Category Archives: Motor shows

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.

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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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MINI at Geneva: not there but showing the way

rocketman3The strongest statement by any company at the Geneva motor show has been made by one which isn’t even there.

By skipping Geneva MINI is underlining that it’s the holy grail for car companies – a generic lifestyle brand rather than merely a car brand.

Yes, it will still appear at motor shows, but they will largely be those held in the most cosmopolitan centres, like New York, not the ones in corporate and financial centres like Geneva.

And of course it will increasingly put itself in non-automotive environments, where fashion and technology coalesce, where other lifestyle brands are present, and where people go to consume and experience rather than go from stand to stand in an exhibition hall.

MINI has moved outside the constraining parameters of everyday carmakers, and in that sense it mirrors its fellow BMW group unit, Rolls-Royce. Where that great brand is the pinnacle of luxury personalisation, MINI has become the pinnacle of popular personalisation.

rocketman03It’s something we all engage with on a daily basis without even registering it – every smartphone is highly personalised, not so much by covers and wallpapers as through the apps we choose. MINI knows this: the car of the future will be personalised through use of technology, not just paint and trim.

Other brands, from Volvo to DS, claim lifestyle status, but these are the ones which have been forced to reinvent themselves. The rest pay lip service or remain wedded to the same old formula, MINI’s parent BMW brand included.

In an era when retail is being transformed by digital, and with the consumption of personal mobility by young and urban populations likely to change radically, MINI is showing the mainstream car brands the way to go.

Where is BMW’s Vision at Geneva?

IMG_0025The traditional positioning of Mercedes and BMW next to one another at the Geneva motor show provides a neat and obvious chance for comparing Germany’s two traditional powerhouses. And as a show of brand strength Mercedes squashes BMW this year.

Yes, Mercedes is a little brash these days. Chrome and polished surfaces are so ubiquitous that they’re in danger of undermining the quality of the fit-and-finish and engineering.

But being Geneva show neighbours does BMW no favours. It looks reticent by comparison. Understatement is a good thing – and BMW has traditionally been a master of managing and exceeding expectations – but the Bavarian company’s stand gives the distinct sense of a lack of new product and vision.

When BMW introduces new generations of it core models it starts with the 7-Series, followed by the smaller 5-Series and then the 3-Series. The 7 has just been launched, and we’re currently awaiting the 5. With the 7 being a notoriously slow-seller against the Mercedes S-Class, and the 5 replacement set to be revealed later this year, BMW is in limbo.

It’s a position made more uncomfortable by the fact that, in the real world, a new, larger 5-Series routinely makes the 7-Series seem rather redundant. When the latest 3-Series is launched it has the same effect on the 5.

The most significant car on BMW’s stand this year is the 330e, a plug-in hybrid offering the same performance as a petrol 330 for the same money. But it’s there only as a single four-door variant, untrumpeted and barely noticed alongside the i3 and i8. It’s also very clear that BMW is painfully aware of the car’s biggest limitation – reduced boot space because of the battery pack – as there are no standard four-door 3-Series models to provide an unfavourable boot capacity comparison.

The i3 and i8, beautifully marketed though they are, pose another issue: what are the next i cars? BMW leaped ahead of the market when it launched these, making EVs desirable and cool. But they’re bookends, one a true EV solution, the other a £100k sports car halo product. Where’s the middle ground, and what is the technical solution? For a company so brilliant at brand-building and engineering, the lack of narrative is puzzling.

IMG_0028Butting right up against the BMW stand is Mercedes’ vision of the future, a concept car with an interior rethought around the autonomous driving capability. It’s backed up by a plethora of plug-in hybrids, a new E-Class (5-Series competitor) and new variants of the C-Class (3-Series competitor).

