Geneva's smoke and mirrors show

There are plenty of stars at this year's premier European show, says John Simister but things are not always as they seem
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Every motor show has a theme, whether scripted by its participants or not. For this year's Geneva show, featuring possibly a record number of new-model unveilings, the theme was one of bedfellows, smoke and mirrors. So many things are no longer what they seem. Are people being duped, maybe? Let's just say that many a brand is no longer quite what it was.

Every motor show has a theme, whether scripted by its participants or not. For this year's Geneva show, featuring possibly a record number of new-model unveilings, the theme was one of bedfellows, smoke and mirrors. So many things are no longer what they seem. Are people being duped, maybe? Let's just say that many a brand is no longer quite what it was.

Weirdest is Cadillac's BLS, a handsome, BMW 3-series-sized saloon with edgy design and a mission to make Cadillac a credible global quality brand for all its Americanism. This Cadillac will be made at Saab's Swedish factory, and will have a diesel engine option made by Fiat. Did we think we would ever see the day...?

Or try this. Bentley's new Continental Flying Spur, the front end of the Continental GT with a roomy, long-wheelbase, four-door body grafted on behind, might well be built not as is traditional, in Britain, but in Dresden by Bentley's parent company Volkswagen. And then there are the three new baby cars from Citroën, Peugeot and Toyota. The C1, the 107 and the Aygo have identical structures, mechanicals and - fabrics apart - interiors, but are differentiated by external sheetmetal, lights and bumpers. The five-door versions of the two French cars have no visible rear wings; so stubby is the tail that the doors meet directly with the rear lights and bumper. But Toyota's version grabbed the media's attention with a bright yellow "Aygo DJ", whose entire rear section was separated to become the mixing desk for a sound system able to batter thousands of journalistic eardrums.

Built in the Czech Republic, the cars are mainly engineered by Toyota with parts purchasing by PSA, the Peugeot-Citroën group. There are two engines, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder unit from Toyota (which also makes the manual and two-pedal sequential-auto transmissions), and 1.4-litre PSA diesel. In Europe these cars will start at about €8,500; in the UK, the Aygo will go on sale first and will probably be a little more expensive and better-equipped than its siblings.

But it was another bright yellow car which got people talking the most. The Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the £79,500 two-seater GT set to steal sales from Porsche's 911, has been lurking in the car-lover's subconscious since the concept version caused a hall-full of dropped jaws at Detroit just over a year ago, and now it's a reality with a 4.3-litre, 380bhp engine whose cylinder-block casting is similar to a Jaguar's but which is otherwise uniquely Aston. Wearing a yellow tie to match the pearlescent yellow V8, engineering director Jeremy Main extolled the practicality of the hatchback tail and the way the low centre of gravity and equal front/rear weight distribution make for fabulous handling. "It's easier to do this when the architecture is right in the first place," he said in a little dig at the rear-engined, tail-heavy 911.

Why yellow? "Because it looks youthful", said Main, "but I think you ought to see the other one we have here". Into the inner sanctum we disappeared and yes, it looks a lot more appealing in dark metallic grey.

That same colour also adorned some panels of Citroën's C6, revealed in near-production form exactly six years on, incredibly, from the C6 Lignage concept that pointed the way to today's new-look Citroën faces. The long front overhang and the short tail with its concave rear window give something of the look of a latter-day Citroën CX Prestige, and the frameless door windows and the drop-down, real-wood door pockets able to take an A4-size document wallet mark the C6 as refreshingly different from the default-choice Germans.

The word is that even German buyers are becoming bored with the ubiquity and serious-mindedness of their country's grander products, and welcome the idea of something equal but alternative as long as it really is as well engineered and finished. The C6, with its choice of petrol or diesel V6 engines and, in the UK, a likely £30,000 price tag, could well be that car.

Another brand rebuilding itself, and which needs an attitude shift among its dealers to handle the rebuild, is Alfa Romeo. Emerging from the smoke and fireworks of Fiat's management shake-up and €1.6bn pay-off from GM, but clearly planned a long time before, were Alfa's 159 (the 156 replacement named after the company's most famous post-war Grand prix car) and its beautiful Brera coupé. The Brera has changed little from the Giugiaro concept car shown a couple of years ago, the concept that defined today's new Alfa front-end look with its triangular grille and triple-pod lights, while the 159 has elements of the 156 but a heftier, chunkier stance and more space.

The 159 has lost the hidden rear door handles of the 156, but two other Geneva concepts adopted the idea to create the look of a coupé. The first was Honda's new Civic, a car of extraordinary daring given its mainstream market positioning, and extraordinarily aglow in its luminescent orange paint. Amazingly, the full-width grille/light strip and much of the detailing will remain when the new Civic enters production at Swindon later in the year. The diesel engines so engagingly portrayed in Honda's TV ads will be Swindon-made, too.

