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Mercedes unveiled the “four-door coupe” CLS at the Geneva Show.

At the 74th Salon International de l’Auto

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Against an uncertain economic background and quite serious over-production in Europe, there was nevertheless an air of quiet optimism pervading the halls at the 74th Geneva International Auto Show. While few people were willing to put their necks on the line in talking up their prospects, the general feeling of doom and gloom was completely absent. As to be expected in neutral Switzerland, there was no one manufacturer that hogged the limelight, but it did give the Europeans the opportunity to show their wares on home ground for the first time this year.

The German vehicle manufacturers came out in a big way at Geneva. Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, in particular, all showed new models that they hoped would be the talk of the show. In the new A6, Audi opted for a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change with the new car sporting a brash and aggressive grille that had first seen the light of day on the A8 W12. It is a design feature that Audi designers say will be working its way down the model range.

The stars of the Mercedes-Benz stand were the so-called “four-door coupe” CLS and the revised SLK. This latter model is more than just a face-lifted version of the two-seater that has been in production since 1996, as it is altogether a new car. Sporting a body that borrows styling themes from the SLR supercar, it features a more-pronounced hood, steeply raked windshield and wider doors. It had transformed itself from being a feminine car into a masculine one (if one can be forgiven for saying so). The new CLS, on the other hand, seemed to be a model searching for a niche, sitting uncomfortably between the S and E-Class, while perhaps also impinging on CL territory. Mercedes execs, though, appeared to be confident that they had successfully discovered an unexploited market segment. Time will tell.

The Chris Bangle-inspired cars continue to pour from BMW, the latest iterations on show at Geneva being the 5 Series Touring and an M5 concept; sitting alongside them was the lovely 6 Series cabriolet that had already been seen in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show. Of the three, it was the all-muscle M5 that caught the eye because not only does it look the business, but it is also powerful, as sitting under the hood is a 5.0 liter V10 gasoline engine that is said to develop around 500 hp and 500 Nm (369 lb.-ft.) of torque. BMW claims that it can accelerate to 60 mph from standstill in under five seconds and reach 125 mph in 13 seconds. While it was displayed as a concept model, strong rumors indicate that it will go into production before too long.

While all three German carmakers were showing interesting and desirable new models, they were nevertheless all rather shaded by the subsidiary of one of them that showed a model for the first time that rather stole the show.

When Rolls-Royce unveiled the Phantom in Detroit last year, there were gasps of horror from some quarters, the huge radiator grille flanked by the small headlights disappointing many traditionalists. This has been reflected in the sales of the car, which are below expectations. So at Geneva, when the covers were taken off of the 100EX (Rolls reviving the “EX” coding for its prototype models), there were gasps of delight, for here was a car that looked every inch what a modern Rolls-Royce should be in its grace and beauty. Tony Gott, the British managing director, was at pains to say that the car was a concept only, but it was plain to see that it had been so well engineered that it is well on the road to becoming production-ready. It sports a toned down radiator grille that is not so brash and curved back onto the hood; the headlights are better proportioned; and the fenders are more stylish, perhaps indicative of some design features that will soon be adorning future Phantoms. An interesting feature is the machined-aluminum windshield frame joined onto the rest of the spaceframe to provide a really strong structure, while under the bonnet is a V16—the original Phantom V12 with a pair of cylinders added to either end. Although not one word was spoken about putting it into production, it would not be a surprise if the Corniche name—traditionally reserved for Rolls’ drophead models—was revived in the not-too-distant future.

Another drophead model to grab everyone’s attention was to be found on another BMW subsidiary stand. The Mini has surprised everyone with the enormous success it has had around the world, but BMW executives hope to increase that with the convertible, which indeed does look good. Partly developed and engineered by Open Air SYStems, a 50/50 joint venture between Pininfarina and the German company Webasto, it will come to market in Europe in June.

