Whereas last year, the backdrop was one of uncertainty and impending doom about a near failure of our banking systems and capitalism as a whole as all major developed economies suffered steep recessions. The collapse in demand almost brought the car industry itself to its knees.
This year, the general feeling was that the worst of the crisis had passed, there have been some losses along the way but the industry must now adapt and prepare for a new era of austerity as governments and consumers alike begin the long process of paying back large debts, make important savings and generally tighten their belts for the future.
After years of decadence, consumers are beginning to place ‘value for money’ and ‘greater efficiency’ as new priorities, the Geneva motor show saw several car manufacturers beginning to make steps to address these issues.
Although the process of change can be painful, it is sometimes necessary, and despite the recent upheaval I believe that, because of the crisis, a more interesting future lies ahead than what would have been otherwise.
After years of car manufacturers indulging in profit heavy large trucks, power hungry saloons and gas guzzling SUV’s. Hybrids, energy efficiency and downsizing was the order of the day at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show.
The major manufacturers know that they must adapt to survive and the first step along the way is to shift the balance of power from larger to smaller cars. With regards to this, quite possibly the most significant production launch of the show was the Audi A1. Audis foray into the ‘Mini’ market is a significant one.
The design itself is very much what one would expect of today’s Audis.
The design integrity stems from the quality of execution rather than boldness of concept.
As with most recent Audis the car is beautifully surfaced with an impressive control of light and shade, particularly on the rear 3/4 shoulder line which translates beautifully from the side to the rear of the car.
Furthermore, the head/tail lamps graphics are of the highest quality, excellently enhancing Audis reputation as a maker of premium cars at whatever level.
The Mini influence is clear, particularly with the metal coloured cant rail, neatly dividing the glass house and body as two segments in a similar vein to the Mini which executes the same stylistic trick with its blacked out pillars and floating roof.
This car follows on excellently from the success of the recent A4, balancing the more emotive design language sought by the company whilst still displaying the clinical level of quality that is the company’s hallmark.
It is actually a better balanced shape than the larger A8, and displays a nice dovetailing of Audis evolution from the initial Nuvolari concept car in 2003 which began the Audi – Da Silva era.
A car which is likely to be a sales success for Audi as it, like other premium brands look to take their brand into new territories.
Geneva 2010 followed on from recent shows with a variety of manufacturers toying with alternative energy sources, mainly amongst concept vehicles.
There were an abundance of hybrids and full electrically powered vehicles. Whether the majority of companies are actually serious about developing these types of vehicles, or their presence is simply to appease the governments who have invested heavily in them.
In exchange for compliance in creating more environmentally friendly vehicles, is yet to be seen. Whatever their purpose, their arrivals have certainly freshened up the car design scene.
It is definitely an interesting day when we see both Ferrari and Porsche pander to the environmental brigade by unveiling hybrid power vehicles (although lesser so, in Ferraris case.)
Despite the potential scorn of the purest, the Porsche 918 Spyder was undoubtedly one of the stars of the show.
We are rarely treated to concept cars from Porsche and this fully running prototype had a number of interesting details, that derived mainly from the alternative power source and the more aggressive perception of dynamic efficiency.
A design theme that is likely to re-appear as car designers try to portray greater efficiency in their designs.
In the case of the Porsche, aerodynamic wheel covers, retractable air intakes and some interesting lime green details all enhance the hi-tech message.
Furthermore, the message of lightness and efficiency is enhanced with the vehicle’s relatively compact proportions.
More compact cars have less sheet metal and less sheet metal means reduced weight, increasing dynamic performance in every way.
Renault’s ZE concepts, which were initially unveiled in Frankfurt saw the French company taking the opportunity to portray new technology with a fresher design aesthetic.
All four ZE concepts saw Renault preview a variety of fresh graphical treatments to enhance the green message. All four vehicle looked very interesting in plan view with noteworthy roofs.
In particular the Zoe whose wild dotted layout gave the car a very fresh appeal, similarly the use of light blue contour lines on the Twizy helped to create an aesthetic that was both fresh and modern. Perfectly in keeping with the car’s technical innovation.
Interestingly Citroen challenged their designers to approach the vehicle in the way a fashion designer would.
Using this kind of role play has definitely created an interesting outcome.
The car has a very wild sculpted multi-layer bodywork with different hues used for differing panels and a riot of lines and surface changes.
The Citroen stand also contained the interesting DS3 and DS High Rider Concept, all different in character and in treatment. Something which is refreshing as more companies stick to the brand rulebook closer than ever before to create a coherent look.
Some query Citroen’s logic in having a range as diverse, yet the results for us the spectator are ultimately satisfactory and a joy to behold.
One further company to use an electrical powertrain as a source of visual inspiration for its car was Seat, who presented the Ibe concept.
The car itself was rather conventional in nature. A sporty hatch with compact proportions and a ‘wheel at each corner’ squat stance.
Yet, the car makes use of some very interesting design motifs with the headlights, grille and wheels all taking inspiration from a ‘circuit board’ to highlight the car’s electric powertrain.
Geneva 2010 also saw nearly all companies turn their back on larger SUV’s turning to smaller more compact mini-SUV’s such as the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman.
This is certain to be a trend that continues as car-makers look to address problems of urban mobility in a new economic climate.
