Road Cars

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This year’s exodus to Geneva for the world’s most important motor show was more than usually worth it. For those who turned up to a frozen Cobo Hall in Detroit in January to wander around stands sparsely equipped with largely old or uninteresting products and ponder where all the interesting cars had gone, Geneva provided the answer.

After two years of cutting down and staying home to watch daytime, Geneva marked the moment the motor industry dusted off the party frock and headed out once more. There was so much to see.

Happily my fondest hope, as alluded to last month, that Alfa Romeo would deliver the sports car we all knew was on the way came spectacularly true. In part at least. I’d assumed the 4C (right) would be a mainstream Audi TT/Merc SLK competitor, for that way lies the market volume and profits. Not so. In fact Alfa showed off a carbon-fibre, Dallara-chassised, 850kg mid-engined sports car which drew huge interest. It has a 235bhp engine, a 0-60mph time of under 5sec and a top speed in excess of 155mph.

It looked like the kind of concept designed to make customers drool over the idea of an Alfa Romeo once more, rather than actually pull out the chequebook and order one. So I thought it classy that Alfa left it to literally the last line of the press release before revealing the car will go into production next year. At current exchange rates, the price of the most exciting Alfa road car since before the last war is around £38,000.

Mini’s Rocketman concept was another of many small masterpieces in Geneva. Unlike the current range, which veers ever further from the concept of the original with each successive product, the Rocketman is just 10cm longer than the Issigonis car, yet still seats four (just) in much the same way as a Toyota iQ. It will go into production in a couple of years’ time, hopefully with an ultra-efficient hybrid or allelectric powertrain, plus a less ambitious name.

Morgan secured its future by revisiting its past. After the Alfa, it never occurred to me there could be a car at the show I might like more, but the new three-wheeler (top) came close. Not only is it beautiful, close examination suggested it’s also beautifully engineered. Perhaps it has taken Morgan too long to exploit fully its position in the market and the unique ability to get away with such shameless nostalgia. Imagine Ferrari producing a facsimile 250GTO or Lotus a carbon-copy Elan… But because Morgan has always dwelt in the past, the three-wheeler comes across not as some hideously inappropriate pastiche, but the most natural thing in the world.

Then came the supercars. Whether it was Lamborghini with its new Aventador, Ferrari and its FIT, Pagani and its inexplicably entitled Huayra or the Koeniggsegg Agera, all the exotics came to Geneva with new wares to peddle. One even came back from the dead: De Tomaso with a new Deauville.

So all the talk was of what a fun show it had been. Yet so too did the party lack something. We were served exquisite little delicacies, but you know what it’s like with finger food: the more you eat, the more you crave something substantial. And that’s what was missing. Where were the cars real people with real needs and budgets would be buying?

A trot through some of the big-hitters illustrates the point: Volkswagen showed a convertible Golf, BMW an M-version of the 1-series coupe. Audi had a strange idea of what the next A3 might look like, but not the car itself, as did Vauxhall with a Zafira concept. Land-Rover had a diesel-hybrid Range Rover concept, while Mercedes had a revised C-class and, to be fair, the new SLK. Porsche offered nothing save a hybrid Panamera.

There were a few genuinely new mainstream cars, like the Citroen D54 and Kia’s all-new Rio and Picanto, but they were the exception to a rule that if it wasn’t unaffordable or unusable, you weren’t going to find it in Geneva.
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What the show did provide is a tantalising insight into the future of Jaguar. Tantalising and concerning too. Jaguar appears suspicious of stability, as if the moment it finally rights the ship and sets a steady course it feels an overwhelming compulsion to veer off in some new direction. Six years ago the company was nowhere but now, with the XF, XK and XJ, it has conceived and expertly executed products selling in areas where profits should be high enough to offset necessarily low volumes. You’d think it’d want to sit tight.

Instead Jaguar wants to diversify further. In a refreshingly frank and only partly on-therecord conversation with its new brand director, Adrian Hallmark, I was given a clear picture of where Jaguar is going. What remains less obvious is how it’s going to get there.

Some I can share with you. The good news is that the oft-speculated, never seen small sporting ( ‘please don’t call it the E-type replacement’) E-type replacement is being worked on flat out. I quote, “I think our credibility would be in doubt if we didn’t have something to show you in the next year.” As expected it will sell against the likes of the Audi TT and Mercedes SLK, but at the premium end of that market.

Also, a Ford-sourced 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine will find its way into the XF, opening up 80 per cent of the market currently denied to the car. There will even be a fourcylinder petrol XJ, the first in the model’s 43year history, but only for sales in China where such a powertrain is essential to the market.

Then, as talk turns to the rumoured smaller model range, the tape stops. I can tell you Jaguar is not only interested in the idea, but acting on it. I can also give you Hallmark’s assurance that whatever it is, it is not going to be another X-type. Jaguar has learned from that mistake. From which I read it will focus not on the market mainstream, but its niches. I shouldn’t be shot for telling you Hallmark does not equate a smaller model to go hand in hand with a need to chase volume, and that he sees ‘premium’ as existing in all parts of the market.

The whole notion scares me because the niches Jaguar seeks are already full of BMWs, Mercedes and Audis, all with pre-existing platforms and a massive head start. Where I want Jaguar to be in positioning if not product is the territory vacated by Porsche when it decided to chase volume with gigantic offroaders and saloons. Small, expensive, and better than anything else.

Then again, the reason Porsche abandoned that turf was that it felt too vulnerable/small/ reliant on too small a product range for its survival. I expect it’s these fears that now drives Jaguar’s board onwards. Once again Jaguar is embarking on what could be a choppy ride to an unknown destination. At best it could finally allow Jaguar to realise the potential we all know exists in the brand, but the consequences of the strategy failing are best not dwelt upon. I shall be watching through my fingers.

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