The other hidden-handle pointer to a forthcoming production car was Seat's next León, again coupé-esque and the closest production-intended interpretation yet of the handsome Salsa concept of a couple of years ago. Designer Steve Lewis says that the real thing won't have the four F1 TV-style video cameras, though, which let each occupant see driving views from various vantage points.

Honda's second debutante was technology-rich with its four-wheel drive but visually restrained and somewhat imitative of prestigious German saloons. The new Legend didn't make me ache with desire, but the new IS saloon from Lexus did a good job of creating a new, distinctive Lexus identity with its fastback tail, high flanks and lack of adornment. There's a diesel version for the first time, with 177bhp, while the V6 petrol model signals the end of straight-six Lexus engines. The chronograph-look instruments have gone, too, more's the pity.

I walked past the back of Mazda's new MX-5, and fleetingly wondered why Mazda had brought the old model to the show. It hadn't, but the new one's rear looks almost exactly the same. The front, however, is squarer and bolder, the cabin is tidier and the whole enlarged car sits on a shortened version of the RX-8's base (but without the rotary engine). It will no doubt be a fine sports car, but some pundits were disappointed that it lacked the bold, exaggerated front wheelarches of the RX-8.

Two "crossover" concepts that presage almost-certain production cars offered ample wheelarch boldness, however. One was the Dodge that is planned to bring the brand back to Europe in credible quantities, the Kaliber. This tall estate car/MPV with a hint of SUV toughness has a square-cut front, which some might find a shade too brash, but the other, Ford's SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle), looked very sophisticated with its crisp lines, a new take on the usual Ford front and ample orange linear detailing.

It sits between the Mondeo and the Galaxy, and after the dowdy new Focus is frankly quite a relief. Recently installed design chief Martin Smith, poached from GM after Ford envied the Astra, is clearly making his presence felt. And even the Focus redeemed itself with the racy ST version, powered by a five-cylinder, 2.5-litre, 220bhp engine from Volvo.

Meanwhile, over in the General Motors corner Opel - read Vauxhall for the UK - revealed its new Zafira compact MPV. The clever "Flex7" seat plan continues, but the body shape is less van-like and the interior is more welcoming. There'll even be a 240bhp VXR version from October, likely to be the fastest MPV in existence.

Another practical newcomer from GM was Saab's long-promised 9-3 SportWagon, which features a boot floor able to fold into vertical transverse dividers, while a certain amount of GM (about 30 per cent) underpinned the new Fiat Croma. This uses Vectra underpinnings, but has suspension set to Fiat principles so it should be a more fluid drive, and features its own, unexpectedly sumptuous interior. But why would you buy one? Because it's a clever mix of hatchback and tall estate car (more blurring of categories), and no rival is roomier.

But one rival which is roomy is Volkswagen's new Passat. As before, there's a hint of Audi about the quality, but this time there's a hint of BMW 3-series about the rear side window shape. Volkswagen claims great things for its new saloon, and by the time you read this I shall have driven one. Also from Germany came the Mercedes-Benz's B-class compact MPV and R-class estate/SUV/thematic identity-crisis car. The number of niches Mercedes now fills is extraordinary, but it seems strange that the R-class is a six rather than a seven-seater. Why not make a version with three seats in the middle row?

The German power game continued apace with the unveiling of Audi's 420bhp, V8-engined RS4 and BMW's M6 coupé which placed the M5's V10 engine in the 6-series body, but for total power outrage how about the Bugatti Veyron? This long-delayed, epically extravagant supercar from the outer reaches of the Volkswagen group galaxy has a 16-cylinder engine of 7,993cc, delivers 1001bhp to make it the most powerful car you can buy (for around £700,000, if you're planning a purchase), and would reach 250mph if there existed the place to do so. It's enough to make any other supercar maker give up.

But they don't. Design house Pinin- farina showed a concept inspired by the Maserati Birdcage, and the old Bizzarrini name has been resurrected by a hopeful new enterprise as old names often are. Next to such follies, Ferrari's svelte new F430 Spider is almost sensible.

But let us leave the show with some more of the concept cars that add so much to the showmanship. Renault's little Zoë city car is a flight of Renault fancy, which may just hint at the next Twingo And then there's the Skoda Yeti, complete with rather undernourished-looking abominable snowman in attendance. European carmakers haven't really cottoned on to the "soft-roader" idea as portrayed by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and others, but here is Skoda's riposte based on an Octavia platform.

The Yeti, complete with a man dressed up as one, was there to gauage reaction, and reactions were positive until it emerged that a likely production version might be front-wheel drive only, even though the Octavia, whose mechanicals underpin the Yeti, will spawn a 4x4 version.

Looks like Skoda may have just reinvented the Matra Rancho.

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