BMW is celebrating its centenary this month but Mercedes has trumped it even there, with the deliciously poisonous public statement, “We warmly congratulate the globally renowned company BMW on its anniversary and invite all employees of BMW AG to discover the complete history of the automobile at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.”

p90212587-highres-1A week after the Geneva show opened, BMW marked its centenary by announcing the Vision Next 100 autonomous-driving concept car – a step on from the autonomous Mercedes at Geneva. How the Geneva stand could have done with that. BMW should hold the high ground in engineering for the future. If the Vision had been at Europe’s most important motor show it could rightly have claimed that territory. Far better that than a longer history.

The most interesting thing at the Geneva motor show isn’t a car

IMG_2517In a year when the Geneva motor show has seen world premieres of new production cars from Bugatti, Lamborghini, McLaren, Aston Martin, Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes, the most interesting thing there is something rather different.

No, it’s not an accessible sports car like the Fiat 124 Spyder. Or a family car which is simultaneously stylish, like the Renault Scenic. It’s not even a vehicle system or component.

The most interesting thing at Geneva International Motor Show 2016 is the VW stand.

Why? This is the first time VW has presented itself to world since it was engulfed by the diesel scandal last September. Since then it has replaced the top tier of management, made big commitments to low-carbon product and gone on a direct marketing charm offensive in the markets.

IMG_2562The company’s presence in Geneva is noticeably more human and warm than the usual giant white car park stuffed full of mundane mainstream models. There are semi-separate sections with constantly morphing mood lighting, Beats Audio listening pods and a giant screen snaking across the stand. Everyday models are displayed in bold colours, not just white, and there are two new concepts which tell us how VW wants us to see the brand: forward-thinking/eco-friendly, and fun/adventurous.

IMG_2519The Budd-e mini people-carrier isn’t as lovable as the Campervan-referencing Microbus of a few years back but it’s electric, clean and modern – what the brand needs to be. It also sits in front of an illuminated backdrop saying ‘Think New’: this is a company which very obviously knows it needs to renew itself for the public gaze. The T-Cross Breeze signals the smallest of three new SUVs, and here it’s in a not-for-production convertible form – this company, they would have you believe, is full of fresh air.

VW has put in some fast work in the last six months. None of it sweeps the diesel mess under the carpet, and customers with “defeat device” cars – me included – have been treated with disdain. But life at VW goes on.

I won’t be buying another VW, yet millions will without wincing. And that is its banana skin. Will VW’s need to change perception make it truly redefine itself and become a real brand again – the one which was founded on the Beetle people’s car? Unlikely. But as a brand professional I’m fascinated to see which wins out – the need to be trusted and valued or the need to stave off the financial cost of the scandal with volumes-driven profit.

Ford’s future: chillout and chocolate or mobility for the masses?

unlearn_homepagewebbannerThings aren’t getting much easier for the mainstream, high-volume car brands.

At the end of the last decade they were savaged by a perfect storm of a territorial invasion by the German premium brands, the economic meltdown, and the opportunism of the value brands seeking to capitalise on it. Ford, GM and the like were left struggling for relevance.

Visitors to the current Geneva motor show are greeted outside the hall by a vast Ford billboard. It features the new generation of the iconic Mustang muscle car, flanked by the GT supercar and the new Edge SUV, and asks us to forget everything we know about the brand. The Mustang hero vehicle doesn’t even wear the Ford blue oval.

It’s not rocket science to work out they’re saying: we make more than just commodity cars, we’ve got the heritage and we’ve got the SUVs everyone wants these days.

Go inside and another layer of icing has been put on the cake. For the first time there’s a real range of Fords adorned by Vignale sub-branding. Vignale is the company’s premium line, also offering concierge-style customer service. And they’ve pulled off a real coup by installing a Vignale lounge in the departure area of the Geneva airport. Chillout music, free massages, coffee, chocolates, water, workstations and wifi will go down very well with the millions going through the airport – and almost certainly be more effective than the show presence.

