Geneva Auto Show 2019: The Undiscovered Country
The future of the automobile remains unclear - but decisions need to be made now.
If last year’s car shows proved one fact, it was that the automotive industry found itself dramatically off course - and without much of a sense of direction. On the one hand, what had worked in the past (SUVs, ‘premium’) was clung to with white-knuckled determination, while mostly more, sometimes less obscure grand solutions (autonomous mobility, electrification) to the problems in hand were presented in a manner oscillating between barely contained panic and staid smugness. Fear, as they say, is a bad advisor.
At Geneva’s Palexpo, in March 2019, this sense of uncertainty is still palpable. But a sense of realism appears to have set in, resulting not so much in expansive gestures suggesting a firm grasp of whatever the future may hold in store, but a more incremental approach. For the time being, the car industry is running on sight - slowly and mostly timidly. But at least it is moving again, rather than bragging about the jump start it will eventually perform.
There is no better illustration for this diffuse drive than the star of the show, a car nobody - probably not even its creators - would have seen coming even months ago. For if there is (or maybe: was?) a lame duck among automotive marques, it would have to be Fiat. Having been allowed to wither for over a decade, the hollowed-out brand hitherto appeared to be utterly moribund - what with it lacking any kind of inspiring product (the ageing 500 apart), worthwhile strategy or brand equity. Under these circumstances, it is simply miraculous that the Centoventi concept car unveiled at Palexpo answered a question even ardent enthusiasts of the marque dare not ask for ages: What exactly is a Fiat?
According to the Centoventi, it is no pseudo-‘premium’ vehicle à la 500, but a simple-yet-ingenious stab at providing creative solutions to motorists more concerned with usability than image. For that reason, the Fiat’s square shape is defined by its ‘rubberised’ front and rear, which can be seen as an abstract homage to that forgotten icon of industrial design, the Ritmo, as well as the original Giugiaro Panda.
Apart from its clean graphics and those rubberised parts (which are more logically placed than on the similar-in-concept Citroën Cactus), it is the interior that best conveys the Italianate product design spirit of Centoventi. There, a grid pattern dashboard serves as attachment area for whatever (physical) extra equipment the driver deems necessary or worthwhile. Similarly barren-yet-ingenious are the seats, which consist of a foamed plastic base and fabric backrest.
Even though slightly rough around the edges, the Centoventi constitutes an applaudable return to form for a brand that has been wilfully neglected to the point of semi-extinction. If the sanctioning of this concept car under new FCA CEO, Mike Manley, is a sign of things to come, more than one commentator (including this one) may have written Fiat off too early - thankfully.
Alfa Romeo may have seen far more investment & effort spent on its behalf by the parent company lately, but aesthetically, the Giulia and Stelvio comeback models must be considered disappointments. Against that background, the Tonale concept car further underlines FCA design’s unexpected return to form, in that - despite being an SUV format - this Alfa possesses the stance, proportions and details the marque deserves. Despite certain elements (such as the 105 Coupé’s upper flanks, the 8C-inspired greenhouse or the 2ttotanta-like grille) harking back to the brand’s glorious past, the Tonale feels like a thoroughly contemporary take on what a (tall) Alfa should look like: Athletic, but also elegant and unashamedly romantic. Even the very rough quality of the prototype on show - which featured embarrassingly flawed paint and the odd blemish, suggesting highly rushed construction - caused considerable distraction, the inherent quality of the Tonale’s styling suggests FCA’s designers have finally regained a grasp of the Alfa marque’s aesthetic values. And not a moment too soon.
