Geneva motor show – designers, driftwood, elephants and pods

gims17_poster_eng_1200A few days on from press days at the Geneva motor show the consensus is that essentially it’s been more of the same: yet more SUVs, some hyper-expensive hypercars, but little to shift things much further along the road to a future mobility landscape. That the Range Rover Velar and Volvo XC90 premium SUVs have been probably the most talked-about cars at the show says much about the industry right now. SUVs and premium-isation are where the volumes and money are.

But that misses the point: cars aren’t necessarily the stars at motor shows – even at Geneva, which uniquely among the major shows celebrates the car as fantastic beast rather than mere corporate cash cow or monthly registration fodder. The real story is what’s behind the cars on show, and even what’s not there.

Designers take centre stage

Car designers are the new focal points for the automotive brands. Ever since Peter Schreyer, originator of the original Audi TT, was poached from the German company by Hyundai-Kia and effected a transformation of the Koreans’ products, the stock of design bosses has risen sharply. The best designers are now part brand alchemist, part corporate talisman; they double as marketing tools, and are the ones who articulate the product philosophy.

Nowhere is this clearer at than at JLR and Volvo, whose stands always sit side-by-side at Geneva. Jaguar and Land Rover have their own internal design-chief arm wrestling match, Jaguar’s Ian Callum locking hands with Land Rover’s Gerry McGovern. Each led their respective brand’s press conference, Callum in a Brit-slick film showing him at the wheel of an F-Type on an ice circuit before driving onto the stand to finish the piece in person; JLR CEO Ralf Speth was merely a support act.

If Callum’s piece was a little over-produced it was to compensate for the fact that he had less to say than his Land Rover counterpart, Jaguar’s big news being that its previously-seen I-Pace EV concept has been painted a different colour.

gAtzr7KreKocCKwSfPqm08R3G5Ny495k_IV_Gerry_Mcgovern_Chief_Design_Officer_JLR_Geneva_Motor_Show_2017_mp4McGovern by contrast had the Range Rover Velar to launch. It’s curiously named after the very first 1960s Range Rover prototypes, which were go-anywhere, hose-down workhorses. The new car stretches the Range Rover ethos to the opposite extreme – it’s the sleekest, most dynamic, driver-focused car the brand has yet produced. It fills a hole between the Evoque and Sport – whose name it surely should have had – but when that car was named there wasn’t a Porsche Macan to take on. And that, fundamentally, is the Velar’s job.

The latest Jaguar and Land Rover/Range Rover models have excellent, progressive design which successfully transports heritage brand values into 21st-century packages, but if anything they’re engineering marvels, not design triumphs. Making a two-tonne, high-riding lump of SUV like the Velar go around corners on rails and emit as little as 142g/km CO2 is a major achievement.

Yet the engineering bosses were confined to the shadows at Geneva. But at least Range Rover wasn’t giving Victoria Beckham a design credit.

Automation – the elephant (not necessarily) in the room

The technology behind automated vehicles is already with us; automated vehicles are not. And, as if to underline the fact that the public and legislators are not yet ready for self-driving cars, VW Group unveiled the Sedric, a fully-automated pod-type vehicle, not at the show but the day before press day, off-site. Perhaps they expected it to make its own way to the show.

sedric-large_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqdODRziddS8JXpVz-XfUVR2LvJF5WfpqnBZShRL_tOZwSure, there was plenty of talk about autonomous vehicles on the stands. There should be – this technology will bring about seismic change for the carmakers and allow new players to enter the mix, grow quickly and reshape the industry. But VW didn’t want automation to gatecrash the party, and the nearest thing to a roll-out at Geneva was Nissan’s statement that its Leaf and Qashqai models will shortly be available with single-lane autonomous driving – commendable but something of a glorified adaptive cruise control with ancillary safety driver aids.

Industry executives spoke in reassuring terms to traditional car enthusiast media about using self-driving technology primarily to relieve the boredom of congested commutes in products which are otherwise still proper driving machines. Only Volvo seemed to have the courage to state upfront, via CEO Hakan Samuelsson’s press conference script, that automation’s number one benefit is safety. He outlined in convincing detail the efforts being put in at Volvo to make it happen, including an automation software JV with Autoliv, and even a program with Uber – a company representing as serious a perceived threat to the traditional carmakers as there is. Samuelsson also announced the world’s biggest autonomous vehicle testing program, DriveMe, using real roads and real car buyers in Sweden, the UK and China.

Even as it continues to develop a new generation of more dynamic cars to challenge the likes of driver-focused BMW, Volvo has the confidence to place automation front and centre as part of a core offering rather than in the form of a concept for an unspecified future. The company sees it not as a threat but a brand opportunity. And the fact that it talks so clearly and directly about automation only reinforces the brand by encouraging trust – a holy grail for any car brand in a post-dieselgate world on the cusp of change.

