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Out and About

From Necessity to Obsession The Car at Geneva’s “Salon-Auto.”
Frank Ebbecke

Shortly after seven o’clock in the morning. Not exactly a time when you’d normally see a lot of locals or visitors running around. Certainly not in this retreat of the rich and famous. With its pleasant lake in the centre of the city. With its stunning views on the majestic alpine mountains around. But today is different. It’s the 1st of March in the 125th year of an innovation which changed all of our lives. It’s the first day of the “Salon-Auto” in picturesque Geneva/Switzerland. It’s a special day for auto journalists. And over 10,000 people have been accredited to meet the doers and kick the tyres of the newest stars of man’s best friend.


Geneva is the car buffs’ “Mecca” from around the globe— managers, designers, engineers, sellers and buyers. Geneva marks the European start of the world’s most important motor shows, each year. It’s one of the most leading-edge events of its kind. This year, for the 81st time. Some 250 exhibitors from 30 countries came to present more than 160 world and European premieres.

Is it only one or two years since that awful time when many giants of the industry had to beg their respective governments for big bucks just to survive? The threatening shadows of bankruptcy were lurking on the wall. No future? Not the slightest sign of that in Geneva this year. The crème de la crème of the global car managers had flown in from the four points of the compass with their entourage. At GVA International Airport, there were serious parking problems for company jets.

Spacious, impressive design pieces of art as exhibition stands. Joyful music and dancing. Enthusiastic speeches and presentations. Stunning girls in especially designed sexy dresses rubbing their hips against shiny metal. Sales are rising again, on a global scale. Most of all in emerging markets like China and India. Optimism is back. In its 125 years, this industry has proved to be perfectly able to reinvent itself in no time, many times over.

The discovery of the ability to travel as one pleased led to new-found freedom, and inspired an immediate, intense passion. In the beginning this was just a new toy for the few, but Henry Ford quickly democratized the automobile, using the revolutionary invention of mass production. 125 years after birth 2,485,041,881 (2 billion, 485 million, 41,881) cars have been put on wheels. This industry has enjoyed a colossal, steady development like no other.

The very first, the Benz Patented Motorcar from 1886, featured a cubic capacity of 0.95 litres, 0.75 horsepower, 16 km/h top speed and swallowed 10 litres per 100 kilometres. Today these performance figures have dramatically grown. But regarding consumption figures experts work hard to bring them down, for all the well known reasons. With this, Volkswagen plays a forerunner role, with its XL1 concept. A sleek, light twoseater which travels up to 540 kilometres on 10 liters of diesel.

This year, in Geneva, a whole hall was devoted to environmentally conscious mobile solutions, called: The “Green Pavillion”. Test drives of quite a number of clean cars were offered. From Chevrolet, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Smart, Tata from India, Think from Norway. Natural/biogas and hydrogen are currently the most climate-friendly technologies for mass-produced combustion engine vehicles. But electrical solutions, as hybrids or “pure”, are taking the lead in the ready-to-buy development for now. There’s hardly one major manufacturer who doesn’t offer a hybrid. But poor range, weight and size of batteries, lengthy recharge times, lack of a sufficient service station infrastructure and, most of all, the hefty prices of this new generation of cars are holding back sales. There is still a long way to go.

Technology which respects the environment is not at all an ingenious innovation of our times. The very first hybrid car silently chugged along the roads of South-Western Germany in 1900. It was the Lohner-Porsche “Semper Vivus”. An identical reconstruction can be admired at the show. With two 1-cylinder/0.7l cc engines (6 horsepower each) and two front-wheel, direct current hub electric engines (3.2 horsepower each). Ferdinand Porsche’s “grand-grand-grand kids” introduced the newest development of the house this year in Geneva. The Panamera S Hybrid. Fast, agile, spacious, luxurious. But thrifty in terms of consumption and CO2-emission.

The late David Ogilvy, one of the guru’s of advertising, once wrote the memorable headline “The biggest noise in a Rolls Royce is the ticking of the clock”. Well, in Geneva in 2011, this doesn’t sound like an overstatement anymore. Introducing the first Rolls Royce with silent electric power. But who’d buy this? The lucky few who can afford a RR probably don’t care that much about gas prices or the environment. For the less prestigious but smart individual, General Motors has introduced the EN-V. An electric 2-seater which resembles a dented egg.

One environmentally-conscious concept, curiously watched by the professional public, was still missing on this show. The “Yo”. In almost total absence of globally competitive offers for contemporary cars or concepts, Russia has already developed its own eco-prototype. Its design is strongly reminiscent of a Smart 4-door. But the performance is quite impressive. Top speed around 130km/h, range of up to 1100 kilometres, price from only 300,000 roubles (approx. 7500 €). Production is planned to start mid 2012 with a capacity of 10,000 products annually.

In Geneva, more than at any other car show, the automobile celebrates itself. Not only as a responsible, practical means of transportation, but as an expression of an attitude to life. And to the joy of life. From a snappy mini car to a multi-purpose van. From an airy convertible to an elegant saloon. For all pockets. Choose a Renault-Dacia Sandero for €6990. Or go for a VW-Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport for €1,670,000. Take what you want, or what you can. It’s all there, in Geneva.

The democratisation of safety, comfort and even luxury, pleasantly shows up in the standard specifications and available extras of today’s middle class cars. They are affordable for a broader public. But what passionate drivers really want was often not easy to be seen close enough on the show because everybody wants to touch, smell, virtually drive those beauties.

There was the launch of the latest Ferrari, the FF. Ferrari’s first “shooting brake” bodyshell version. Irresistible. The cute Alfa Romeo 4C convertible. Pure fun to look at. With the desire to push it around some curves. Now. The new BMW 6-series convertible. Or alternatively the desirable 3rd generation of the Mercedes SLK. The latest BMW-Mini eye-catcher. The concept “Rocketman”. A “mini-Mini”, shrinked to its original size. With only three seats. Like a rolling “Gucci”-bag. Mazda’s Minagi, a concept car which hopefully will see the roads of the world, for now labelled Mazda CX-5. Or another crossover concept by Renault. The “Captur” talks a new design language which shows the style of the 2012 Clio. And many more.

Enough. It just isn’t possible to give justice to all the goodies on display at this show. It shows that the allure of the automobile will never fade. It would be nice if each car would be as nice as the girls. But this is a very personal, an emotional choice. A matter of taste. And money.

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