IMG_2582Yet what do these things say about the Ford brand? “We make great cars. They’re well designed, comfortable, high-quality and handle well. But we can’t persuade private buyers to consider us alongside Audi, BMW Mercedes and Volvo.” And the focus on the Mustang, GT and Edge – which as a large, expensive SUV will remain a niche choice against the premium competition – makes a telling contrast with Renault. The French brand was the most distressed of all after the 2008 crash, but now boasts a confident, all-new range of cars. No halo products, no premium pretensions; just attractive, honest cars people want to buy, including electric vehicles with dedicated designs.

It begs the question of what Ford’s purpose is. The company appears to be hoping to build brand equity from its niche offerings rather than focusing on what makes Ford a real brand – offering excellent quality products at a mainstream pricepoint. Other companies have done this without denigrating their brand – look at the iPhone. And ironically Ford itself has history here.

Over 100 years ago Ford revolutionised motoring with a commodity product, the Model T. Today, in an age when mobility will alter radically, it should not be beyond Ford to help drive that change for today’s masses, be an enabler, and build an everyman brand which is also a valued one.

Give the Blue Oval back its meaning, Mr Ford, and wear it with pride.

Viva Geneva: Karl kicks out the concierge

If the underlying importance of the high-performance cars at the 2015 Geneva motor show was to point the way for electric powertrains, the fundamental theme of the show as a whole was even more real-world: how the mainstream brands are re-emerging.

Whereas a year ago the brands in the squeezed middle were focusing on countering the the premium brands with their own premium strategies, they’ve instead rightly addressed the fundamentals. In today’s market that means confident, well-designed, well-executed product in the right segments, giving them relevance in a market turned upside down by the explosion of the German premium brands over the past few years. Cars people want, not brand-stretching super-deluxe specifications, quilted leather and VIP concierge services.

Renault-Kadjar-Live-Geneva-2015-00Renault, which had a desperate few years, now looks one of the most convincing mainstream brands. Geneva saw the launch of its Kadjar crossover, effectively a version of the massively successful Nissan Qashqai cloaked in Renault’s latest and very agreeable design language. Alongside the smaller Captur crossover, Clio hatchback and Twingo mini car, it’s got the important mainstream market segments covered – and with attractive new product.

Renault’s alliance partner Nissan is also looking very healthy. It Geneva-2015-Nissan-Sway-Concept-03showed a mini concept, Sway, which is the basis of a replacement for the dowdy Micra and would complete a range differentiated by characterful design. Like the latest Qashqai, it’s a distinctive rather than disturbing like the Juke, but it still clearly says Nissan.

Nissan’s struggling upmarket brand Infiniti also looks rejuvenated, with two production-ready-looking concepts – the Q60 coupe and the more important Q30 compact crossover. That’s a model for a segment every volume carmaker needs to be in, and could be the car to finally give the company some meaning and a foothold in Europe.

maxresdefault-3SEAT has had a tough time since 2008, with an over-reliance on a bankrupt domestic Spanish market and a newly inherited position as VW Group’s bottom-rung brand thanks to the gains made by Skoda. But it’s got decent product again, and the sharply styled 20V20 SUV concept signals a wave of new SUVs which will add vital volumes. Like the Sway, it takes its brand’s existing design language and moves it on to give a clear and confident brand statement. That’s good design. Skoda’s new Superb, also revealed in Geneva, does exactly the same.

This is about having confidence in the brand: understand what you are, understand your strengths, and set about developing products which reflect that and a design language to articulate it.

Geneva2-Viva-1_3217646cThe star of the show? In this context, no contest: Opel’s new mini, Karl (Vauxhall Viva in in the UK). Opel has got a bigger job than most in re-setting itself and defining its mission. It can’t be premium but it mustn’t become merely a producer of commodities. The Karl/Viva is punchy looking, has an excellent interior, the equipment list of a £20,000 Audi, high-tech low-emissions engines, good quality and an impossible-to-ignore base price of about €9500.

But it’s not a cheap car. It’s a statement of the new Opel brand: excellent engineering, emotional design and high technology for everybody.