Not even remotely elegant, but still one of the highlights of the show was Citroën’s Ami One. A compact cube of a car, the French take on the Smart’s city car concept went for neither a retro, nor a ‘premium’ approach to the subject, which in itself was refreshing. A look at what Smart brought to Palexpo - the forease+ (sic) concept car, an electrified roadster, whose windshield frame would utterly obstruct the forward view of an average-sized driver - further emphasises how intelligently Citroën went about this little city car. And yet it would be unfair to praise Ami One for what it is not when it actually possesses an ingenuity and charm that are hard to find in any car sector - and even more so at the low end of the spectrum. For like Fiat’s Centoventi, the Citroën harks back to a former core strength of Mediterranean car makers: lending basic, simple motoring pleasure and ingenuity. So unlike the costly Smart, Ami One does not have to keep up any ‘premium’ pretensions and wears its cheerful no-frills attitude on its figurative sleeves. So rather than fake leather and stitching, one finds its interior to consist of cleverly designed plastic and rubber elements (the backrests are made of flexible netting) and lacking carpet, making for a decidedly cheap and very cheerful vibe.
Given the diversification of motoring - what with car sharing becoming the norm in larger cities, obviating the need for a ‘car for all occasions' -, the Ami One’s probable lack of motorway eligibility is unlikely to prove a critical obstacle. With a strong focus on efficiency and expediency, the delightful Citroën may finally deliver on the promise the Smart once made but never truly kept.
Citroën’s sister brand, Peugeot, also brought a new product to Geneva that suggested PSA CEO, Carlos Tavares, may truly be a man not just of big speeches, but big deeds as well. For the new generation of Peugeot’s mainstay 208 supermini is a truly impressive car, as well. Even though certain elements - such as the two-piece ‘fang’ lights at the front, big grille or the oversized door handles - jar, the overall impression created by the 208 is one of a strong stance and the convincing flair of a ‘sporting’ supermini. Incidentally, elements of its two most successful predecessor models can be found on this 208’s exterior (the 205’s c-pillar, the 206’s soft surfaces), yet the car in its entirety constitutes far from a pastiche. Its interior, despite the widespread use of the regrettably ubiquitous ‘piano’ black plastic veneer, is just as impressive. The 3D digital gauges set the tone of a high-tech environment that could easily appear pretentious, but simply works, thanks to the stylists’ attention to detail. Even the ‘carbon fibre’ trim on certain models is far more convincing than what could be found inside a top-spec BMW 3 series also exhibited at Palexpo.
Against this rather dashing Peugeot, the natural competition - namely the new Renault Clio - is finding it rather difficult to stand out. Unquestionably more sophisticated than its immediate predecessor, the new Clio has obviously been created employing VW’s method of incremental changes. However, whether that is good enough to hold a candle to the rather more spectacular Peugeot remains to be seen.
Speaking of incremental changes, the Geneva Motor Show also provided the opportunity to sample Porsche’s (relatively) new 992-generation Neunelfer. And despite being the facelift of a facelift (just like the stylistically lamentable Ferrari F8 Tributo), the Porsche reinforces the status of Michael Mauer and his team as the guardians of German car design quality for the time being. In fact, and unnecessarily complicated door handles notwithstanding, the 992 must rank as one of the finest evolutions of its ilk. With surfacing this taut and the cleanest, most sophisticated graphics to be found on any Elfer since the 993 generation, the 992 would even be impressive without its excellent cabin, which matches high levels of perceived quality with up-to-date ergonomics and traditional touches (such as the analogue central gauge and optional open-pored wood trim). As it stands, the 911 may well be the best piece of German car design on sale right now.
Rather more dramatic, albeit similarly accomplished as the Porsche is a supposedly mundane offering, which promised to be somewhat controversial in the run-up to the Geneva show: the new Mazda 3. With its bold, flush looks, Mazda’s Golf class contender must indeed be called a true ‘statement car’ - a design that is likely to appeal and repel in equal measure. Indeed, whether one accepts that enormous c-pillar (and the rather cavernous rear accommodations it creates) or not is a matter of personal preference, but there is no denying Mazda have created by far the most striking vehicle in its class. Given the interior has also been substantially improved compared with the previous model, it would appear as though any ‘premium’ brand selling sporting pretensions will find it quite a bit harder to make a case for its subcompact offerings, now that this Mazda truly dares to be different.