Quite possibly the most interesting car at the show was the Opel Flextreme GT/E.
As with many other concepts at Geneva, this was another electrically powered vehicle, interesting in both concept and proportion.
It was the only car that was seriously beginning to preview a move away from more sculpted cars to something that is a little more graphically oriented.
It is interesting, but if one were to attend a motor show about ten years ago, you may remember that Audis Vorsch Sprung Deutsch Technik design language was in the ascendancy with a variety of manufacturers attempting to ape the relative success of the TT and the rest of the Audi range.
Geometric shapes, large cut out wheel arches, jewel like detailing and clean surfaces found their way onto a variety of cars.
This all began to change after Chris Bangle introduced flame surfacing to the world with cars such as the X-Couple and the Z4. Love or loathe those shapes, they have heavily inspired the rest of the car industry.
Indeed, the 2010 Geneva show still has numerous examples of cars that use this more emotive design language. In some cases very successfully such as the Peugeot SR1 which has a very energetic surface play that looks both exciting yet quite elegant at the same time.
Further examples include the Mazda 5, which has a very bold side panel, quite remarkable and amongst the boldest ever seen for a production car, considering the difficulty to stamp out this shape and the Hyundai I-Flow.
However, we may have reached a crossroads for this type of design language.
BMW originally began to use a more advanced surface development to highlight the dynamic supremacy of their cars, they believed that the most technically advanced cars on sale should have the most advanced bodywork.
However, BMW has already begun to pull back from the more avante garde nature of their shapes, becoming more evolutionary and conservative in style, slowly returning to the ‘same sausage, different length’ philosophy that Bangle tried so hard to dispel off.
This was evident with the BMW 5 Series, seen in Geneva. Comercial success counts and it has been mainly BMW’s competitors that have succeeded comercially from using a more diluted variation of the original Bangle design language.
BMW may have had the moral high ground but its competitors have been more successful comercially.
One further result of this trend for all car designers to follow fashion and use a more ’emotive’ design language has been to confuse several companies in its product range, developing products that run contrary to their own brand values. The Mercedes-Benz F800 Style Concept is one such example.
This is a very interesting form study (,although heavily derivative of the BMW CS of 2007) with many interesting features, and some quite stunning interior materials.
However, Mercedes-Benz as a company has built its success over a number of years for eschewing quality, solidity and elegance.
Indeed, the older S-Class models were said to have been designed using very large radii in the body surfaces to give an impression of thicker sheet metal, sharp surface changes would indicate flimsy bodywork and this was not what Mercedes were about.
This impression of solidity was the foundation of Mercedes design language for a number of years. The F800 may only be a concept but it is representative of the full range.
Unfortunately Volvo would also appear to have fallen foul of the same problem with the S60. Peter Horbury worked extremely hard in the nineties to build a modern and distinctive Volvo design language, the defining hallmark being the solid shoulder line. Unfortunately this has been ditched for a more fashionable floating shoulder line with the S60.
Let’s hope that his return signifies a return of Volvo using characteristics that complement the brand’s core values.
What makes the Opel Flextreme, along with the Meriva production car, potentially very interesting for car design is that they are using multi faceted graphical shapes to characterise the car as opposed to sculpture.
One may remember that during the last major crisis in the car industry, the OPEC crisis of the seventies. A more rational form came to the fore.
During this period, like now, people were forced into more austere measures and the resultant shapes for car design were more rational graphic oriented forms, of which Giugiaro’s first Golf is the most famous.
It will be very interesting to see if this trend reoccurs as the developed world prepares for a period of austerity after many years of boom. Decadent sculpture in design always tends to emancipate during times of economic hardship. One need only look at industrial design pre and post war to observe what may happen.
Times are different, technology is different but it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of the more sober visual themes on the Opel Flextreme GT being replicated in forthcoming shows along with some of the more interesting techno details from the electric-powered cars.
Indeed the Pinninfarina DueOttanta was one of the stars of the show displaying classic Pinninfarina styling for the Alfa Romeo marque in its centenary.
Along with last years Bo (also present this year,) Pinninfarina had one of the most impressive stands at the show with two designs that display real elegance and maturity.
Both demonstrate an economy of line and simplicity in form that may be subtle yet is devastatingly effective.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost, Maserati Gransport, Aston Martin range and Jaguar saloons.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost is a marvellous machine in its understatement, sense of purpose and beautiful execution of details such as the grille.
The Maserati Gransport’s retro inspired nose gives the car fabulous road presence and the rest of the design works beautifully in harmony with this to create a car of elegant aggression.
Similarly all of the Aston Martins on display (with the exception of the Cygnet) have similar qualities, excellent proportions, clean beautifully resolved surfaces and simple detailing.
What makes all these cars stand out is that they all demonstrate a consistency and brand sympathy, they aren’t designed in a car design vacuum, none of them are currently ‘on-trend,’ yet they exist and thrive in a moment frozen in time.
They all have distinctive design cues, yet the rest of the design is sympathetic to these cues, creating coherent and beautiful cars.
There is a particular maturity in all these cars in their surface development and execution. In a time of packaging constraints along with legislation making beauty even harder to achieve.
The trend in design at the moment is to say more, shout louder, one more surface interchange, even louder details.
The elegant restraint and simplicity of all of these cars is quite uncommon. And for this, they undoubtedly shine.