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Friday 4th March 2011


GENEVA SHOW - FROM THE HOT SEAT

The PH/SEAT competition winners return and get typing...


Our story begins as we gently nose out of PH HQ in Teddington. It is daft-o-clock, very cold, and  we've met our PH chaperones and taken possession of the Cupra R. The Mercedes C63 is almost the perfect convoy lead vehicle. If you can't see it, you can just drop the window an inch and listen for it. A good number of dewy pasties are gently fermenting on the rear footwell HVAC outlet, and we're looking forward to a long day in the saddle.

First impressions of the Cupra R are generally encouraging. As a self-confessed softie, I was expecting a tiresome kart-like ride but whilst certainly firm, the car isn't uncomfortable. There's a little drama when the aux socket refuses to recognise the iPod, and we contemplate 12 hours of crackly French pop. However, the discovery of a functional second aux socket spares us from a Hallyday holiday.


The tunnel and Calais are left behind and as northern France undulates gently past, we get into a steady rhythm of (very) regular fuel stops, and games of RHD toll-booth teamwork.

At Troyes we leave the autoroute in favour of the twisty, but more direct D996 to Dijon. A 996 would have been nice but it certainly wasn't necessary, as the Cupra R came into its own. The road is a mixture of open elevated rollers through farmland and more intricate special stages (sorry, sections) through hilly woodland.

The Cupra R is, of course, strong enough to overcome grip in first and second and on uneven sections also in third, but the power doesn't unduly trouble the steering. Once fully hooked-up it goes, frankly, quite bonkers. More rocket than pocket, since it isn't a small car, but despite a bit of vagueness that can be attributed to the winter tyres fitted, the car is an excellent B-road device.


Around 9 we arrive at our hotel in Annecy. A very pleasant meal and a few Bieres de la France get us to midnight and agreement that tomorrow will again be a very early morning.

And so to the show. Accredited as Maurice Oxford and Mark Faure, we head to the press room. It is probably portentous that everyone is given a can of Red Bull on the way in, since there is an awful lot of work going on. There is the atmosphere of an examination hall. It is almost silent but for the patter of 500 keyboards, and the gentle rustle of frazzled people double-checking statistics in directories.

Out in the show, there is one unmistakable first impression. Alternative power is usually a subject handled by manufacturers at motorshows in a similar way to the Margaret Thatcher exhibit in a mining museum. Not any more. Amongst the many manufacturers whose leading display was hybrid technology were BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls-Royce.


For the first time, I felt that there was a genuine shift in focus. Performance details were hard to find, yet eco credentials were applied in large decals to the flanks of cars of every size and style. If the Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times' is coming true for all of us, perhaps nowhere more does it apply than in the powertrain departments of the car industry.

Despite the almost universal focus on emissions, however, there was still a great degree of uncertainty amongst the manufacturers about how it will actually be manifested. I suspect that this will continue until a consortium of manufacturers can agree some common formats and standards that will make viable the necessary infrastructure to support mass adoption of these technologies into 'vanilla' motoring.


Not that any of this seems to be obviating the performance car. There were, as you'd expect, many impressive concepts and debuts.

The new Lamborghini Aventador, despite huge weight of expectation, still managed to be breath-taking. It is utterly fabulous, everything a silly supercar should be, and my favourite production car of the show. Lamborghini didn't exhibit a Gallardo, in favour of three Aventadors, and the smaller car wasn't missed.

The Lexus LFA was trying its best to look tough, but custard yellow really doesn't flatter it. Nevertheless, whilst the price is outlandish, if the LFA's ultimate purpose is to inure us to the idea of a Lexus 911-competitor and to quickly create a heritage for such a car, then I think it has worked.


Rolls-Royce were in provocative form, showing a Phantom, bonnet opened to reveal not an engine but a cache of batteries. A bold move, and if there's one example in Geneva of how quickly the world is changing, this might be it. Get beyond the initial surprise though, and it may actually make a lot of sense, as electric drive may deliver exactly the attributes Rolls-Royce aspire to create in their engines. If the big issues of range and recharge-times are adequately addressed, this could potentially actually improve the car whilst almost incidentally fulfilling any ecological or legislative imperatives.

Lotus had an interesting stand. From their previous small, mid-hall low-rise stand, Lotus now boast a very large and impressive two-storey stand to rival any other in Geneva. It demonstrates Lotus' new-found mojo very well. Surprisingly though, the 5 new models which last year shocked the industry in one huge unveiling, were present only in the form of small models in Perspex cases. Yet stand-space was found for an F1 car and an Evora GT racing-car, which both seemed slightly esoteric and less relevant than the proposed new cars.


