Tag Archives: Geneva

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.

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.

Davos? Next time take the car

Apparently trust and leadership were the buzzwords at Davos this year. A pity they were only talked about.

croppedimage780520-Davos-Schweiz-Winterlandschaft-Sunstar-Hotels-Davos2The much-quote figure of 1700 private flights bringing the world’s plutocrats into Davos for the World Economic Forum, where climate change was a headline topic, may be too good to be true. About half that number appears to be more likely. But it does highlight the fact that the annual Davos bonding session is, let’s say, something of a contradiction.

The clue’s in the name: it’s an economic forum. Growth may well be the key to reducing inequality, as many were saying last week, but it’s also handy for those more focused on improving their own quality of life. The place is summed up this year by the reported sighting of a monk checking his smart phone. And who knows if anyone saw the contradiction in Google’s choice of party entertainment, the singer Aloe Blacc (most famous song: I Need a Dollar)?

720x405-AP907210667509You couldn’t make it up. And you didn’t really need to. Given the fact that, after years of being pushed down the Davos agenda, climate change was back – and and launching the event with Al Gore/Pharrell Williams double act – what was the WEF (mission: Committed to Improving the State of the World) doing 5000ft up a mountain and 150km from the nearest airport and sizeable transport hub.

private-jet-over-snow-mountains-Pilots-Perspective-Travel-3Sixty-AirAsiaEven if the number of private jet movements was half that speculated, that’s rather inefficient in pilot-to-passenger ratios. And private jets burn more fuel in an hour than a car does in a year. That’s an inconvenient truth.

We know that these people need to move around quickly. We understand that having so many important people gathered together in a single place means we can interrogate their influence. We appreciate that the event focuses them and the outside world on the big issues. But.

Davos could look to an event like Editorial Intelligence’s Names Not Numbers, where some of today’s smartest and most influential people first got together (and still do) in the very real environment of a genteel British Victorian seaside town. It’s not parochial – it attracts an international audience, thinkers rather than figureheads, and the event has now spread to New York and Mumbai.

WEF’s Swiss venue and date early in the year make for an interesting comparison with the Geneva motor show (this year 2-15 Mar). It’s Europe’s major annual auto industry event, so leaders from all over the world fly in. But unlike Davos it’s held at sea level (or at least lake level), and is a 10-minute walk from a major airport and a five-minute train ride to the city centre.

20181_300Road transport contributes around 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions. But it’s one of mankind’s most important tools. Motor vehicles changed our lives. They mobilised us. They enable business. They transform the lives of people in rural communities. They offer humanitarian assistance. They help fight wars. We need them and they’re being reinvented for the modern world.

And Geneva highlights a car industry which achieves more than the lofty talking shop of Davos ever will. The carmakers have achieved minor miracles. In Europe the average CO2 emissions for all new cars will fall to 130g/km this year. The target for 2021 is 95g/km, which will be down 40% from as recently as 2007 – the year before the financial meltdown caused by the world’s political and business leaders, the same people who were at Davos 2015.

In the UK the emissions are down around 45% since 2000, because a buoyant market means that people are buying newer cars with cleaner tech. And all this is before mass adoption of ultra-low-emissions vehicles has even begun.

This year will see Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts, ahead of the UN-hosted intergovernmental climate conference in Paris – tried-and-tested formats for achieving little. Meantime 2015 will also see the first production hydrogen fuel-cell cars and the roll-out of zero-emissions autonomous vehicles. The auto industry is full of brilliant people who achieve results – fast.

What’s the betting that the next 12 months will also see another Davos World Economic Forum in which the same people will hear the same things said before listening to a pop star they haven’t heard of and climbing back into their Citations and Falcons with a diary note of the 2017 event?

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.