2009 Geneva Auto Show Report

There’s little question at this point that the worldwide automotive industry is under siege, but yet the show must go on. And this week, the stage lights are shining brightly on the 2009 Geneva Auto Show. With budgets slashed and expectations lowered, the automakers continue on their dramatic journey of remaking the modern car, as we know it.

The purse strings are pulled tight here at MPGomatic, for the moment. We hadn’t planned to make the trip across the pond with our cameras in tow to cover the show. But fear not faithful readers, we have something wonderful to share. Joe Simpson of MovementDesign takes us for a brisk video walk around the 2009 Geneva Auto Show, followed by a brief Q&A that hits on a range of the most important vehicles on display.

Joe’s expert report is divided into three segments.

Part One features Infiniti, Hyundai, Ferrari, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Volkswagen:

Part Two features VW, Nissan, Honda, Fisker, EVs, Dacia, and Toyota:

Part Three features Kia, Alfa, and Ford:

MPGomatic: You’ve described the new Volkswagen Polo as a “a mini-Golf” with a high quality quality interior. Design aside, many folks on this side of the Atlantic have to look at the wee clean diesel’s whopping 70 mile per gallon (MPG) estimates with absolute awe. Can VW bring the Polo stateside for a reasonable price?

Joe: I suspect so. VW’s US strategy has been curious up until now. (Why no Scirocco, Polo etc?). Yet it seems highly likely they’ll bring the (even smaller) Up!, so I see no reason not to bring the Polo too – particularly when you bear in mind Ford is bringing the Fiesta and Chevy the Spark – with which it directly competes. The question is what VW views as a ‘reasonable’ price, and what the buying public of America perceives it as!

In Europe, VW occupies an enviable position as a sub-premium brand. Below BMW but above Ford. This allows it to charge more than mainstream brands. Yet in the US – you tell me – is it perceived the same way? I suspect it has less brand appeal than in Europe. Make no mistake though – VW shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s a very different company to the one it was 5 or 10 years ago, better placed than most in the auto sector right now, and now owned by Porsche – arguably the most successful and profitable car company going.

MPGomatic: Lets touch on hybrid aerodynamics for a moment. Automotive purists often rail about the Toyota Prius’ design, both inside and out. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing, with a great many folks falling into the latter category. Surely the 70 MPG VW Polo proves that high-MPG cars needn’t be cut from the same mold. Why are the car companies clinging to the thought that all hybrids have to have that look?

Joe: You’re right. The Polo certainly proves – as does the new E-class (which betters the Prius in pure aerodynamic drag terms) – that you don’t need Prius-a-like looks for good aero figures and efficiency. Yet obviously the Insight and the Volt share strong styling similarities with the Prius…why? That’s largely because the Prius has been positioned as a stand alone model line, which has become identified by consumers as ‘a green car’. It has had the market segment almost entirely to itself and has been around so long, that it has single-handedly defined a segment.

Car makers, being a largely conservative bunch – and who risk millions by getting a product wrong – clearly want a piece of the Prius market, and so are aping the Prius styling cues. That’s because they believe that sub-consciously or consciously, customers associate Prius-style with green and efficiency. It will be interesting to see whether anyone has any success in breaking this mould. I can’t see style leaders like BMW or Audi aping the Prius – yet they’ll bring hybrids to market before long. Also, watch how Ford does with the Fusion Hybrid. If it’s a success, then perhaps consumers are becoming more discerning, or starting to believe that car’s which don’t look like the Prius can be green too. But it’s a risky strategy.

The reason the Insight looks like the Prius, is thought to largely relate to Honda’s frustration at the relative lack of sales success of the previous Civic hybrid. This car looked a lot like the regular Civic, and it is thought that many would-be customers therefore bought a Prius instead – because they wanted to be perceived as green.

MPGomatic: While the 2010 Prius’ exterior design changes aren’t earth-shattering, the interior appears to be greatly improved. Hybrid sales have slumped with the drop in oil prices. Could the 2010 model’s warmed up interior be a motivating factor in reigniting interest? Will repeat buyers be lured back into the showroom?

Joe: That’s a really good question. Essentially, I can’t see a new higher quality interior, coupled with a slightly more aggressive exterior, pushing Prius sales – for now. Hybrid sales have clearly fallen off due to falling gas prices – and while I’d bet the new Prius will give sales a bit of a lift, I don’t think we will see the likes of summer 2008’s goings on (waiting lists for the Prius, and new Prius selling for more than list price) until gas prices go back up.