A car for the real world. A car with confidence.

Geneva 2015: Audi R8 saves the (real) world

maxresdefault-2Most reports of the 2015 Geneva Motor Show, which opened its doors last week, have adopted the view that it’s primarily about the exotic supercars. It’s not.

Yes, there were new supercars from Ferrari, Aston Martin, McLaren, Lamborghini and other exotic brands. Even the mainstream crowd was at it, with the revival of the iconic Ford GT.

But the real trend among exotic performance cars was more subtle. Not only that but it tells us something about the future of EVs (electric vehicles). Honda geneva-2015-94showed its own reborn icon, the NSX, but has reinterpreted it supercar as a three-motor hybrid. It’s a contemporary performance engineering approach far more in line with the hybrid hypercar holy trinity of LaFerrari, McLaren P1 and Porsche 918. But where their price tags are $1m-plus, the NSX will be more like $150,000.

Yes, that’s still a lot of money, but it positions the NSX in a new, real-world exotic sports car environment – a place where price, performance and poor taste are images-24restrained and the cars better for it – alongside BMW’s i8 and the Audi R8 e-tron unveiled at Geneva. Audi has gone a step further than Honda and BMW and given the R8 e-tron a pure electric driveline – producing 456bhp and a range of 280 miles for not much more money than the Honda. And not an engine in sight.

This reflects a rapidly growing trend – EVs are going upmarket. As everyday small-to-medium size cars like the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, EV sales remain minimal. Even BMW’s avant-garde, brilliantly engineered, brilliantly marketed and affordable i3 isn’t shifting. So the carmakers are putting EV tech into high-end models and positioning them as the top variants – as in the new Audi Q7 e-tron SUV shown in Geneva, with a hybrid drivetrain. BMW, Range Rover and Volvo have all chosen this strategy already.

photo_20_0Audi has admitted that the pure electric technology in the R8 e-tron will be introduced in at least one more mainstream model in a couple of years or so – most likely a medium-sized SUV with a target of a 300m-plus range. No coincidence that Tesla, which has shaken the establishment with its battery-only performance and range, will have introduced its first SUV by then. This part of the market will be the epicentre of EV growth.

After publicly doubting battery-only EVs Audi has done a U-turn and is now clearly committed to them. It is effectively leading VW Group’s EV efforts, and may well become the leading EV OEM bar none, because it operates in the premium space where the additional cost of electric technologies can be absorbed, yet has mass-volume appeal. Audi could be a catalyst to widespread EV acceptance and adoption.

In this sense Geneva 2015 is all about the real world. Look past the roped-off stands, fake tans, carbon-fibre and colossal combustion engines and there’s an electric future coming into focus.

Large MPVs – the next big thing?

Renault-Espace-0Large, stylish MPVs could be making a comeback. At the recent Paris motor show Renault relaunched the Espace as a bold, well designed MPV-cum-crossover, and Ford showed the latest S-Max, which will be a recipient of the company’s new Vignale luxury trim and concierge service.

The premium brands are making moves too: Paris saw the launch of the production BMW 2-Series Active Tourer, a compact MPV, while Mercedes – which replace the MPV-style A-Class with a conventional hatchback a couple of years ago – reaffirmed its interest in that segment by revealing a new B-Class.

That the two German premium brands are investing effort into MPVs is significant, but they may be missing an opportunity beyond the compact, higher-volume segments. Large MPVs are a neglected niche: after Toyota introduced the innovative and stylish Previa in the mid-1990s, the territory was commoditised by the mainstream brands, with utilitarian van-based models and products marketed as bland school-run devices offering space but no character and a mediocre driving experience. MPVs had become merely ‘people carriers’.

SUVs then entered the marketed. They were premium. They needed to be, because of the cost of the four-wheel-drive technology and – starting with the first BMW X5 – the additional cost of engineering decent handling into a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity lump. But more importantly the SUV concept was American, so they were marketed as lifestyle vehicles, recreational tools. They enhanced your life rather than announcing to the word your grim acceptance of its responsibilities.

