Tucked in and around the nooks and crannies and corners separating the scores of new-model introductions and unveilings, one could find fear and caution, worry and the occasional bit of optimism at this year’s Geneva auto show.
The seven massive halls of the sprawling Palexpo exhibition grounds – all clustered together beside Geneva’s increasingly decrepit airport – were, as usual, stuffed with sheet metal and hope. I sensed a jumble of nervous energy, too. Like all the years before, the cars ultimately were the starts at this 83rd Salon International De l’Auto. But there were many interesting stories behind them and that’s what makes global shows like Geneva so entertaining.
Let’s face it, everyone in the industry is nervous and uncertain because of this simple fact: the car business does not control its own fate. This, of course, makes for anxious car company bosses. They know that the industry’s products do not always win out because of their standalone excellence. Not always. Instead, what determines success or failure for most new models are things beyond the control of all the car companies put together: continent-hopping economic issues, social change and government involvement to the point of micro-management.
To be a top car boss is to be part pitchman, part soothsayer, part diplomat, part cheerleader and part Wizard of Oz, hoping no one will peek behind the curtain to see how powerless the heads of multi-billion-dollar global companies can often be. The irony is that no one with any sense should question how nimble and creative the auto industry has become. It’s mostly a reactive business now, reacting to constantly unfolding events, many of them unpredictable.
To survive and profit, car companies in 2013 regularly face global economic calamities, smart and demanding consumers, the ratcheting of increasingly tough environmental/fuel economy regulations and a youth market – the future of the business – that is fickle, has zero brand loyalty and is often indifferent or even openly hostile to car ownership. The new vehicles popping out of factories these days are astonishing – varied, remarkably fuel-efficient for the most part, loaded with technology, safe, reliable and often even profitable.
So welcome to Geneva, a global auto show held on neutral ground (no car company calls Switzerland home) that is generally a celebration of the auto industry. I marvel at this industry’s creativity and resilience. We saw scores of products unveiled to the world, and if there was a theme to it all, it was innovation. That’s a clichéd notion, overused and generally under-delivered. But not based on what we saw in Geneva.
Imagine you’re me, wandering the floor with all its energy and bustle. Over there, at the Alfa Romeo stand, Fiat’s sporty brand unveiled the stunning 4C coupe that has a 1.7-litre turbo engine and will be built by Maserati in Modena. We are being led to believe that the 4C will lead Alfa’s charge back into the North American marketplace. We’ve heard this before, of course. Alfa has teased us about a return for several years now; this time, it looks as though Alfas are coming.
Then, 100 paces away and up a steep escalator, shouldered in among the Volkswagen Group’s astonishing display of Porsches, Bugatis, Lamborghinis, Golfs, Golf wagons and more – well, Audi, the group’s profit centre, unwrapped the A3 e-tron. It takes plug-in hybrids to a new level of performance and anticipated affordability. Look for it in Canadian showrooms by 2015.
Wolfgang Durheimer, Audi’s product head and the former development boss at Porsche, walked me around the car, talking about its 55-kilometre range on lithium-ion batteries and its 1.4-litre TFSI gas engine, the one on board to assuage range anxiety.
“Many people will not ever use the petrol engine,” he said, noting the battery range is enough to handle most commutes and a recharge takes 2.5 hours using a 240-volt outlet. Power? It is rated at 204 horsepower. Durheimer promised that driving enthusiasts will not be disappointed, noting the car has twice the range of the Chevrolet Volt and twice the handling abilities, too.
Over at BMW’s Mini stand, Kay Segler, the brand’s effervescent head, was touting the abilities of a racy model that is about the same size as the A3 e-tron, but nothing like it at all – the Mini Paceman John Cooper Works. Where Durheimer talked slick handling in a car with low emissions and plug-in batteries, Segler sang the praises of his car that “turns every stop line on a city street into a starting line and every highway into a finishing straight.”
Segler’s John Cooper Works Paceman has a four-cylinder turbocharged engine “pumping out 218 horsepower, lowered sports suspension, and Mini ALL4 all-wheel-drive.” To back up Mini’s racing bona fides, he then pointed to the Dakar Rally where Mini ALL4 Racing just had a second victory in a row. If you want to celebrate with Segler, write a fat cheque for one of only 11 John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4 Dakar Winner 2013 specialty models.