Another convertible that caught the eye came from the U.S. The last time Chevrolet offered a new drophead version of its Corvette was way back in 1962, so there has been a 44 year wait for the enthusiast—but what was on show at Geneva has made the wait worthwhile. “We designed the Corvette from the outset as an open car, so there’s no compromise in ride, handling and performance for the convertible compared to the coupe,” said Dave Hill, chief engineer for the Corvette and vehicle line executive for GM Performance Cars. “We sweated the details to ensure that the convertible driver has all the performance of the coupe, with surprising quietness and excellent storage capability for a roadster, top-up or top-down,” he said.

Another drophead that was eye-catching was also to be found on the GM stand. Inspired by the Peugeot 206CC, the compact new Opel/Vauxhall Tigra Twin Top is equipped with an electro-hydraulic retractable steel roof that was developed by the French company Heuliez. It was awarded the “Cabrio of the Year 2004” at the show, although some considered Volkswagen’s Concept C to be the most stylish folding hard top there.

Renault’s Wind concept was so good that many believed it presaged a new two-seater sports car along the lines of the Mazda Miata from the French manufacturer. If its Modus concept comes to production, it will be an ominous threat to both the struggling VW Golf and Ford Focus.

Disguised as a rally car, Citroen showed the C4 that will replace the Xsara, while on the Peugeot stand was the 407, a bread-and-butter sedan that has been in development for nine years. However, there was a great deal of debate about its visual appeal.

The same could be said of the new Rover V8. Representing quite an engineering challenge in converting a front-wheel drive model into a rear-wheel drive and with a huge Ford-sourced 4.6-liter V8 under the hood, the car sports a radiator grille that many compared to that found on the A6—only one that is even more tasteless. “It is a product of distinction and presence, with a new full-depth grille and front-end treatment a characteristic reminder of the refined power available,” said Kevin Howe, MG Rover’s CEO. The almost-universal feeling was that despite the brave face being put on this small British manufacturer, it is reaching the end of the line and has a very bleak future. Its executives, as to be expected, vehemently say otherwise, pointing to its relationship with Indian carmaker Tata as well as the XPower SV, a “race car for the road,” according to chief designer Peter Stevens.

Jaguar showed the new X-Type wagon, Aston Martin the new DB9, Land Rover the Range Stormer concept it had shown in Detroit while Volvo, the fourth member of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, the three-door YCC. Designed by an all-female team, this “ladies coupe” drew the largest crowds at Geneva. However, it is very unlikely that it will ever go into production although many of the design ideas are likely to be taken forward.

As far as Ford itself was concerned, there were no really earth-shattering models. The high-performance Fiesta RS concept attracted a great deal of interest, but the main news off the stand was the fact that former GM Europe design boss Martin Smith had been recruited to work alongside J Mays and Chris Bird. Paris in September will be Ford’s time with the launch of the new Focus.

Across the hall were the Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia stands. Having fallen from grace over the last few years, the Fiat Group was making a fightback with a number of new models, both production and concept, that showed there is life in it yet. The odd looks of the Fiat Multipla people carrier were finally rectified borrowing a front end from the recently launched Idea MPV that truly improved it. However, the star of the Fiat stand was the Trepiuno, a bubble-shaped concept that resembles the old Cinquecento. This was a three-adult-plus-one-child-seat car that is very cleverly packaged. While Fiat was careful to explain that it is only a concept, the overwhelming feeling was that the Italian company would miss a trick if it did not put it into production.

The Lancia Musa—the Fiat Idea with a Lancia face—showed that this ailing brand is all-but dead, unlike Alfa Romeo, which many feel is under exploited. Both the GT and Crosswagon, a development of the Sportwagon, looked superb, but it was left to the Italian design house Italdesign-Guigiaro to illustrate what its flagship model should look like. Built on the Premium platform that has been developed by the Italian carmaker as the basis for the next-generation 156, Sportwagon, Coupe and Spider, but stretched by 20 mm to 2,825 mm and almost five metres from end to end, the so-called “Visconti” is a work of art. It borrowed design cues from the Bugatti EB 112 and showed how even long cars can still be elegant. 

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