Geneva Motor Show sits at the intersection of opulence and performance
This 11-day binge of automotive fantasy is held in a city known for its private banks and expensive watches
In the A-list of auto shows – Frankfurt, Paris, Detroit, Beijing – the most grandiose is staged in a country that doesn't even make cars. Instead, its expertise is in catering to billionaires.
Welcome to Switzerland's Geneva International Motor Show (GIMS), the world's most glamorous, daring and exclusive auto show.
The 11-day binge of automotive fantasy, ending March 18, is held in a city known for its private banks and expensive watches (a Patek Philippe watch sold here a year-and-a-half ago for US$11-million.
Geneva is to the auto-show circuit what a Formula One race is to a Sunday drive with the parents. It is at the intersection of mind-blowing performance and New York-penthouse opulence. Billionaires in search of exclusive toys gather to watch auto executives in fine Italian suits unveil new models and outrageous concept cars that stretch the imagination. Superlatives are tossed out like bonbons at a parade – words like "unique," "bespoke" and "ultimate" echo repeatedly throughout the city's sprawling Palexpo convention centre.
GIMS chairman Maurice Turrettini said recently that Geneva appeals "to a wealthy international clientele, one that is intimately familiar" with the city's luxury watches and private banks.
"Those who can dish out more than a million francs for their new favourite cars are likely to head to Geneva for such shopping trips in their own private jets."
A self-driving car that clips into a giant drone. A student-designed all-electric dune buggy that can turn into a Jet Ski. A Level 5 (fully) autonomous car that looks like a lounge inside. And, of course, luxury at every turn.
Virtually all of the world's luxury brands were there, from such large-volume production auto makers as Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Genesis and Audi to limited-edition brands that, in some cases, plan just a few dozen models in a production run. These include Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, Bentley and, of course, custom coach makers, such as Eadon Green, a British startup that showed off two 1930s-styled retro roadsters. One is the Black Cuillin, with a 6.0-litre V-12 engine that can propel it to 275 kilometres an hour; the other is the very similar Zeclat painted in a striking lilac.
The most luxurious cars use the finest materials, including exotic woods such as burl walnut, sapele or mahogany trim, and highlights of gold, crystal, platinum or titanium. Rolls-Royce is even known to use bull leather because cows can develop stretch marks when pregnant.
These luxury cars also perform like sports cars. Where North American auto makers once separated luxury and performance like church and state (think 1970s-era Cadillacs), the world's auto makers have developed new levels of co-dependence between "cushy" and "fast." The convergence was noted by Bugatti president Stephan Winkelmann as he unveiled the Chiron Sport, which starts at nearly US$3-million. The car, he said, is "over the top in everything you can imagine, in terms of acceleration, top speed, easiness, comfort, elegance, luxury and craftsmanship."
Many of the most magnificently appointed vehicles were almost among the hottest performers, such as the Mercedes-AMG GT S63 four-door coupé. Powered by a turbo-boosted inline six-cylinder engine (435 horsepower) and a V-8 rated at 639 hp, its top speed is estimated at 315 km/h. Yet, it shares many of the luxury touchpoints of the company's S-Class automobiles, with rich leather interiors, digital displays styled to look like retro gauges, high-tech driving assistance and mood-setting lighting features.
Even more lavish is the custom coach works of Mercedes-Maybach. Based on the S-Class cars, the Maybachs add "pinstripe" radiator grille, optional two-tone paintwork and unique colour combinations in the interior. Beyond appearance, though, is leading-edge technology. The S-Class Maybachs, for example, have digital headlights that feature one million pixels for each headlight and can pinpoint where the light needs to shine. A camera and sensors send data to a computer, which constantly adapts the headlights for optimum light distribution. (The feature is not yet available in North America.)
Other German auto makers were not about to be upstaged. Audi unveiled the 2019 A6, with advanced technology, AWD and a 3.0-litre turbocharged V-6 rated at 340 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. The A6 has four-wheel steering that can dial in up to five degrees of countersteering for better handling. Like Mercedes, the A6 has added a fuel-saving and performance-boosting mild hybrid configuration, which allows the car to "sail" at speed with the engine off.