Another Japanese brand working on its comeback - albeit at a far earlier stage than Mazda - is Honda. The E prototype unveiled at Palexpo is an evolution of the Urban EV (first shown at the 2017 IAA), but has lost some of that car’s cheekily butch charms. For obvious reasons, the wheels are now smaller and the overall proportions have become more ordinary, not to mention the two rear doors that were added. It still is an attractive shape, but it remains to be seen if Honda have truly created an icon for the generation of consumer electronic worshippers this E prototype is so obviously aimed at. The interior’s full-width screen atop the dashboard (itself clad in a nasty plank of fake wood) suggests the Japanese brand may not have fully grasped the aesthetics of a group of customers who grew up with Jonathan Ive designs.
Nissan is pursuing a drastically different path, in that it has employed a visibly Japanese-inspired, aggressive style for its latest batch of concept cars, the most recent of which is an SUV named IMQ. Like a (considerably) more restrained Lexus, the IMQ boasts plenty of pleasing touches (particularly around the rear end, where the lights and hatch are combined in intriguing fashion) that ultimately fail to form a truly intriguing whole. Unlike Lexus’ designs, the Nissan features a solid stance and decent proportions - by the standards of a macho SUV -, but the bonnet in particular is just too busy and inconsistent to leave a truly lasting impression.
Despite being officially described as a facelift, rather than an entirely new model, the 2019 BMW 7 series brings about rather more changes to a storied model line than the most recent Elfer. With its wilfully intimidating front grille and almost brutalist graphics, this Siebener appears to mark the end of that model line’s status as ‘the most sporting luxury saloon’, certainly in terms of appearances. One can barely imagine this awkwardly imposing BMW parked next to its (by comparison) timid E32 or E38 predecessors, as something like the Russian Aurus Senate limousine shown elsewhere appears to be closer to the current Siebener in spirit than those ancestors. It will be interesting to see how traditional markets like the EU or the US coastal states react to this vicious break with the BMW brand’s past.
Like BMW, the other Bavarian ‘premium’ brand appears to be hellbent on eradicating any traces of its past too. In the wake of numerous high-profile changes in personnel (most notably the ousting of the company’s CEO, Rupert Stadler, due to imprisonment), scandals and diminishing profits, Audi’s latent uncertainty has become tangible even in its design. For within just a few years, the brand from Ingolstadt has introduced no less than three new generations of form language: After the timid, design-by-committee styling sported by the final models overseen by previous chief designer, Wolfgang Egger, and the aggressive, graphically ornate designs created under his successor, Marc Lichte, now comes a generation of models that still bear similarly blunt graphics, but embedded among far more plump surfaces than before.
In the case of the Q4 E-Tron SUV unveiled at Geneva, this results in a derivative, non-noteworthy appearance. Once more, this SUV’s EV status is conveyed through the use of ‘futuristic’ trim that seems almost toy-like, due to the use of toy-like plastics. Yet the E-Tron GT originally presented at last year’s LA show is something else entirely. Based on Porsche’s upcoming Taycan, its basic proportions should be the recipe for a very becoming sports saloon/ four-door coupé. But due to its excessive ornamentation, which includes tropes ranging from haunches reminiscent of Detroit’s most extreme fins to a cluster of inconsistent patterns and grids at the front, the E-Tron GT serves as tangible illustration of a truly derailed brand.
Even its (unexpectedly production-ready) interior only further emphasises what has been lost at Audi ever the past decades. Despite obvious attempts at lending the materials and shapes used a contemporary edge (hence fabric, rather than leather seats, and anodised metal, rather than wood trim), the E-Tron GT’s cabin falls short on every level, including perceived quality. Given Audi were considered the industry’s gold standard in this area for a considerable period of time, this must be considered a minor tragedy.
In certain ways, Volvo can these days be considered Audi’s successor in terms of a strict adherence to values of car design excellence and superior interior design. This year however, Volvo chose not to attend the Geneva Motor Show, leaving it to sister brand Polestar to wave the flag of rigorous automotive design.