An Evora hybrid simulator featured individually controlled electric motors for each rear wheel, offering some intriguing dynamic possibilities. More controversially, the system arbitrarily interrupts torque delivery to simulate gearchanges through a hypothetical 7-speed gearbox, in concert with a front-mounted speaker that plays a completely synthetic representation of any engine noise you choose. Legislation is to force electric cars to make some noise so I suppose a Ferrari V8 or Lamborghini V12 is preferable to Crazy Frog or Mr Softy-Top's Greensleeves.

BMW left me a little disappointed. What I thought was the most exciting car they had to show, the 1 Series M, was tucked away anonymously in a tiny alcove at the back of the stand. Worse, once you found it, you discovered that BMW have hidden the car's most arresting feature, that extrordinarily wide rear track, by backing the car almost up to the wall.


Jaguar restored my spirits though, by unveiling the XKR-S. The car received extended applause from the assembled audience. I thought the Jaguar presence was overall the strongest at the show. Every car not only a good product in itself but a genuine reflection of the marque's character.

The Range Rover Evoque was also well-received (though not by me, is it the best faux by faux by far?) but the super-luxury Range Rover Autobiography Ultimate Edition was really just a comprehensive re-trim. The rumoured £120k price feels like too much for me, but then, lots of things feel like too much for me.


The Alfa 4C couldn't be ignored, as it was surrounded all day by crowds two-deep, and this was just press-day. They'll need to uprate the glass fence for the rest of the fortnight. It was a concentrated shot of Alfa Romeo and the whole thing was achingly desirable. If it's under £30k, prepare to get very, very bored with it, as they'll be everywhere. 

Lunch was taken upstairs at the Seat stand, on their terrace of a thousand halogen suns. The hospitality, food and drink were all fantastic, and on the way out I asked our waiter to compliment Mr Pacho on his excellent juice.

My favourite two concepts were both rakish saloons. In second place was the Mazda Shinari, which is said to hint heavily at the next Mazda 6. It is very stylish indeed, without the Imperial Stormtrooper toughness of many of the other concepts on show.


My favourite, although not a debut, was the Citroen Metropolis. If the Maybach had looked like this, and I see little reason why it couldn't have, then things might have gone very differently. Elegantly, but not determinedly French, I can't envisage many occasions where it wouldn't be the coolest car present.

Stinker of the show? The Fornasari. Looking like the progeny of the Lagonda 4x4 concept and Sloth-of-The-Goonies, with a nasty dose of gigantism. Looking at it was redolent of childhood  admonishments 'not to stare'. They called it the RR99. I'd have called it the Merrick XL and locked it in the 1 Series M's unfindable dungeon.

Silliest feature was to be found in the back of the Maybach 62S. Almost apologetically lonely at the back of the Mercedes stand, the Maybach was actually a beautiful spec, and as nice a Maybach as I've yet seen. Sadly, all this was undone by a little plastic ball akin to that supplied with a box of Ariel Ultra. It was fixed proudly on top of the rear centre console and there was no ignoring it. I was corrected with considerable gravity that it was not there in case of non-biological attack, but was a perfume atomiser, ready to envelope some lucky Paphitis in 'the Scent of Maybach'. I certainly scented something, but it wasn't Maybach.


As evening fell, with aching feet and a hankering for a sit-down, we returned to Seat who were hosting a bit of a party whilst the PH team worked hard filing the day's copy from the press room. Ours was clearly the better end of that deal.

Back in Annecy we had some more Bieres de la France, and put the world to rights before a good nights sleep. On the road again, thoughts turn to the Cupra R's much-debated engine-noise speaker. None of the nice noises emanating from the front seem at all artificial or synthetic, and yet, under load at low revs the car sounds a lot like an Impreza. This is unexpected and a bit weird, but not at all A Bad Thing. So whilst I thought in principle it was silly and unnecessary, in practice since I couldn't isolate and identify the speaker's efforts, it is actually either very very good or doesn't work at all.

After 1500 miles the snag-list with the Cupra R is limited to the dodgy aux socket, a sat nav which has heard of Geneva but is keeping it a secret, and steering wheel buttons that fall directly under the heel of your hand. More than once I was taken by surprise by a robot loudly demanding to know whom I wanted to call, and unfortunately always at moments requiring only calls of calm, good judgment.

But these are just small things. The Cupra R is great fun, genuinely quick, and for a modern car, reasonably delicate and involving. We really enjoyed it.

A very late return to Teddington saw us flop exhaustedly into my now comedically slow and soft 190e and trundling back north. It had been a great adventure. Hard work but lots of fun, with new friends made and lots of good memories. Our sincere thanks are due to all at PH and Seat for making it happen. And so, finally, to bed.

Report and Pictures by PHer Mike - aka BarnatosGhost - and his mate Dan. Good work, chaps!

See more of their pictures here...

Author: Chris-R