Gas-guzzling, monstrously expensive supercars may have grabbed the headlines in Geneva, but the auto industry knows that fuel efficiency and zero emission technology is really the future.
The Geneva International Motor Show is undeniably a glamorous event. With the pristine Swiss Alps reflected in the placid, elegaic waters of Lake Geneva outside and the multicultural masses filling the rarified air around you with a multitude of Romance-language tongues inside, you’re about as far removed from the typical industry expo as it is possible to get – like attending the Cannes Film Festival to catch up on the latest movies.
Under the dazzling lights of the cavernous Geneva Palexpo, the freshest car designs from the world’s auto designers are relentlessly polished to a reflective gleam by a silent army bearing feather dusters to brush away the slightest, microscopic imperfection, as languid female models - themselves immaculately presented to disguise even the slightest, microscopic imperfection - drape themselves seductively across the beautifully buffed bonnets, hoping to catch the eye and draw the lens of every passing photographer.
It remains a surprisingly patriarchal world, the auto industry, and the dumbest equation of 'pretty woman + shiny car = captive audience' was played out on stand after stand, boys’ toys in a man’s, man’s, man’s world. Of course, it’s nothing without a woman or a girl.
This basic instinct of men and motors was never more obvious than when the stellar sports-car marques unveiled their latest fantastical creations. Grown men swarmed in salivating masses, drawn by primal instinct and heralded by Pavlovian response mechanism to the throaty siren song of a V8 engine revving and snarling over a line-array PA system. You could almost smell the engine oil at Maserati’s grand unveiling of its Levante SUV crossover, had it not been for the evaporating testosterone emanating from the assembled frothing petrolheads.
It was a tableau repeatedly played out throughout the Salon. At the Ferrari stand, where the red silk wraps were swept off before an adoring audience to reveal the GTC4Lusso, a four-seater, four-wheel-drive model. A family Ferrari, if you will, for the family that travels at 208mph.
Again, at the Lamborghini stand, where the limited edition (and already sold out) Centenario 760bhp V12 dream machine commemorated company namesake founder Ferruccio Lamborghini, born 100 years ago.
Again, at the Bugatti stand, where the £1.9 million, 260mph Chiron made every other car feel slightly inferior. At the McLaren stand, where the 570GT instantly became the most luxurious McLaren ever built, with the faintest of practical design and ride-comfort nods made towards this being considered a daily driver, albeit one costing six figures.
Also at the Aston Martin stand, where the company demonstrated both the beautiful design and exquisite engineering of its new 600bhp, 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12-engine DB11 by showing a half-and-half model (chopped cars were a feature at Geneva) – one half body shell, one half internal machine, like the Terminator semi-peeled of its humanoid exterior.
Or at the Rolls-Royce stand, where the mesmerically shiny Black Badge range got its world premiere, pitching reworked Ghost and Wraith models towards a younger audience.
And so it went on: fast car racing after fast car. The 200mph Jaguar F-Type SVR. The Fiat and Arbath 124 Spider. The Porsche 911R. The Mazda RX Vision. Not to mention all the Far East companies showing Tokyo Drift-style fins’n’gills street racing supercars, or the myriad modding shops and tuning houses who will pimp and tweak your ride far beyond the original manufacturer’s specification, if you find the stock model simply not fast enough or bling enough.
However, change was in the air at this year’s Geneva show – a breeze of change, if not a full-blown wind – offering a fresher top-note to the new-car smell pervading the sanctified exhibition halls. The change was electric (or hybrid).
When you consider the environmental impact and fuel efficiency ratings of all those petrol-driven sports cars – helpfully laid bare by the same A-G colour-bar rating familiar to us from dull weekends spent in appliance stores considering a new washing machine or fridge-freezer – you realise that supercar ratings are consistently stalled at the F or G mark. It becomes apparent that this is no longer a sustainable approach to getting around, however stylish the shell or exhilarating the engine. If you want a car that races up to the A or B mark in terms of its eco footprint, only the electric, hydrogen, fuel-cell or hybrid designs deliver.
Mitsubishi recognised 60 years of electric car innovation, while Audi, Tesla, Renault, Nissan, Honda, Vauxhall and others all exhibited planned new electric production models. The show also saw the global reveal of the full 2017 Hyundai Ioniq line-up, which covers all eco bases across three models: hybrid, electric and plug-in hybrid.
Geneva also effectively quashed any notion that electric cars are boring or tiresomely goody-goody. Concept cars – where the design rubber really hits the road – always make headlines at these shows and while one of the coolest designs and undoubted stars of the show (the Opel GT Concept) was a regular petrol car, some outlandish Gallic flair over at Peugeot and Citroen showed that there needs be nothing apologetic about electric vehicles. The Peugeot Fractal still hangs as tough as it did when first revealed in 2015, while Citroen’s spin-off DS brand – motoring home of the “spirit of avant garde” – unveiled its sleek and sinewy E-Tense 400bhp luxury GT coupe, an impressive sliver of electric green.
Concept cars as a whole have gone either all-electric or hybrid: VW’s cute son-of-camper-van Budd-e; Morgan’s super-cute EV3 three-wheeler; Toyota’s insides-on-the-outside Kikai dune buggy and its futuristic fuel-cell FCV Plus, and Pininfarina’s hydrogen fuel-cell racing car, the 186mph H2 Speed. There’s no denying that greener motoring is the automotive future.
It is easy to forget – surrounded on all sides by the most expensive slabs of shaped metal you’ll ever see in one place – that the point of a car for most people is to transport themselves and their loved ones from point to point as quickly, safely and comfortably as possible. If they can look good whilst doing it, and even have a bit of fun, all the better for it.
So amidst all the supercars, there were plenty of regular cars that mortal humans might actually end up driving: a new Toyota Prius; a new Honda Jazz; VW’s Up! Beats and Polo Beats editions and its T-Cross Breeze open-top SUV; Ford’s expansion of its luxury Vignale range and an extremely nippy new Focus RS; Renault’s Scenic MPV; Volvo’s V90 estate; Fiat’s annual recolouring of its 500 – all automotive life was at Geneva. Whatever your marque of choice, new models are coming soon.
Ultimately, this is the point of Geneva, of any car show. As with all technology, the high-end cutting-edge engineering and design - the sturm und drang of the supercar flash - slowly filters down to mainstream production models and design thinking. Our future cars will, inevitably, be more efficient, more stylish, more entertaining and smarter – all because of cars being built that we’ll never own and the lessons their designers learned from them.
Watch our exclusive video interview with Ford Europe’s director of design, Joel Piaskowski, recorded in Geneva