Under the leadership of erstwhile Volvo chief designer, Thomas Ingenlath, and his right hand man, Maximilian Missoni, Polestar is bound to evolve into far more than the Volvo performance brand it used to be. The Polestar 2 model’s unveiling at Palexpo was therefore anticipated with considerable expectations attached. Being the most concrete riposte to Tesla’s model 3 by any established car maker (among which Polestar, being part of the sprawling Geely empire, may count themselves), the model 2 aims for a product design flair more in keeping with the Silicon Valley Zeitgeist than most current car design trends. It therefore incorporates stark graphical elements, which extend as far as the body shape, in that its architecture appears to be of an almost outmoded three-box saloon kind, when it actually is a hatchback. The window, light and air vent graphics possess a similarly severe flair (an effect exacerbated by surprisingly large panel gaps), very much in keeping with the overall rigid appearance of the Polestar brand - though that being said, the anonymised Volvo (non-)grille and lack of a truly prominent logo do give the impression of a ‘no-brand’ company à la Muji.
The Polestar 2’s interior is in the same vein, in that it is obviously Volvo-based, yet de-badged and featuring more cutting-edge colour & trim options (which are mostly monochrome, canary yellow safety belts apart). In this regard in particular, a Tesla Model 3 does not even stand a chance at competing. How the overall Polestar brand fares is up to debate though. The Swedes’ impressive show stand at Palexpo suggests not only considerable ambition (of the aesthetic kind too), but its rigorous pursuit of a most rigid style of presentation ended up harming the perception of the two cars on show to some extent. Being semi-enclosed, yet strongly lit up and filled to the brim with visitors, the resultant temperatures and stuffy air made for a visually striking, but rather unpleasant environment.
From an intellectual and aesthetic perspective, Polestar is a most intriguing experiment. Whether the Apple-meets-Helmut-Lang rationale works in that it attracts those customers who consider themselves ‘beyond the automobile’ will be most interesting to watch. Yet judged by the standards of yore, Polestar may just a bit too aloof, a bit too clinical an exercise for its own good.
Unlike the nascent mass-market electric vehicle, the super- or even hypercar has been a staple at Geneva for decades. In recent years, the number of offerings catering to the needs of speed-happy sheikhs, oligarchs and dot-com billionaires has grown exponentially.
Of the established brands in the sector, it fell to Bugatti this year to best illustrate what happens when the relationship between money and taste is of the reciprocally proportional kind. A black beast by the equally pompous and flattering name of La Voiture Noire, this Bugatti Chiron derivative allegedly pays homage to the Jean Bugatti-designed Type 57 SC Atlantic, despite sharing absolutely no proportions whatsoever with it. Rather than that car’s artful grace, the Black Car is defined by its flat, wide, imposing appearance (which evokes images of Darth Vader’s half-molten helmet). No less than six rear exhaust pipes and an endless number of irritating corrugations all over its body further illustrate that something special is not necessarily something attractive.
A new, yet somewhat established player in this field of toys for the high-net-worth individuals of this world is Pininfarina, or more precisely: Automobili Pininfarina. A newly established offshoot of the legendary Turinese carrozzeria, Automobili Pininfarina announced their first product, a 1800 hp electric hypercar by the name of Battista. Given the generally low levels of stylistic quality at this highly exclusive end of the car market, anyone caring about the Pininfarina name and its legacy had plenty of reason to worry about the eventual outcome - for, as proven time and again, nothing is sacrosanct when it comes to generating additional income.
It therefore comes as a relief that the Battista turned out to be not yet another conglomerate of poor taste and excess, but a true Pininfarina design. Sharing a fair few details with the seminal Ferrari 458’s design (also by Pininfarina), the Battista is the opposite of the Bugatti in that nothing about its form is excessive. Instead, details such as the airflow divider above the rear wheel and the two-part retractable rear spoiler serve a clear purpose and are presented in finessed fashion. Generally speaking, it is the rear aspect where Battista becomes its own beast: All lines there are coalescing around the 'vortex' created by the electric plug at the centre - even down to the luggage straps visible through the rear window. The front end is not as successful though, as it appears a bit too much like a Ferrari front with two thin LED strips added.