BMW, meanwhile, unveiled its X4 sports activity coupe and the i8 Coupe, the first in a series of luxury vehicles with the i8 brand. Its Protonic Red edition includes touches like seats with double lap seams in red, and red stitching on the door and side trim panels. It is priced at a cool £183,470 ($327,600).
BMW's British-branded Rolls-Royce division had a prominence suited to a show like this. Its Dawn Aero Cowling is a luxury convertible that turns into a two-seater through a "rollover" that fills the rear seats. The structure is carbon fibre and aluminum, trimmed with high-quality leather.
Rolls-Royce also unveiled three Phantom models – the Gentleman's Tourer, painted in a striking Iced Gunmetal grey hue with a satin silver hood and 22-inch wheels. It is capped with ruthenium inserts, a rare platinum group metal. The Whispered Muse model was created by London designer Helen Amy Murray, a specialist in silk and other expensive fabrics. And the A Moment in Time model has dash work that depicts a frozen moment of a veil.
The British-based auto maker Jaguar, owned by Tata Motors of India, unveiled its all-electric five-seat I-Pace SUV, with a relatively modest starting price (by Geneva standards) of US$69,500. The company adapted technology from its I-Type Formula E racing car – using two synchronous electric motors that produce a combined 294 hp and 512 lb-ft of torque. Range is estimated at 386 kilometres.
Tata's other British brand, Land Rover, unveiled an SUV for people who want to be a little less conspicuous in their wealth. It plans to build just 999 of its exclusive SV coupe – a two-door version of the Range Rover, priced at £240,000. Its full-length centre console has a banded-wood inlay and aluminum fittings. The four seats are upholstered in quilted leather, but the rear seats are in a different colour to give them a lower profile.
The Volkswagen-owned Bentley brand, meanwhile, unveiled its own luxury SUV, the Bentayga SUV. With its copper detailing on the badges, leather interior and Porsche-derived drive train, the company immodestly calls the Bentayga the most luxurious SUV ever.
Parent company Volkswagen showed how far it has come from humble roots by introducing its fourth luxury TD concept, the Vizzion. It's a large all-electric sedan concept headed for production. Although the first model will be conventionally configured when it hits the streets in 2022, VW intends to make it fully autonomous – without even a steering wheel.
Sweden's Volvo, now owned by Geely of China, signalled its further shift into luxury with its stunning plug-in electric hybrid version of the Polestar 1, with all-white leather interior and pewter exterior finish. Pared to a 2.0-litre four, the combined powertrain output is rated at 592 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque. Pricing is rumoured to be in the range of €130,000 ($232,100) and €150,000.
Volvo also unveiled its V60 estate five-door wagon, featuring a luxurious interior and advanced connectivity.
Japanese auto makers also displayed some of their finest wares in Geneva. Lexus had its LF-1 Limitless luxury crossover concept that debuted in the fall at the Detroit auto show. The company says it may be offered in fuel cell, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, gasoline or all-electric versions. The interior eschews conventional knobs in favour of motion-activated controls and a minimalist display. The interior trim has a rose-gold and copper metallic-satin finish that echoes the exterior colour.
The show's panel of 18 judges, however, awarded another Japan-based manufacturer with concept car of the year. Mazda's Vision Coupe, which last month was named "most beautiful concept car" in Paris, is based on the company's KODO – Soul of Motion design philosophy.
If luxury means maximum pleasure for minimal effort, however, then the dream for some is the Italian-designed Icona Nucleus concept car. The company describes it as "the ultimate self-driving living room" and a "self-moving executive lounge." This all-white fully autonomous six-passenger vehicle is so committed to relieving driver stress, it has eliminated the driver's seat, steering wheel, pedals, dash and even the front windshield. Instead, it has "semi-transparent body colour panels that allow the occupants to see out from the vehicle but remain shrouded for privacy while travelling."
The company states that the Icona Nucleus will probably never come to market, but its concepts are a glimpse into the future of driving. With most of the 180 displays in Geneva priced in six or even seven figures, the future is very expensive indeed.