Tucked in and around the nooks and crannies and corners separating the scores of new-model introductions and unveilings, one could find fear and caution, worry and the occasional bit of optimism at this year's Geneva auto show.
The seven massive halls of the sprawling Palexpo exhibition grounds – all clustered together beside Geneva's increasingly decrepit airport – were, as usual, stuffed with sheet metal and hope. I sensed a jumble of nervous energy, too. Like all the years before, the cars ultimately were the starts at this 83rd Salon International De l'Auto. But there were many interesting stories behind them and that's what makes global shows like Geneva so entertaining.
Let's face it, everyone in the industry is nervous and uncertain because of this simple fact: the car business does not control its own fate. This, of course, makes for anxious car company bosses. They know that the industry's products do not always win out because of their standalone excellence. Not always. Instead, what determines success or failure for most new models are things beyond the control of all the car companies put together: continent-hopping economic issues, social change and government involvement to the point of micro-management.
To be a top car boss is to be part pitchman, part soothsayer, part diplomat, part cheerleader and part Wizard of Oz, hoping no one will peek behind the curtain to see how powerless the heads of multi-billion-dollar global companies can often be. The irony is that no one with any sense should question how nimble and creative the auto industry has become. It's mostly a reactive business now, reacting to constantly unfolding events, many of them unpredictable.
To survive and profit, car companies in 2013 regularly face global economic calamities, smart and demanding consumers, the ratcheting of increasingly tough environmental/fuel economy regulations and a youth market – the future of the business – that is fickle, has zero brand loyalty and is often indifferent or even openly hostile to car ownership. The new vehicles popping out of factories these days are astonishing – varied, remarkably fuel-efficient for the most part, loaded with technology, safe, reliable and often even profitable.
So welcome to Geneva, a global auto show held on neutral ground (no car company calls Switzerland home) that is generally a celebration of the auto industry. I marvel at this industry's creativity and resilience. We saw scores of products unveiled to the world, and if there was a theme to it all, it was innovation. That's a clichéd notion, overused and generally under-delivered. But not based on what we saw in Geneva.
Imagine you're me, wandering the floor with all its energy and bustle. Over there, at the Alfa Romeo stand, Fiat's sporty brand unveiled the stunning 4C coupe that has a 1.7-litre turbo engine and will be built by Maserati in Modena. We are being led to believe that the 4C will lead Alfa's charge back into the North American marketplace. We've heard this before, of course. Alfa has teased us about a return for several years now; this time, it looks as though Alfas are coming.
Then, 100 paces away and up a steep escalator, shouldered in among the Volkswagen Group's astonishing display of Porsches, Bugatis, Lamborghinis, Golfs, Golf wagons and more – well, Audi, the group's profit centre, unwrapped the A3 e-tron. It takes plug-in hybrids to a new level of performance and anticipated affordability. Look for it in Canadian showrooms by 2015.
Wolfgang Durheimer, Audi's product head and the former development boss at Porsche, walked me around the car, talking about its 55-kilometre range on lithium-ion batteries and its 1.4-litre TFSI gas engine, the one on board to assuage range anxiety.
"Many people will not ever use the petrol engine," he said, noting the battery range is enough to handle most commutes and a recharge takes 2.5 hours using a 240-volt outlet. Power? It is rated at 204 horsepower. Durheimer promised that driving enthusiasts will not be disappointed, noting the car has twice the range of the Chevrolet Volt and twice the handling abilities, too.
Over at BMW's Mini stand, Kay Segler, the brand's effervescent head, was touting the abilities of a racy model that is about the same size as the A3 e-tron, but nothing like it at all – the Mini Paceman John Cooper Works. Where Durheimer talked slick handling in a car with low emissions and plug-in batteries, Segler sang the praises of his car that "turns every stop line on a city street into a starting line and every highway into a finishing straight."
Segler's John Cooper Works Paceman has a four-cylinder turbocharged engine "pumping out 218 horsepower, lowered sports suspension, and Mini ALL4 all-wheel-drive." To back up Mini's racing bona fides, he then pointed to the Dakar Rally where Mini ALL4 Racing just had a second victory in a row. If you want to celebrate with Segler, write a fat cheque for one of only 11 John Cooper Works Countryman ALL4 Dakar Winner 2013 specialty models.