Particularly successful, in that it conveys a sense of luxury within the confines of a performance car, is the Battista’s interior. Traditional materials like leather and aluminium are juxtaposed with the integral carbon fibre. However, in as coherently sophisticated an environment as this, the three separate displays acting as the Battista’s main gauges stand out for all the wrong reasons. A truly integrated solution - rather than something akin to a smartphone and two tablets stuck in front of the steering wheel - would appear to be far more deserving of a car wearing the proud Pininfarina name.
All things considered, the Battista is a worthy, if unchallenging effort. Anyone expecting a game changer à la Modulo will obviously be disappointed. Anyone afraid of Pininfarina selling out will be relieved.
With Lagonda, another once proud, but since semi-forgotten name made yet another appearance at Geneva this year. Superficially similar to last year’s disappointing Vision concept car, the All-Terrain of 2019 turns out to be a more convincing take on a truly modern luxury vehicle. More practical in its proportions, resulting in a more realistic use of interior space, not to mention lacking the silly ‘lounge seating’ any autonomous concept car (such as the Vision was) inevitably comes with, the All-Terrain offered one of the more interesting takes on a luxurious SUV. Certain elements - particularly the aerodynamically suspect rear design and some of the interiors more outré ideas - appear a bit overly enthusiastic, but in terms of overall creative spirit and the interior’s inspired colour & trim choices, this Lagonda turned out to be rather better than expected.
Sister/mother brand Aston Martin also had a few surprises in tow, such as the Vision Vanquish concept car. Rather than a particularly potent front-engined GT as in the past, the next generation of Vanquish is envisaged to become a mid-engined supercar instead. This comes with its own constraints, of course, particularly as Aston Martin - a company somewhat dependent upon its past glories - has no great history in this sector (apart form the curious, William Towns-designed Bulldog one-off). Arguably in part due to these circumstances, the Vision Vanquish turned out to be a bit generic.
Like some smaller brother to the booming supercar sector, the nostalgic homage sports car has, almost clandestinely, created a niche for itself that has become another Geneva fixture over the years. Next to the token curiosities that came courtesy of the likes of David Brown or Eadon Green, a few names stood out this year.
For obvious reasons, a brand by the name of Piëch immediately receives special recognition. But rather than some intricate engineering marvel, the Piëch Mark Zero turned out be a rather rough, stylistically undistinguished retro sports car (electrically powered, of course) one would usually expect to come from some British outfit headquartered in a shed. But shed businesses do not usually welcome Wolfgang Porsche (uncle to the Piëch that lent this company his name) to their show stand - and do not have a show stand such considerable size as Piëch’s, for that matter. The curious hipster vibe, established through rather unsubtle means (moody lighting, black walls, retro mid-century furniture, casually cool bartenders), did not help make the Piëch brand appear any less peculiar either.
The peculiarity of Mole, makers of coachbuilt sports cars, is of a more straightforward nature. Of the two cars on display, only the Almas, an Alfa 4C-based concoction made up of Alfa 33 Stradale & Montreal cues, coupled with some original, and very ham-fisted details, is truly noteworthy for its staggering lack of stylistic sophistication.
At the other end of the Italian coachbuilding spectrum is M.A.T., the company run by former Pininfarina engineer, Paolo Garella, which now manufactures and sells a Ferrari 430-based retro take on the Lancia Stratos. While some may find the idea of an originally Bertone-designed and -built car that has since been reimagined by Pininfarina (where the first ‘new’ Stratos was created), on the engineering basis of a Ferrari, historically objectionable, the cars built by M.A.T. are undeniable of an altogether different standard in terms of quality to their mostly cobbled-together competition. On top of that, even a true cynic might find it hard to resist the combined charms of the Lancia Stratos’ proportions, coupled with Alitalia’s legendary rally livery.
On the evidence of this Geneva show, car design, like the entire industry, remains in a state of bleary confusion. But some simply keep on doing what they do best in good conscience (Mazda, Peugeot, Porsche), while others have suddenly regained their composure (Fiat). Meanwhile, experiments like Lagonda, Polestar and Automobili Pininfarina act as toes in the water, before the real journey starts and the new course is set for good.
For the time being, the future remains an undiscovered country.
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