Of the premium brands only Mercedes persevered with the large MPV, but its products have remained van-based. So Renault may have hit on something with the new Espace. Not everyone wants an SUV – Audi Q7s, BMW X5s and Mercedes MLs have begun to symbolise some of the less appealing characteristics of the monied middle-classes. And very few need off-road capability.

2015-volvo-xc90-steering-wheelI was with a Volvo strategy guy at Paris and it got me thinking. I’d probably buy an S-Max if it had a different badge. I’d almost certainly buy the Espace if they produce it in right-hand drive. But I’d far prefer it with a Volvo badge.

Volvo can carry off a contemporary interpretation of a large, MPV. It has the brand-width to do it (unlike Jaguar, another near-premium brand, which can stretching itself to SUVs but no further). An MPV would suit Volvo’s brand values and its design aesthetic. Volvo is about stylish functionality – vehicles with a purpose but also a personality, confident but classless, luxurious but life-2015-Volvo-XC90-interior-controls-press-imageenhancing. And its products are increasingly about cabin design – supremely comfortable but understated, ergonomically intelligent, with natural materials, authenticity and the influence of Scandinavian home interior trends. What better medium to express this than an inherently spacious, light and flexible MPV cabin?

Volvo’s boss recently said that until 2020 it will only replace existing models. That’s a pity, because there’s a gap in the market and a brand fit. And if Volvo were to fill that gap it would challenge the German big three by setting a trend rather than merely offering an alternative to a product type already offered by the competitors. Which would make the brand far stronger.

 

Paris motor show becomes a brand catwalk

The cars aren’t the stars so much as the narrators at motor shows these days. They tell an interesting story – how car brands are striving, and in may cases struggling – for relevance in an astonishingly competitive, over-crowded market.

The Paris motor show going on right now does this more than any other, because it gives centre stage to France’s own: Renault, Peugeot and Citroen. Three brands which have always struggled on the international stage and were floored by the economic crisis in Europe.

5169344898592298Citroen used Paris to launch the separation of its DS line. DS models offer Mini-like personalisation and high-quality materials, and they’re sold at a premium so there’s more profit. The mother brand’s mainstream products are hugely improved, but for years they’ve been piled as high as the Eiffel Tower and sold as cheaply as a plastic Paris bistro table cloth. Lining one up alongside a DS in either a motor show or show room only distresses the latter – and its profitability. The super-sculpted DS Divine concept in Paris was there to show that DS products are going to have unique styling to ensure greater differentiation. And greater profit.

Fellow PSA brand Peugeot believes that if it offers excellent quality at mainstream prices the numbers will happen. And today’s Peugeots are well-designed, with thoughtful interiors, tactile materials and good build. It’s an impressive turnaround. But there was little new in Paris. Even the Exalt crossover concept had been seen before – at the Beijing show. That betrays its ambitions in China, but for Europe there are only facelifts until the end of next year, and for a company still dependent on Europe that’s a concern.

017E00D707663739-photo-renault-espacePSA has refused the budget-brand route, unlike Renault with Dacia. The Romanian brand has been propping its parent up over the last couple of years, but now Renault has emerged with excellent new product of its own. The Fiat 500-esque Twingo will give some fizz back to the brand, while the styling has a new-found confidence, shown in the Espace revealed in Paris. It’s an MPV with a low, muscular stance and an interior which wouldn’t look out of place in a Range Rover.

It could be a breakthrough for Renault in the large-car market where it’s always struggled, but the company is giving more prominence to its Initiale sub-brand. Unlike DS, Initiale won’t spawn models but a new luxury trim level. Ford is doing something similar with its Vignale line, seen in Paris in the form of a dedicated merchandise and accessory boutique on the stand. The new S-Max and Mondeo models revealed at the show will lend themselves well to the Vignale treatment, and there’s nothing not to like about the concierge-style service offered. But it’s very hard to see Ford conquesting customers from the premium brands without a product as bold and surprising as the Espace.