The new interior is clearly a step up from the old one, and a much nicer place to sit, but way behind anything from – say – Audi. I’ll be watching to see whether this conservative new Prius design means the car starts to lose ground in the market. It’s just a thought, but the Prius is – or will shortly be – attacked from both sides. The Insight should be much cheaper if you want a regular Hybrid, and if the Volt does arrive in just over a year (and it’s a big if) – who would bet against that becoming the next green ‘star’ car? – one that Hollywood a-listers and image/eco-conscious buyers alike, will see as the latest green must-have.

MPGomatic: The partnership between Ford and Smith Electric appears to have beared instant fruit, with the Ford Tourneo Connect electric van. It’s clear that they’re betting big. How would you see these vehicles being used in urban settings?

Joe: We ran a piece on our site about this a couple of weeks back – I personally think it’s a fantastic idea: http://movementbureau.blogs.com/projects/2009/02/whitevan-man-to-jump-start-fords-ev-programme.html In Europe we’re already used to seeing these small types of delivery vans all over our cities. In fact they almost provide a delivery backbone for us – I’ve always said they’re the European equivalent of the US pick-up truck. ‘Electrifiying’ the delivery van makes sense because in its role, it rarely covers more than 100 miles per day, which should be within the range of an EV. Also, they’re often bought be fleets. So car company’s aren’t going to come up against the kind of ‘range anxiety’ that they would with the average person who is buying a car.

In urban environments, these vehicles are going to be covering 50-100 miles a day, in stop-start traffic, and making multiple stops at different locations which are a few miles apart. In Europe, we currently use them to haul small amounts of equipment, or work crews – these vans are owned by city centre stores, telecoms companies, wine merchants, postal and delivery firms, etc. I’d see them being used for similar purposes in US cities… Ultimately, I don’t think enough has been made of this idea yet. It’s a really big land mark – some of the guys who’ve been working on the electric sports car start ups in California have long been saying this area was a huge potential market for EVs. It’s great to see Ford and Smith jumping into it.

MPGomatic: The earliest Ford Focus models were quite popular here and had parity with the European version. Alas, popularity wained over the years. Sales of the Americanized Focus jumped when gasoline prices spiked last year, but have since leveled off. Ford is ready to change the game, once again, with the new Iosis Max Focus concept a radical departure from the Focus that Americans have been accustomed to seeing. Will the production version jump start the market?

Joe: I hope so. You’ll see from my video coverage that I wasn’t a huge fan of the Iosis Max, but there were plenty of people in Geneva who were, and there’s no denying it’s a hell of a lot more appealing-looking than the current US Focus! I dearly hope that Ford can bring their new breed of ‘Kinetic design’ European vehicles to the US, and that they sell well. The current European Focus is a brilliant (if slightly bland-looking) car, which bears no comparison with its US name-sake. So I think that Ford are unquestionably doing the right thing by bringing the euro versions over. But, I worry about this strategy, because it has been tried in the past, and has failed.

Talking to people in the US, I wonder if the actual names of the vehicle have a lot to do with this perception. So “Focus” to a European means a good, well built, fun to drive, practical family car. In the US I suspect it means something different. I think Ford missed an opportunity by not sticking with “Verve” for the Fiesta, and if they keep the name “Focus” for the next generation of car in the US, no matter how good it is, might it suffer from being associated with its predecessor of the same name?

MPGomatic: The $2500 Tata has captured the imagination of many. It would seem that a mass-produced vehicle at this remarkable price point could offer mobility to millions, at the sacrifice of safety and air quality. Is the cost to society worth it?

Joe: There are two ways of looking at the Nano question. You can either say that opening up car ownership and mobility to millions more will prove nothing more than a societal and environmental disaster. Or the other way of looking at it (which I favour) is to say this: The car was designed to overcome the carnage that occurs on India’s roads every day. Entire families, traveling as one on motorcycles – are killed in (mainly low speed) accidents. The Nano’s never going to receive 5 stars in a crash test, but Indian road conditions are so different that it is questionable how relevant a measure this is. So in the low speed accidents which are most common, the Nano may actually ‘save’ lives, because it will protect its occupants, who would otherwise have been traveling, unprotected, on motorcycles.

In terms of emissions, it apparently has better fuel economy than the Prius that is about to be replaced, so they’re not that far off the mark, efficiency-wise. What we need to hope and encourage to happen, is for developing country’s transport fleets, to leap-frog to future propulsion technologies such as compressed air, electric or even hydrogen, very quickly for their vehicles. The big question is whether the world can truly cope with millions of more cars. Unfortunately, that’s a question all of us need to ask. And until we find new, better, innovative ways to move about in the developed world, we’re going to struggle to impress our hopes and fears on the developing one.

Many thanks to Joe for the chance to feature his 2009 Geneva Auto Show walkaround and keen insight. Be sure to check out The Movement Design Bureau’s Re*Move blog for more coverage of the show.

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