Category Archives: Motor shows

Bentley, Beijing and the hybrid halo

Mercedes recently said that the combustion engine is with us for at least 20 more years. No doubt that’s right, but it has a particular interest. The fact that it still produces a V12 is a badge of honour for the brand. And no doubt a purchase trigger for Asian plutocrats who absolutely must have the highest in perceived luxury.

bentley-mulsanne-hybrid-concept-2014-beijing-auto-show_100463149_lContrast that with last week’s debut of a hybrid Bentley. It’s an important moment, the more so because it was at the Beijing auto show – a place where the brands don’t normally make concessions to the distinctly Western concept of sustainable luxury. The Bentley is officially a concept car, but significantly it’s a version of the Mulsanne, a production model and the brand’s flagship: if hybrid technology it can be accepted at the pinnacle of traditional, conservative luxury, it can fit with any brand.

With the Bentley, and the simultaneous Beijing launch of a production long-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover, the time when luxury and premium car buyers will want to know why they haven’t got hybrid power is surely approaching. Hybrid systems are at the apex of powertrain technology right now, and if seen as such customers will demand them.

Bentley’s VW Group sister brand Porsche already offers a hybrid Cayenne and Panamera, but they don’t sell. Same for Range Rover’s standard-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover: they’re not proper Porsches or real Range Rovers. But the Bentley and the LWB Range Rover can change this. If the idea of a hybrid Bentley goes down well with Chinese luxury car buyers, it will gain acceptance for Porsche’s hybrids. And if hybrid power is accepted in the limousine version of the Range Rover it won’t be perceived as a dilution of the brand in the standard car.

Creating hybrid versions of range-topping cars enables VW Group and Jaguar Land Rover to exploit the higher margins of big-ticket products and, in time, as the halo effect occurs, to sell hybrid versions of lower-price, higher volume products at a profit. Larger volumes will in turn reduce the cost of hybrid technology.

China is key to widespread adoption of future electric vehicle technologies: as a growing car market with vast volume potential it makes no sense to continue building only a combustion-engine infrastructure to meet the needs of the emerging motorised masses. Last month the premier declared a war on air pollution, yet the country still lacks a vehicle charging infrastructure. Hybrids are therefore the catalyst. It’s good strategy for the carmakers to push hybrid products in China, and to do so top-down, using halo brands and models as cultural influencers. Plug-in hybrids and battery-only vehicles will follow when the infrastructure is there.

So the challenge for global mass-adoption is one of communications, and the audience it needs to communicate with is as likely to read Wired as Forbes. Hybrid systems need to be positioned not so much as a means to supplemental performance or a cleaner, greener conscience as simply the latest and best technology, a must-have.

A premium car without sat nav? No chance. The same surely applies to the technology which is the beating heart of a car.

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Geneva brand digest #4: Qoros Hatch – the most significant car at the show

One final brand thought on Geneva: what was the most significant car at the show? Renault’s re-born and RWD Twingo? Mercedes’ high-tech C-Class? Citroen’s unique C4 Cactus? BMW’s first FWD car and MPV, the Active Tourer? VW’s e-Golf? Peugeot’s newly crowned Car of  the Year, the 308?

qoros-3-hatch-Geneva-2014-03No – none of those. But, like the Golf and the 308, it was a humble compact family car. The most significant new car at Geneva, from a brand perspective, was the Qoros 3 Hatch. Why? Because it begins to move China on from being the car market which drives the global industry to being a marketer of cars we’d actually drive.

Qoros, a curious-sounding JV between China’s state-owned Chery and the Israel Corporation holding company, was launched publicly at Geneva 2013, showing its production-ready Sedan and ‘concept’ Hatch and Estate versions. Quality was extremely good, styling conservative.

qoros-3-hatch-foto_5Yet this is good design – form has met the function of expressing solidity, integrity, an engineered product. It reassures. The cars have shoulders, a stocky stance. There are no design gimmicks. They look substantial, not Chinese: from a nation which until recently produced blatant copies and cheap crash-test-failing boxes with bizarre names, this is a very necessary brand message. The products say “VW”, not “Great Wall, “Gleagle”, “Roewe” or “King Long”.

IMG_0502And now that suggestion of substance has been made real. Sitting unheralded behind the production-ready Hatch on the Geneva stand was a semi-naked Sedan showing its crash structures. The car not only got a five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash-test, but achieved the best score of any car in 2013. That takes a clear vision, commitment and investment.

Geneva brand digest #3: Volvo talks the talk but the party’s over at SEAT

Despite the fact that motor shows are a paradox – where technically cutting-edge and brilliantly designed machines which move us physically and emotionally are parked up in large, soulless indoor exhibition spaces – you can often tell as much about a car brand from its stand design and execution as you can from the models on display.

imagesAt the Geneva show Volvo demonstrated its brand transformation not so much in the Concept Estate car (despite the fact that it elicited more “I want one” comments than any other car at the event – yes, for a Volvo estate) as in the design and atmosphere of its stand.