The approach being taken by Ford’s principal mainstream rival, Opel, is more in line with Peugeot’s: everyday, good value products with increasing quality and sophistication. But GM’s new dawn in Europe after the dropping of the Chevrolet value brand was signaled in Paris by the new Corsa supermini – an everyday car in one of the traditional segments you still have to be in. The new car has been developed from the old one’s architecture, which is fine – VW has done that with the Golf in the recent past – but it’s a mistake for the new Corsa to look so similar to the outgoing car. GM listened to what customers said about the old car, and this is the result. When did Apple last do that?

GM Europe has acquired several senior VW people in the past year or two, so perhaps it’s become a model for the Opel revival. VW keeps doing what it does best – granite-like rationality – and the evolutionary new Passat in Paris could have gone unnoticed.

Paris saw the world debut of Volvo’s XC90. It’s a wholly more convincing way to usher in a new era than Opel’s, but it’s not bang-on. The XC90 is the right car to go with to send the message that Volvo is an upmarket lifestyle brand. And the interior – which is what really matters for a Volvo – is a lovely place to be. But Volvo is now a design-led brand, which has not translated fully to the slightly utilitarian exterior. And the pricing is ambitious – maybe too ambitious. Volvo needs to escape the ‘near-premium’ straitjacket but it will do that more effectively by concentrating on being what it is – a genuine alternative to the premium brands – rather than aligning itself more closely with them on price.

IMG_0974The opportunity for Volvo is clearly there when you look at the established premium market leaders Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Each is intent on offering something for absolutely everyone, which means creating new sub-segments. Volvo is too small do do the same, but that allows for a clearer brand statement. There’s a growing feeling in the industry that fragmentation has its economic limits, but Audi is intent on a 60-model range by 2020, including a family of TT models based around the TT sports coupe, likely to include a TT SUV. Paris saw the unveiling of a five-door TT concept, less of a leap and something of a return to form on the design front. It may not sell as many as a TT SUV but it would serve the brand better.

Over at Daimler, Mercedes’ effort to match Audi’s range was amply demonstrated in Paris by the simultaneous launch of the exotic AMG GT sports car and the smart fortwo and forfour city cars. BMW showed a new version of the unloved X6 coupe crossover which only highlighted the lacklustre design running through its range. Interior materials are on the slide too. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the company’s best people have been working on the game-busting i3 and i8 electric range.

2016-jaguar-xe-parisThis background may help Jaguar. Like Volvo, it’s small and it has to get the segments and products right. The new XE compact executive car – a 3-Series rival – is its most important car ever and was revealed in Paris. Quality seems excellent and, crucially, it’s different from the German premium offerings it has to compete against. It’s visibly a Jaguar, even if the rear-end styling is somewhat generic. But perhaps that’s deliberate: BMW has become a major fleet player with the always-inoffensive 3-Series over the past 10 years.

Jaguar’s sister Land Rover brand showed the Discovery Sport in public for the first time in Paris and, like the XE, it’s a vital model for the business. Its smooth, compact shape contains a cleverly packaged interior with seven seats, but it’s a further step away from Land Rover design and brand values and towards a generic Range Rover/Land Rover look and purpose.

Hyundai and Kia offer a surprisingly relevant viewpoint here: hugely successful as a merged business producing essentially the same products with unique styling, the group is now making a concerted effort to formally differentiate the look and brands further. It’s an enlightened approach from a business which took the original Audi TT designer Peter Schreyer on board and elevated him to president status. Kia’s aggressive-looking new Sorento large SUV, and Hyundai’s sophisticated new i20 small car, both revealed in Paris, articulate the new positioning well.

