The car industry is losing its guilt

The Geneva show is sending a clear message to the world: car makers are designing products that are fun, stylish, with big personalities. John Simister sees a future with a smile on its face
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A theme. Every motor show has a theme, whether officially generated by the PR machine or not. In Geneva, the most likeable of shows for its relative compactness and the fact that it is, in carmaker terms, on neutral ground, this year's theme is a highly positive one. It's OK to like cars, is the message, OK to enjoy driving and celebrate the complex consumer interaction with automotive art forms. The industry, and those who feel for its products, is losing its guilt.

A theme. Every motor show has a theme, whether officially generated by the PR machine or not. In Geneva, the most likeable of shows for its relative compactness and the fact that it is, in carmaker terms, on neutral ground, this year's theme is a highly positive one. It's OK to like cars, is the message, OK to enjoy driving and celebrate the complex consumer interaction with automotive art forms. The industry, and those who feel for its products, is losing its guilt.

There were supercars, eco-cars with a personality, fun cars, stylish cars, clever cars. For this writer there were two show stars, neither of them slated for production but both of them pointers to a bright future.

One was Fiat's little Trepiuno, a little homage to the 1950s/60s 500 that is Italy's national automotive mobile monument in every town and village. This new car, blending a past with a future, much as BMW has done with the Mini, does not of course have a rear engine this time. It is based on a cut-down new Panda platform, and makes use of the serendipitous fact that the rounded front of old is perfect for today's pedestrian safety laws.

Everyone loved the Trepiuno, designed by Roberto Giolitto (creator of the controversial Multipla) and so named for its three-plus-one seating concept. There is little room for passengers in the back normally, but the passenger side of the dashboard retracts to let the front passenger sit further forward and release space for those sitting behind. Bright white is the abiding theme outside and in, from the rubbery touch-pad controls to the translucent paintwork that is meant to evoke Apple iPods and even the iBook (on one of which this is being written).

Naturally, everyone wanted to know if Fiat would make it available to the public, but the answer -- perhaps surprisingly -- is no. How could it miss such an opportunity? It will not; there will be a new Fiat along these stylistic lines but it will be even smaller, a kind of Smart rival.

It will surely be a huge hit, helping towards the Fiat recovery promised by CEO Herbert Demel in a long and unusually frank press conference. Break-even in 2006 is the aim, by which time Fiat (including Alfa Romeo and Lancia) will have launched 21 new products since 2003.

The other shining Geneva light was the Volvo YCC, or Your Concept Car. This car, with the grooves for ponytails in its headrests -- "It is best for safety to have the headrest close, but women complain if they have big hair," says Eva-Lisa Andersson, one of the nine Volvo women behind the project -- is covered fully elsewhere on page 10, but this car, designed by women for women, probably attracted more interest than anything else at the show.

And that includes the Rolls-Royce 100EX convertible, a temple to even greater excess than the regular Phantom mega- saloon. This is a convertible with an extraordinary aluminium frontage covering a nine-litre V16 engine (two BMW V8s joined together) and featuring a grille which is -- deep breath -- both convex and raked back. This apparent sacrilege does not detract from the Rolls's recognisability.

Rolls-Royce chairman Tony Gott says that the convertible will not be made -- "It's designed to show what our engineers can do" -- but that does not mean we will not see an open Rolls-Royce motor car in the future. By then the exhaust emissions should have been sorted out -- someone could not resist starting up the monster's engine, resulting in a heady cloud of unburnt hydrocarbons and blue-tinged particulate matter. Clearly the experimental engine has not quite bedded in yet.

Concepts, concepts -- press day one climaxed with theatrical unveilings on Giugiaro's Ital Design stand of four cars, of which three were different stages of the same project.

Represented in full-size styling model, naked carbon-fibre entrails and finished supercar was the Toyota Alessandro Volta, with petrol-electric hybrid power from a 3.3-litre V6 and two electric motors together emitting 408bhp. Low, red and sleek, the mid-engined Volta (named after the Italian who invented the battery) is not entirely a flight of fancy. It has three seats abreast, and drive-by-wire controls which let you position the steering wheel and pedals in front of any of them -- technology which has yet to get past the legislators, even though aircraft have used fly-by-wire for years. But a smaller, simpler version could appear as a replacement for the Toyota MR2.

The fourth shape to be unveiled was that of the Alfa Romeo Visconti, conceived to clothe the "premium" platform under joint development by Fiat and General Motors. Pre-show speculation had the rounded-nose, fastback-tailed, four-door saloon as a preview for next year's Alfa 156 replacement, to be called (logically enough) 157, but the Visconti seems too big for that. Maybe the future 167 will look like this, especially as Giugiaro is currently much in favour at Alfa Romeo, but the 166 has only just been facelifted. We shall see.