After years of being sub-premium, a sort of no-man’s brand, the XC90 SUV gave it relevance once more, and the confidence to become not so much premium as Scadinavian. The brand now sits in its own space, transcending the stiff aspirational appeal of the big boys, and genuine practicality and cool Scandinavian design principles combine with a sense of enlightened independence to define the new Volvo.

This is now built into its crisply designed show stands not only through clean lines, neutral tones and contemporary materials, but by creating a guest area drawing its influences from a stylish Scandinavian home, with an informal mix of modern decor and design classics. items. The range of reference implies that the brand values are embedded in the culture of the business. So few brands do it.

4833836_930d7939c8e6ce19afb64b9cca352915_wmBut the stand-out feature was that Volvo used Swedes to serve the coffees – not people hired in locally, not traditional motor show smile-and-move-on hospitality people; these were young, relaxed, confident men and women who didn’t talk to you about the company or its products, but talked to you as they would in a Stockholm bar or Apple outlet. It’s hardly radical – after all, a business’s culture should always start with the staff. But it’s human, and it’s real – exactly where Volvo should be. And it works.

It’s ironic that as Volvo has passed into Chinese ownership it’s rediscovered its inner Scandi. If Geneva was anything to go by, VW’s Spanish value brand SEAT is going the opposite way. Some desperate recent years saw SEAT slip from aspiring to be a Spanish Alfa Romeo to the bottom of the VW pile, way behind the ex-communist Skoda. It’s made losses of Euros 1.5 bn since 2005. But it maxresdefaultpersevered with its Spanish party-time image, and late on motor show press days would always bring out the tapas and Rioja and turn the music up. Club music, one time with Ibiza DJ and Cafe del Mar creator Jose Padilla on the decks, another time young F1 driver Jaime Algersuari. The rest of the VW brands could only look on jealously from their corporate car parks.

The stand party didn’t happen at Geneva 2014. The last 12 months has seen SEAT rebuild its sales, and its new Leon lower-medium car is being praised as a genuine alternative to the market leaders. European sales were up over 10% in 2013, including 22% growth in Germany. There’s a new boss, and he’s German. Things are looking good. But they’re also looking less Spanish, less distinctive, and every other brand out there has good products.

You hope that this is more down to VW’s group cost-cutting than a brand repositioning. Because buying habits are changing, and there won’t be enough room in the VW portfolio for four serious but identikit mainstream car brands indefinitely.

Geneva brand digest #2: Toyota Aygo, Citroen C1, Peugeot 108 – small cars talking big

The Geneva launch of the three mini cars jointly developed for Toyota and PSA Peugeot-Citroen was interesting not just to see how they’ve differentiated them in styling terms. Their execution tells us a lot about the brands whose badges they wear.

They may be diminutive, low-priced and low-profit products, but they’re a valuable entry point for new, younger buyers, offering the opportunity to grab customers at the base of their car-buying curves.

images-10So much so that Toyota’s version, the Aygo, is intended to be a halo car for the brand. It effectively spearheads a new Toyota brand message of Fun, but it also spells out a new daring in the company. The Aygo is certainly the most distinctive of the trio. Sharp-edged, geometric feature lines come together in an X-shaped front-end graphic extending from the bottom corners of the nose right up to the wing mirrors, and along with some other plastic parts it can be chosen in a range of colours. This is Toyota trying so hard to break out of the rut of bland, commoditised design that it’s willing to engage in jeopardy – witness the Go Fun Yourself strapline used on the Geneva stand – and even risk alienating some buyers. It’s something the company can’t do in a single move with staple volume sellers like the Auris and Avensis. But if the Aygo’s a success it will allow Toyota to progressively introduce more risky design.

images-11Citroen is in almost the opposite situation. Launching its cartoony C4 Cactus concept-car-for-the-road at the same time, its C1 alternative to the Aygo inevitably doesn’t have the same halo mission. As a result it lacks the confidence of the Toyota and the coherence of the Peugeot’s version, the 108. Citroen has a wonderful brand heritage of free-thinking innovation, idiosyncrasy and design flourishes, which it’s redeployed in the Cactus and the DS ranges. But it also has to market pain-et-beurre cars, and to do so cheaply to make them attractive. The C1 is symptomatic of this split personality, its front end a confusing mash-up of cutesy oversized lamps and Citroen’s new signature slim headlamps.

Peugeot_108_GenevaThe Peugeot 108 may be more conventional but it’s more successful. Peugeot has a new-found confidence, with good design and excellent quality now extending across a young vehicle range, so it’s transplanted those values into the 108. It wants to be taken seriously so has used the car to give us a large-car-in-a-small-car package, with plenty of options focused on luxury and technology, giving a visceral quality to a sophisticated-looking city vehicle.

These three cars are being produced in the same factory but despite fundamentally being one vehicle they’re remarkably distinct. The Toyota and the Peugeot, however, share something which elevates them – they project a clarity of purpose and a fit with a wider corporate vision. In brand terms, that’s essential.