Clarity, driftwood and roots – how to identify the best brands

Taking a look around the Geneva show should leave you in no doubt about the value of brand. Some of the carmakers’ stands are downright confused. Some are trying rather too hard. Others seem effortlessly at ease with themselves. These are the ones which know what they stand for and their place in the world – today and tomorrow. They’re the ones with strong brands.

amggt4-geneva-096Mercedes has the most confident outlook of any Geneva exhibitor. Its model proliferation has taken it dangerously close to commoditisation, and it’s grown a little too fond of chrome. But the quality of the products, the way they’re displayed, the technology, the references to its F1 domination, and the interaction with the business both on-stand and digitally mean that it’s the most compelling of the behemoth brands at the show. The elegant and perfectly proportioned AMG GT concept is an admirably unostentatious statement of its assuredness.

But no-one better illustrates brand clarity than Volvo. It’s a brand which is evolving and growing in aspirational appeal but rooted in its historical values of safety, understated quality and its Swedish homeland, which it’s used to develop a Scandinavian design aesthetic. The product range is progressively and logically being renewed along these lines, with each core line articulating the brief slightly differently according to price point and target customer.

IMG_3931The contrast with JLR was marked. Both are effectively challenger brands to the German premium marques. Both are already producing vehicles of the same quality as Audi, BMW and Mercedes, but Volvo’s launch of the new XC60 was very different from that of the Range Rover Velar.

Those watching the Velar presentation had only to turn around to see the XC90 reveal, which immediately followed. Half a dozen XC90s sat concealed underneath cocoon-like pods. The video backdrop showed images of Scandinavian coastal scenes to a chillout soundtrack. And on came Volvo design boss Thomas Ingenlath, who unveiled…a piece of driftwood.

It’s fashioned by nature, timeless and sculptural. It made a point, and forms not totally unlike driftwood feature prominently in the new XC60’s interior. The Velar’s interior, in comparison, looked like a bachelor-pad fantasy. Ingenlath’s script had little hyperbole and self-congratulation and was the better for it. He really was speaking for the brand, as did the pods, which parted to reveal the new car as though giving birth to a hybrid of technology and nature.

Volvo is probably the truest car brand there is. Both Volvo and JLR, mutually orphaned by Ford, have thrived under new, enlightened owners. They’ve had fresh starts, helped by having limited and focused product ranges, which have enabled them to redefine themselves for a changing market while remaining connected to their provenance and values. And they’re able to re-shape their brands according to changing market needs in a way which the powerhouse OEMs like Mercedes can’t match, no matter how confident. It’s a real advantage at a time when upheaval is coming.

PSA-Opel – safety in numbers but how will it look in 2027?

You may have gone to Geneva secretly wanting only to gawp at the Ferrari 812, McLaren 720S or Aston Martin Valkyrie. But to get to any of those you had to wade through an undercurrent of PSA-Opel takeover talk.

Although GM’s rationale for leaving Europe is clear, if almost shockingly brave, the benefits for PSA are much less clear, with huge model range overlap and the addition of a languishing Opel brand to a portfolio of French brands which struggle outside their native France.

The announcement confirming the deal was made on the eve of the first press day but was light on detail. None of the brands involved – Peugeot, Citroen, DS and Opel – made more than passing mentions of it in their show press conferences so it was interesting to see how they articulated themselves in the new context.

Geneva+Auto+Show+Press+Days+2017+YC6wR0qcBUwl

As though to reassure analysts that PSA has the wherewithal to nurture Opel better than GM, CEO Carlos Tavares headlined with Peugeot’s financial performance. Opel seemed at pains to make the point that the brand has real value, reminding people that the company has a very long history and that, being German, offers precision engineering. It also made the unlikely claim that the PSA deal is one of equals.

Ironically, what the discarded Opel did have was a pair of completely new models – the upper-medium Insignia replacement and a new SUV, the Crossland X. They’re important cars, the one because it’s in the increasingly critical compact SUV/crossover segment, and the other because it’s in the upper-medium segment where Opel and its UK offshoot Vauxhall still have to be credible for business sales. Both look competitive. And we were told that they’re part of a tsunami of 29 new models in a four-year period. But how will that fit with PSA’s model plans? The two companies have already been collaborating, including on the Crossland, but significant rationalisation will surely be essential. It’s a numbers game.

No doubt Carlos Tavares is a talented man, but you can’t help thinking that the additional scale Opel offers PSA is the opposite of the corporate nimbleness, lean product offering and crystal-clear brand thinking which gives Volvo and JLR such a great strategic opportunity in an industry facing inevitable and large-scale disruption over the next decade.

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