The Hyundai-Kia group has frightened the life out of the Japanese brands, and in Paris you could see why. Toyota was the most impressive, and is finally concentrating on communicating its pioneering position in low-carbon solutions. It gave a European debut to the the production fuel-cell car which will go on sale in Europe next year, plus a hybrid crossover concept to compete with the Nissan Qashqai crosssover. Toyota may lead on technology but it lags behind on product planning.

Nissan launched its Pulsar hatchback, almost a decade after replacing its conventional offerings with crossovers. It may be a market necessity but it weakens the brand positioning, and suddenly, Nissan’s position in the market is looking weaker than alliance partner Renault’s.

But it’s better off than Honda, which now sells only fractionally more than Mitsubishi in Europe, and is behind Suzuki. It’s way behind Mazda, with its ‘go our own way’ approach, and despite having new cars on the Paris stand Honda looked outdated and lost.

Honda is competing in a market packed with brands which are becoming better defined and more expressive. They’re not all going to succeed. But without investing in the brands the carmakers will lose relevance and ultimately fail. Shows like Paris remind us that modern cars are extraordinarily capable, technical marvels which are a tribute to their engineers and designers. They’ll very soon be driving themselves. But they can’t sell themselves. In a market where high-quality cars and affordable finance come as standard, brand engagement will decide consumers’ purchase decisions.

New York, Beijing, Paris, Goodwood

Auto Show See Touch SmellRecent months have seen repeated calls for a UK motor show. So far this year we’ve had Detroit, Geneva, Beijing; Paris is next. Why not the UK? We’re Europe’s second largest market, and poised to become its third-biggest manufacturer, producing luxury brands Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Range Rover and Jaguar as well cars for the global market leader, Toyota.

But the fact is that motor shows are moving away from traditional automotive locations. The best European show is Geneva’s, in a country with no automotive industry and an ambivalent attitude to motoring. China’s auto industry is in its infancy, yet the industry descends on the Beijing and Shanghai shows. And New York is becoming a favoured event even though it’s a million miles from Detroit in motor culture.

There’s a change of axis which is driving this. Asia is now the world’s economic powerhouse, and with its emerging economies is the land of mass opportunity for car sales. In the mature markets a smaller show like New York is now as likely to be chosen for a major launch, especially by high-equity brands – Land Rover used it this year to unveil its future in the form of the Vision concept, because the city is a style capital, global influencer and catalyst to the US market. Detroit is not.

But the New York show itself is just like Detroit and all the others: an anachronism. Cars – things which move, transform our lives and stir the soul – parked uninspiringly on stands in vast exhibition centres. And with little to excite or involve the customer. In the age of experiential marketing, digital communication and virtual reality, the motor show needs new forms.

In that sense, the UK already has a motor show. It took place last weekend and it’s called the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It’s a social event, a celebration, a place where the famous are there as themselves, where the cars are the celebrities and are driven rather than merely displayed. It’s an occasion. A networking opportunity with props.

fos130713_E5A5751_2700013bThat attracts people – 200,000 of them -and it attracts the carmakers, who get involved in not only the celebration of motor sport at the core of the event but now also bring – and allow visitors to drive – everyday models in a lovely setting. The Festival’s Moving Motor Show alone attracted 19 car brands this year, so not just those with performance models. Dacia, Renault’s Romanian budget brand, was there with its entire range; manufacturers launch new models there (18 this year): this is now a mainstream motor show, even if it takes place outside in the grounds of a stately home.

The Festival of Speed is not a template – it’s unique, idiosyncratic – but it is an illustration of what people want from a motor show: interaction, informality, fun. Despite the incredible pace of vehicle development, the industry’s other motor shows are stuck in the 1960s. They need to change, especially if they’re not in a hot market.

If carmakers’ design and R&D brains which are transforming mobility and allowing the industry to reinvent itself for a more sustainable world could be applied to the production of motor shows, the experience could surely be transformed into something spectacularly cutting-edge. Combine that with the Festival’s more intimate virtues and it would be inspiring.