Porsche's show-stopper

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Every year on the eve of the Geneva Motorshow Volkswagen has a little pre-show bash. Well, not that little to be honest. As befitting a car company now rated the largest in the world by vehicle production, there was a guest list numbering thousands and presentations from every brand huddled under the VW umbrella. It is the biggest industry gathering at what remains the most important motor show in the world.

This year was no different. One after another the bosses of VW, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti came and displayed their wares. In particular I liked the look of the Audi A1 though its predictable interior will disappoint anyone hoping for something as funky as you’ll find in a Mini which, after all, is the car the A1 was put on earth to beat.

Then when all appeared to be done, one more car came down the catwalk. We’d not expected Porsche to be here. It was presumed that this year as last (when Porsche had just been absorbed by VW) the fiercely independent Stuttgart folk were still not in the mood for this kind of group therapy. We got that wrong.

I’ve never been at a show and experienced what I call an E-type moment – an unveiling so shocking and ground-breaking it can snap shut the mouths of a thousand journalists in a single instant. These days there are no surprises at motor shows – everything is necessarily trailed far in advance. Yet when Walter Röhrl drove the Porsche 918 Spyder (above) into that room, I don’t believe a single person not in the employ of VW knew it was coming.

There’s been talk of a new Porsche supercar to replace the 2003 Carrera GT for some time, but it was not only its timing that surprised us, it was the car too. Using the GT’s carbon tub, it’s powered in part by the 500bhp, 3.2-litre V8 from the LMP2 RS Spyder, with a further 218bhp from a lithium battery-powered electric motor. And though the car has yet to run in anger, Porsche’s simulation work suggests it will lap the Nürburgring faster than the GT.

What it is, then, is a full plug-in hybrid, capable of emitting just 70g/km of CO2 around town, that will hit 60mph from rest in 3sec and will likely be the fastest road car Porsche has ever made. And though it remains a concept, make it they will. Porsche boss Michael Macht has been apparently overwhelmed by the response to the car and has a lengthy list of credible buyers ready to put a sizeable chunk of money against their name in the order book. Porsche’s recent history of putting its concept cars into production is also unbroken. It usually takes about three years, though with the tub, engine and VW’s bank balance already available, I expect we’ll see a production version in less than two.

The 918 name seems derived from nothing more complicated than 917+1. It was unveiled in the presence of Ferdinand Piech, the most important man in the VW empire and father of the 917, a car once voted by this magazine as the greatest racer ever. I’ve never heard his thoughts on this car but perhaps now, 40 years after its first World Championship, he wouldn’t mind talking about it…

The 918 Spyder meant we all turned up at the halls the next day knowing we’d seen the star of the show. Even so Geneva 2010 was the most enjoyable show of at least the last decade. Ferrari unveiled a hybrid 599 and Luca di Montezemolo announced there would be hybrid versions of all Ferraris within three years, bringing gasps from the crowd. Alfa Romeo showed us the Giulietta, upon which it must rebuild its reputation or risk irrelevance and oblivion, while Nissan took the wraps off its cool Juke crossover. There was more: the first front-drive Lexus which is hoped to double the European business of Toyota’s luxury offshoot, the new Ford Focus, Mini Countryman and, of course, the Jaguar XJ.

In short the show marked the moment the motor industry shook itself down, stopped feeling sorry for itself and recognised that the only way forward was through making innovative and interesting cars. After so much gloominess for so long, it was refreshing.