Geneva brand digest #1: MINI – be coolest, not smallest

The Geneva motor show finished yesterday and, quite rightly, the cars were the stars. But in an industry where all manufacturers make high-quality products and brand is the vital differentiator, it’s worth looking behind the cars at the brand issues.

1403_MINI_Clubman_Concept-600x375MINI: Not only was BMW testing the limits of own Ultimate Driving Machine brand ethos by launching the first front-wheel drive car to wear the badge, and a small MPV at that, it also showed the largest MINI yet. Larger, ironically, than the original Mini’s British Leyland stablemate, the Austin Maxi.

New generations of models always grow larger. But at 4220mm the concept version of the Clubman shown in Geneva is a huge 260mm longer than the current car, which it will replace in 2015. To give some context, a Golf is 4199mm and a rather roomy Ford B-Max just 4077mm. And the outgoing Nissan Qashqai was barely longer at 4330mm.

BMW’s MINI has been a huge success. You can’t argue with the sales figures, or the success of the new Clubman from a design point of view for that matter. It’s lovely. But the growth spurt has prompted the company to spout a flawed new public rationale: that what’s important is for MINI models always to be the smallest cars in the segments they compete in.

That’s rather contrived and a dangerously fragile brand claim: segments are changing, new ones are emerging, and MINI will simply nominated whichever suits it best – hence the much-quoted target for the Clubman of the fully-formed, and fully priced, Golf Estate. But MINI is a lifestyle brand defined by emotional values, not parameters and categorisations decided by market research companies, data providers and industry analysts.

In addition, another manufacturer can simply produce a model which mimics the MINI, but is slightly smaller – and yet beat it for interior space because MINI packaging will always be compromised by the need to communicate the brand in an instantly recognisable way through external design language.

Far better than being smallest to say that MINIs must always be coolest – more design-led, more fun and more loved than their competitors. That’s an easy thing to achieve, and an impossible thing to measure. Subjective, emotional, I-want-one values. Ideal for a lifestyle brand.

Recovery gets real at the Geneva motor show

genevaWith the glitter of last week’s Geneva show’s press day reveals having been swept away and the dry ice cleared, now’s a good time to reflect on the what it meant for the business.

The Geneva show always provides an annual shot in the arm for the motor industry. It’s at the start of spring, in a bubble of snow-capped mountains and clean air, with the God Particle leaving nearby. Switzerland has no OEMs so it’s neutral – no Frankfurt or Paris-style shows of national strength. And it allows the niche producers to sit among the big players in the main halls, so exotica and design are as prominent as commoditised volume cars. It’s a good place to be, even in a post-recession landscape.

But, ironically in a market showing the first signs of sustainable recovery, this year the event came with an unusually large dose of reality. It’s as though the industry doesn’t want to push its luck, to be distracted from a hard focus on that recovery. Which is hardly surprising: in spite of five consecutive months of growth in Europe, sales are still a very long way off pre-recession levels – three million units in fact. Almost all of the OEMs are losing money in Europe, and incoming PSA CEO Carlos Tavares was quoted in Geneva saying that making money hasn’t been part of its culture, and neither was it at his previous employer, Renault.

So it was appropriate that many of the key press day launches were focused on the more fertile market opportunities. But that paradoxically comes with some challenges – for both bottom lines and brands.

Renault_TwingoThe rash of new city cars from Toyota, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault will deliver volumes. They’re cars for our time – cheap, urban cars with an injection of fashion, fun and flair. But small cars and small price tags also offer small margins, especially when they have the quality demanded by downsizers and the Apple generation. The development cost-sharing for the Toyota Aygo, Peugeot 108 and Citroen C1 will have helped, as will the Renault’s Twingo’s joint development with Daimler’s next-generation Smart. But these are not the cars those companies really want to be shifting. They’re cars for the marketers, not the FDs, better for long-term customer acquisition and upselling than short-term profits.

BMW_2_Series_Active_Tourer_at_the_2014_Geneva_Motor_Show_BMW_52185BMW’s 2-Series Active Tourer has properly given its brand and marketing people something to think about. It’s two things a BMW has never been before: front-wheel drive and a family MPV – in effect, an aspirational Kia Carens. Mercedes-Benz has trodden the MPV path already with the A-Class, and has reverted from a clever, one-box design to a conventional hatchback. The B-Class has retained the one-box shape, but Mercedes makes vans; BMW makes the Ultimate Driving Machine.

However, BMW’s strategy is conservative compared with what led to the Geneva debut of the Porsche Macan compact SUV. Barely a decade ago, ‘Porsche’ and an ‘SUV’ didn’t belong in the same garage, let alone the same sentence. Now, thanks to the Cayenne, they’re synonymous, and over half of Porches are front-engined and four-wheel drive. The SUV may have saved Porsche but the company made the SUV a global phenomenon.

I’m not sure BMW will be hoping that it does the same for the front-wheel drive people carrier. It’s brand people may have to be as clever as its engineers over the coming years.