Bertone, which with Pininfarina completes the triumvirate of top Italian design houses, showed its first interpretation of an Aston Martin since 1961's Jet. The Jet 2, based on the Vanquish, is a kind of coupe estate, an Aston Martin idea first seen decades ago in Prince Philip's Radford conversion of a DB5, and has a squared-off, edgy look at odds with the clean curves of Aston Martin's disarmingly similar current and imminent production cars. Will it be made? It could be, within the next year if it goes down well with the well-heeled.

And now we come to those concepts which are not really concepts at all, just teasers for upcoming production cars. Strongest in its potential to please petrolheads was surely the long-awaited M5 version of the BMW 5-series, featuring several other uses of the five digit: five litres, 500bhp, 500 Newton metres of torque (the metric measurement we understand as 369lb/ft), acceleration from a standstill to 60mph in under five seconds.

Citroën's Xsara, viewed by the buying public as a lacklustre car despite the success of World Rally versions, is about to die. In its place will come the new C4, revealed to the public at Geneva in the guise of a "competition car built without regard to regulations". That means that the inevitable World Rally derivative may not be quite as this semi-concept car, but it was a good way to tease us with the new car's style. Also from neighbouring France came the Renault Modus, a mini-MPV based on the joint Renault-Nissan platform that underpins the current Micra and the next Clio. It looks like a compressed Scenic, and its cheeky, stub-tailed stance should win it many friends when production starts later this year.

Alliance partner Nissan also had a compact MPV concept, but the butch-looking Qashqai is a little closer to a regular hatchback in its architecture. This first product from Nissan's new London design studio is a clue to how the next Almera will look; mindful of the current car's disappointing sales and invisible image, Nissan will not launch a direct replacement, but two or three models aimed at specific market niches. They will be built at the Sunderland factory if the sums add up, but the strength of the pound against the euro is a problem. If not Sunderland, then the new Almeras may come from Spain or even Mexico.

Peugeot's 407 goes on sale in May, but meanwhile the company showed a 407 Silhouette concept car whose shape, if stripped of the wings and distended wheel arches, previews the forthcoming 407 Coupe. The show car had a mid-mounted V6 able to deliver 320bhp, plus a tubular chassis and race-car-like suspension.

The idea is to make a car suitable for track days and which could spawn a racing derivative, rather like Renault's Clio V6, but no production decision has been made yet. It even includes a satellite-fed system which helps the driver find the perfect cornering line.

Amid all these concepts, plenty of new production cars also emerged. The Mini Convertible looked better in the metal than in the pictures (it will sell at a £2,500 premium over existing Minis), and Vauxhall's new Tigra has abandoned its predecessor's coupe body for a metal coupe-cabriolet folding roof. (Vauxhall/Opel also showed the TRIXX, a proposed replacement for the Agila with a strong Smart design sense.)

The Ford empire brought us a sharper-looking Jaguar XK8, a 150bhp Fiesta ST and a highly entertaining-looking proposal for a 180bhp Fiesta RS slated for production within two years.

Mazda counts as a Ford family member, too, as Ford's 33 per cent share gives it a controlling interest, and its MX-Flexa concept previews the upcoming Mazda 4 compact MPV which will replace the Premacy. It has seven seats, unlike the Focus C-Max whose platform it shares, and sliding rear doors. It is another example of how important MPVs have become in the automotive pantheon as the traditional categories of saloon and hatchback decline.

Seat, too, is poised to take advantage of this with the sporty Altea MPV, possibly the most elegant of the breed to date, while Toyota wheeled out a new Corolla Verso barely two-and-a-half years after the last. This time it is a seven-seater with Zafira-like fold-into-floor rear seats, and a more butch-looking stance. It is to be built in Turkey.

Other debutantes included the clean and very likeable Mitsubishi Colt (sister to the Smart ForFour), and a lightweight, pared-down Maserati Coupe called GranSport (plus road-going and race versions of its new GT-class, Ferrari Enzo-derived racing car).

Alfa Romeo showed its Alfa 156 Sportcross 4x4 and a GTA Sportwagon tuned and visually toughened-up by racing arm Autodelta, and Mercedes-Benz had its new SLK sports car complete with manual gearbox and a handbrake in the normal place. It also showed the production version of the CLS fastback,four-door saloon/coupe. I thought the concept version overdone and contrary to Mercedes aesthetic values, but calmed down for production it works well. Cause for optimism indeed.

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