrium is a pure electric vehicle. Aston’s Valkyrie has an electric drive component, but only Adrian Newey at Red Bull Racing knows exactly what it is; and then there’s the Koenigsegg Regera.
It boasts a claimed 1500bhp and 2000Nm of torque from a hybrid drivetrain, good for a claimed 0-400km/h of 20 seconds. Get that? Did you hear that and absorb it or did you think I wrote a typo?
Even if it’s not quite true, the point is that electromobility, to use BMW’s term, is now a game changer even if it morphs into hydrogen fuel cells, which in any case is another form of electric drive, just with a different process behind it.
The balance between those two technologies still rests on how quickly batteries improve, which remains partly unknown. But either way, electric drive is here and it’s not going away.
Even with electricity firmly on my brain, however, Geneva still felt weird this year, until two things happened in quick succession than began to clear the fog. First I drank some mega-coffee made by a barista flown down from Gothenberg by Volvo, and then I spoke at length to Olle Fast (his real name!), head of technology product, leader for drive trains, also at Volvo.
He talked me through the XC90 T8 Twin Engine, naked for inspection in front of us. This drivetrain is amazing. It features a supercharged, turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine at the front, cleverly packaged batteries and a Siemens-built electric motor at the back, altogether pumping out 407 bhp and 640nM of torque.
Game-changing ascent into mad performance
I asked Fast if the car industry is trying to win over sceptical consumers by overcompensating for the perceived weaknesses of electrical drive, to produce these massive power figures – in this sense Volvo’s XC90 T8 being the Main Street ‘overkill’ equivalent of the Koenigsegg Regera.
He reminded me that the business model of the whole industry is broadly premised on offering more and more speed and power. Tesla sets the mark with its ‘ludicrous’ mode, sub-3 second 0-100km/h sprint time, which has obviously caught the imagination of a broad and affluent buying public. If so, electric motors are suddenly paving the way to a game-changing ascent into mad performance.
The technology is already spreading quickly through the ranks of lesser vehicles bought by fleet operators and families alike.
With all this in mind, Senior Vice President for product and marketing at BMW, Hildegard Wortmann, told me that one thing BMW has learned from its whole ‘i’ Division experiment (the i3 and the i8), is that “no one who has tried electric goes back to internal combustion engines. No one.”
Back to the Aston Martin stand, and a spokesman explained that electric motors mate perfectly with petrol power, offering all their torque immediately, before the petrol engine does the biz at the top end, at high revs.
It doesn’t mate very well with diesel because diesel engines offer performance characteristics that duplicate rather than complement diesels – bags of low end torque, but no ‘top end’.
At the mention of diesel, I drank another Swedish coffee and sat down to dissect Geneva in numbers. I counted 73 global debuts, having first excluded concepts and prototypes (many of the latter electric). Of the 73 new cars launched at Geneva, 10 are diesel-powered, 13 are EVs or hybrids, and the balance –a chunky fifty cars- are petrol powered.
Of those diesels, some are ‘niche’ models in terms of sales numbers, such as BMW’s new 530d Touring; the company itself made a much bigger fuss about the PHEV iPerformance 530e (saloon). Porsche’s swanky estate car, the Panamera Sport Turismo, was offered with no fewer than five different drivetrains, only one of which is diesel.
The diesel is less powerful than the E-Hybrid, while the fastest model of the lot is petrol-powered, the Turbo Sport Turismo. A year ago any large SUV would have been served up as a diesel. This year saw Audi showing a Q8 Sportconcept, ‘a good glimpse of our future’ according to Chairman Rupert Stadler. It’s a 3.0 litre TFSI petrol engine plus mild hybridisation.
Over to Bentley, and I joked with a senior Bentley official, who must remain nameless. Why had the company launched its first ever diesel (the Bentayga) just as the rest of the VW Group is running away from the fuel quicker than you can say ‘defeat device’? He replied by silently pointing at the whiter than white EXP 12 Speed 6e – arguably the prettiest concept car at the show, and an electric car. Even a year ago this was unthinkable.
‘Diesel RVs are heading towards a cliff’
Back at Volvo, I had an open conversation about how long it will be before a leading car maker completely quits diesel drivetrains, recognising that globally speaking, Europe is and always has been an oddity in this respect (partly excepting India and South Korea).
You’ve already read here about Glass’s director of valuations Rupert Pontin suggesting that pure electric vehicles will quickly leap ahead of plug-in hybrids, impairing residual values of the latter. But surely the larger point – not yet felt in the UK market – is that diesel RVs are heading towards a cliff, not least as London and other cities declare war on them because of air quality issues.
If there was one lesson from Geneva this year, it was this. Not a single manufacturer blew the trumpet for diesel. That was the weirdness. It was a show defined in the end not by what was said about electric drive, but about what wasn’t said about a technology that is at the centre of the European car market yet already looks out of date.
Within two to three years there will be a raft of 500km range EVs for ordinary consumers. The most attended press conference of the show wasn’t a catwalk carmaker as such, but Hyundai’s utterly brilliant and beautiful, catwalk worthy, FE Fuel Cell Concept (with a range of 800kms). The Korean company’s Ioniq, meanwhile, in pure EV guise, already offers a claimed range of 280kms, perhaps 200 in practice, and an eight-year warranty.
This is the future staring us in the face.
Diesel is not part of it.