Road Cars

So it's happened. Bentley's much-threatened SUV finally broke cover at the Geneva Motorshow and if its first job was to grab as many headlines as possible, it succeeded beyond every imaginable expectation. At a show where Lamborghini and Ferrari showed perhaps their most exciting-looking cars of the last generation, all anyone wanted to do was talk about the Bentley.

Whether Bentley staff will be pleased with what was being said is another matter. Reaction varied from indifferent to aghast with a solid middle ground of really rather shocked in between. Of course Bentley's biggest mistake was to show their vast, inelegant and inappropriate SUV in the salubrious surroundings of Geneva. If it had waited a month for the Beijing show, it might have passed off as comparatively tasteful amid the monstrosities that tend to pop up in that part of the world come show time.

The EXP9 F can, however, be defended on two counts: first it will undoubtedly sell in large quantities and for big money in China, Russia, the Middle East and the US. Second, it remains a 'concept' for now. The production car is undoubtedly no more than three years away, but that does give Bentley some room in which to reconsider the car's appearance: if it were gorgeous or anything other than damnably ugly it would sell in even greater numbers without dragging the marque's image through the mud. And a mere two days after the show, at least one Bentley executive was admitting in private that they needed to look at it again.

Other companies seemed to have a clearer understanding of what is expected of their brand, none more so than Ferrari. While Bentley, Aston Martin, Maserati and even Lamborghini are either actively designing or at least seriously flirting with the idea of making an SUV, Ferrari has ruled out such a move.

Instead Maranello brought to Geneva a new flagship called the F12 Berlinetta to replace the 599GTB. Unlike Ferrari's last offering, the capable but compromised FF, I found the F12's proposition utterly compelling. I must reserve final judgement until I drive one, but on paper and show stand alike, it appears everything you could hope a front-engined, V12 Ferrari to be. This is the configuration Enzo Ferrari chose for every road car to bear his name from the birth of the company to the mid-engined Boxer in 1973 (although most do, Dinos should never carry Ferrari badges or prancing horses) and it remains the type that best defines the marque.

But what I like most about the F12 is that it shows Ferrari's understanding of what is required of a 21st-century supercar. Namely not just more, but less. So while power has somewhat predictably risen, all the way to a scarcely believable 730bhp at 8700rpm from its normally aspirated 6.3-litre motor (can you imagine how that's going to sound?) the car is actually smaller in every area and lighter too. Compared with the 599GTB at launch, it also uses 30 per cent less fuel.

However Ferrari insists the real step forward it has made with the F12 is in its aerodynamics. During the guided tour I was shown how air slipping into those deep bonnet channels was used to smooth out turbulence emanating from the wheel arches and how the cooling ducts for the front brakes only opened when sensors detected brake temperature reaching a critical point. I asked whether the car has an F1-style blown diffuser and as told the company did not want to talk about that at present. So, yes, it does.

Meanwhile Jaguar finds itself in a predicament. Thanks to its cars being beautiful, well received and increasingly perceived as reliable, more people want to own a Jaguar now than in recent history: if a product's sales were measurable only by the public's desire for it, all Jaguar's problems would be over. As it is, last year it sold just over 50,000 cars, which makes it not a minnow among its German rivals, but something closer to plankton.

Why? Simply put, a product needs to be more than merely desirable before it will sell. Until last year it was not possible to buy a Jaguar with an engine displacing less than three litres or powered by fewer than six cylinders. Which means Jaguar was cut off from the vast majority of its potential customers: those who might like the idea of big multi-cylinder engines but not half as much as the reduced price, taxation and running costs of cars with small four-cylinder engines. When Jaguar finally got around to putting one in the XF, it immediately accounted for 65 per cent of all XF sales.

A quarter of the cars in the XF's class are estates, of which, until Geneva, Jaguar had none. Now and thanks again to the expert hand of Ian Callum and his team, the XF Sportbrake is the best-looking estate on the market.

I almost missed the last of what turned out to be my three favourite cars at Geneva. So busy was I gawping at the gorgeously styled but stupidly named Emerg-E supercar concept on the Infiniti stand that I walked straight past its Nissan parent, and therefore its equally daftly entitled 'Invitation' hatchback.

Over the years Nissan has come up with some of the very silliest names for its products, including, Cedric, Leopard J Ferie and, my personal favourite, the Big Thumb Harmonised Truck, but they're usually attached to machines you'd not take very seriously. Not this time: the Invitation is a very real car that will go into production in apparently similar form at Nissan's massively successful Sunderland plant next year, creating 2000 new jobs in the process.

Its aim is to compete in the Fiesta-sized class with a car boasting the interior space of a small MPV and the style and kudos usually reserved for a low-slung coupe. The production version will differ very little from the car shown at Geneva though, thankfully, the name seems unlikely to make it off the stand. If Nissan has any sense at all, and it has lots, it will be called 'Note' after the car it is indirectly replacing. There was much else that was noteworthy at Geneva: Audi launched an all-new A3, though it looked so similar to the current car it would be easy to mistake for a minor facelift. By contrast the new Mercedes A-class could hardly be more different: for good or bad, Mercedes has abandoned the clever sandwich floor platform which has provided the A-class with such astonishing space efficiency since 1998, in favour of an entirely conventional configuration.

As for the Lamborghini mentioned earlier, I'd have dwelt sooner on the Aventador J were it not for the fact that total production will amount to a single unit, already sold for an undisclosed number of millions.

Such one-off commissions are more common than you'd think. Ferrari has been doing them for many years and the reason we know so little about them is that most get spirited away into private collections. However irrelevant, it was nice to see one on public view for once.