And then, from Mini to what I'd argue might prove to be the absolute best value in an open-air sports car: the 2014 Corvette Stingray convertible. Spectacular. General Motors' Chevy brand used Geneva to unveil the open-air version of what design chief Ed Welburn said is the halo car for not only Chevy, but GM. By showing for the first time the new ragtop Stingray in Geneva, GM was making a statement about its global aspirations for Chevy – which GM is aggressively growing around the world. As Chevy goes, so goes GM. The convertible Stingray was an exclamation point, then.
Remember, now, the all-new 'Vette is a performance car with numbers that suggest it will run circles around Porsches that cost twice as much. It has a fully electronic top that can be lowered remotely using the car's key fob. The top can also be opened or closed on the go, at speeds of up to 50 km/h.
The 2014 Corvette Stingray, coupe and convertible, goes on sale around the world late this year. In a signal of seriousness, GM will even sell left-hand-drive models in countries where they drive on the wrong side of the road. The Corvette, said Canadian Susan Docherty, president and managing director of Chevrolet and Cadillac Europe, is the face of Chevy around the world. The convertible version just had to be unveiled in Geneva.
I cannot wait to drive it. Yes, the design is cutting-edge, but it's the engineering that should grab your attention. Under the skin is a new aluminum frame, which is 57 per cent stiffer and 45 kilograms lighter than the current steel frame. All 'Vettes will get the new LT1 6.2-litre V-8 with its estimated 450 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. And pay attention to this: GM says it added no structural reinforcements to the convertible, so both models share almost identical power-to-weight ratios.
Not surprisingly, within sight of the Stingray's unveiling, Porsche celebrated the 911's 50th anniversary in 2013 by unwrapping the fifth-generation 911 GT3. Porsche made no bones about this one: it's the purest Porsche in the entire lineup. Everything about the car is new, from the engine to the transmission, from the body to the chassis. All new and ready for the track, where you just know the Porsche people would love to stomp upstarts like that sexy Chevy just down the aisle. Porsche Canada says the GT3 will start at $148,800 when it goes on sale late this year.
Again with some numbers: the 3.8-litre flat-six engine is rated at 475 hp and will reach up to 9,000 rpm if the spirit moves you. There's a dual-clutch gearbox developed for the GT3 and the engineers fell all over themselves explaining the active rear-wheel steering. This is a first for Porsche. Depending on the speed, the rears steer in the opposite or the same direction as the front wheels. More agility, more stability.
Porsche has plenty of history, and so does Chevy. But Kia? This part of the story illustrates the change under way in the car business. Parked right beside the Mercedes-Benz stand, the South Korean brand stole attention with what the company called a concept car "looking every centimetre a road-legal racer – the Provo."
Porsche and so many others used Geneva to showcase supercars that sell for $100,000 or more, sometimes several million, in fact. Kia took its turn by punctuating a different message. That is, older auto makers may be busy in the high end of the market, but upstart Kia – and its parent, Hyundai – are chasing something that approaches world dominance with sexy cars for the masses, not just millionaires.
The Provo, said Kia, "mixes ultra-modern technology with a self-confident and agile look to deliver an exciting new B-segment car for enthusiasts." B-segment means small and affordable. But not raw or unsophisticated. This low-riding coupe-style hatchback blends a gasoline-fueled turbocharged engine with regenerative-electric motors. The result is a racy hybrid. Want to know where Kia is heading in small cars? Look here.
Former BMW Canada CEO Hendrik von Kunheim was nearby and he had plenty to say about the ambitious. and what I'd call voracious, Hyundai-Kia conglomerate that Von Kunheim knows all too well, now that he is in charge of BMW's business in Asia (except China) and Africa. South Korea is among the many countries for which he is responsible.
"Mark my words and you can quote me on this: Hyundai-Kia will be the largest auto maker in the world within five years," he said, noting the astounding energy and commitment he sees in Korean industry every time he visits, which is often. Add admiration to that mixture of fear and caution, worry and the occasional bit of optimism at this year's Geneva auto show.