Geneva Motor Show: Where dreams become reality

Concept cars are production reality and Rolls-Royce is the star at this year's motor show, says John Simister
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Indy Lifestyle Online

To adapt a well-known phrase or saying, a year is an incredibly short time in the motor industry. Last year's Geneva motor show saw several concept cars that pointed the way to the future face of the mainstream car. This year, these cars are a production reality.

The one we'll be seeing the most is Ford's S-Max, a sleek seven-seat MPV that sounds an almost oxymoronic idea until you see it. Look at the new Galaxy, also about to reach the showrooms, and you realise that the S-Max is effectively a Galaxy coupé.

Another category-bending car last year was Dodge's square-cut Caliber, a sort of estate car/MPV/ hatchback cocktail. Now it, too, is in production and goes on European sale soon.

Might the same thing happen to the little(ish) Dodge Hornet concept car? It's cute, square, versatile and has a very aggressive nose - "We call it the tough guy," says Chrysler's head of advanced design, Tom Tremont - but is very small by US standards. If built, it would rival Toyota's Scion, Nissan's Cube and Honda's Element, none of which is sold in Europe, yet Dodge is considering such a car for the European market. The Hornet, which revives an old American Motors name (and that of several Wolseleys) could just be different enough to succeed here.

But these are not the glamour cars that draw the crowds to money-soaked Geneva. Rolls-Royce 101 EX? That's more like it. Here's a hefty, very glamorous coupé built on the (shortened) base of the leviathan Phantom, and which previews how next year's R-R convertible - probably reviving the Corniche name - will look. The most striking parts are the rear-hinged doors (a very retro feature but brought up to date with electronic safety locks), the cast aluminium windscreen surround, the bare aluminium bonnet (not for production) and the slightly raked-back radiator grille (an R-R first).

In some ways, this was the star of a show filled more with starlets than supernovae. Or maybe it shared top billing with a pure concept car (the Saab Aero X) and a madly rapid road car (the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, faster than any other roadgoing Ferrari to date).

The Aero X points to how future Saabs may look, beginning with the next 9-5, but it doesn't mean Saab is about to put this 400bhp, twin-turbo V6, four-wheel drive supercar into production. That's a pity, because it's a wonderfully pure interpretation of Saab design features - such as the way the windscreen wraps around visually into the side windows.

In the Aero X, with its one-piece, slide-forward canopy, windscreen and side windows are all one. Its mechanism needs to be refined, though; one journalist climbed into the show car, closed the roof and couldn't get out again.

Ferrari's 599 replaces the 575 Maranello but is both wider and lighter. It shares some of its aluminium construction with the 612 Scaglietti, but its 6.0-litre, 620bhp V12 engine is based on that of the Enzo and the Maserati MC12. Its airflow systems are fascinating, especially around the bubble rear window that's framed by flying buttresses, while technological cleverness includes an "F1-Superfast" sequential transmission with ultra-speedy gear-changes plus electronic suspension dampers whose stiffness is altered by altering the magnetic field around the magnetisable fluid within. This is a sleek but hefty-looking car; by comparison, the Maserati GranSport MC Victory across the aisle looked almost dainty.

Skoda's new Roomster looks like it could be a small SUV, but it isn't. It also has the face of something very retro, and the windscreen graphic of a Saab. This is neither a beautiful mini-MPV nor a visually continuous one, but there's a certain wacky, Multipla-like charm here and the rear seats offer big headroom and a fine view out.

They slide in a Meriva-like, mega-legroom way, and do all the right folding and removability tricks. It's interesting that Skoda launches the Roomster just as loss-making Seat laments its lack of a small, Citroën Berlingo-baiting MPV as it seeks to reinvent itself beyond a forced "sportiness".

The craziest SUV award goes to Nissan's Terranaut concept, designed to explore uncharted parts of the world as a kind of mobile laboratory. This vast piece of three-seater squareness with its puncture-proof tyres was designed at Nissan's London studio.

Lotus, in contrast, revealed its APX, or Aluminium Performance Crossover, produced to advertise its capabilities to other carmakers. This seven-seater 4x4 looks virtually production-ready. The structure, too, can be created as anything from a giant SUV to a two-seater sports car, just by altering the lengths of the extrusions and changing the "nodules".

In fact, the APX is so close to a production car that one wonders if it was a job created for a client who then got cold feet. If so, that's a shame because no one else has produced a viable all-aluminium SUV. Lotus also showed its new Europa S, a kind of Elise GT with extra civility and a weight of only 995kg. Initial pictures were not flattering, but I'm pleased to report that the real thing looks happier.

Other sports cars included the Opel GT, an open two-seater that's a rebadged Saturn Vue from the US , the production coupé version of the BMW Z4, Porsche's new 911 Turbo and GT3, and the Alfa Spider, which is an open Brera.

The coupé-cabriolet onslaught continues with Vauxhall's Astra Twin-Top and Volkswagen's Eos, and Ford revealed the production version of the Focus CC. More intriguing was a Peugeot 407-based show car from Heuliez, the body-builder that engineered and makes the Vauxhall Tigra.

The 407 Macarena is surely unique in being a CC with four doors, yet the boot is short behind its ample interior. By contrast, Citroën had the C-AirPlay, a frisky little car with an openable glass roof and portholes in the lower doors to give the visual stimulation of the road speeding by.

But over at Kia was maybe the most interesting compact hatchback of all, the oddly-named Cee'd ( the "seed" of Kia's European future, apparently).

Designed in Germany to be built in Slovakia from the end of this year, the Cee'd will replace the Cerato and looks terrific. If the production car can match the concept (panoramic roof possibly excepted), Kia will truly have come of age. And beleaguered European carmakers will be worried.

76th International Motor Show, Palexpo, Geneva, until 12 March.

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