Road car news

Eye-catching Lambo
Huracan steals the headlines at busy show | by Andrew Frankel

At most motor shows, the search for a star is rarely difficult. Someone will pull a rabbit from a hat or unveil a car whose existence was known but whose appearance was not, and there your star will be. This didn’t happen at Geneva: for while there was no stand-out superhero to suck all the attention away from other stands, it seemed that almost everyone had brought something that, for one reason or another, was worthy of attention.

Lamborghini probably produced the most attention-grabbing car, not just because its Huracan – replacement for the Gallardo – is its most important launch in more than a decade, but also because it looked so much better than it had appeared in the press photography. Rather than dull and predictable, it was revealed to be subtle and nuanced, enough of a Lamborghini to retain its existing customers but sufficiently tasteful to appeal to those who might never have considered the idea in the past. That said, I was a little concerned to learn from Audi’s head of engineering Dr Ulrich Hackenberg (de facto head of Lamborghini engineering, too) that the forthcoming R8 will use the same engine, suspension, transmission, steering and basic platform as the Huracan, albeit with a slightly longer wheelbase. If a Lamborghini comes to be perceived as differing from an Audi in looks alone, it will do as much harm to the former as it does good to the latter.

Audi’s contribution was an all-new TT, though you had to squint a bit to see it. Audi has received significant criticism for the car’s lack of visual imagination, but you can say the same about the last four generations of VW Golf and that’s not exactly harmed its prospects. The TT is a disgustingly successful car for Audi and the company has focused its efforts not in changing its look, which almost everyone already liked, but in addressing more pressing concerns such as its weight and perceived lack of driver appeal. So now it is lighter, quicker and more frugal. Audi also showed what it called a TT Sport concept powered by a 2-litre, four cylinder engine producing no fewer than 420bhp. I asked Hackenberg how far the wick would have to be turned down before it could become a production reality, to which he replied that the engine was ready to go right now, just as it is. If there is another 210bhp per litre engine in a production road car, with specific output unassisted by hybrid power, its name escapes me. Hackenberg says the engine will be used for a new TT club racer he’s developing, but that road-legal versions will be made available.

Strategic sense from JLR

It was a quieter show for British brands in general – particularly Jaguar Land Rover, which usually delights in stealing the thunder of its larger German rivals by unveiling a hitherto unseen car or concept.

Jaguar had no new product at all, Land Rover just a 25th anniversary limited-edition Discovery. But that didn’t mean the company had nothing to say. Despite the paucity of metal, this was a hugely significant show for both.

Jaguar used it to announce that its new small saloon – its most important product in a decade – will be called XE. Powered by a new generation of JLR petrol and diesel engines, it comes with the promise that some models will dip below 100g/km of CO2 while others will reach 186mph. It claims it will be the most advanced and efficient car of its type and is known to use the first aluminium monocoque in its class. Hopefully, all these factors plus a purposeful appearance will kill off any suggestion that this is somehow a replacement for the X-type, whose ugly appearance, ill-disguised Ford Mondeo underpinnings and unworthy engines made Jaguar’s last foray into this market such a disaster.

If anything, the news from Land Rover is more interesting still. For some time concerns have been expressed that the company has been so obsessed with expanding and renewing its vastly profitable Range Rover models, that poor old Land Rover had been forgotten. No longer. At Geneva it was announced that the Discovery would be upgraded from a simple product to an entire model line and sub-brand, as has been done for Range Rover. The first fruit of this new approach will be a Discovery-badged Freelander next year.

But this is only the start: what is really clever about the strategy is that it also provides the solution to the vexed problem of how you replace the Defender with a car that’ll appeal equally to trendy ‘urban adventurers’ and the military personnel and emergency services in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Although Land Rover will not confirm or deny as much, the answer seems to be that it will be replaced by at least two cars, both bearing Defender badging. So that’s the future of Land Rover, at least for the time being: three families – Defender, Discovery and Range Rover – each with multiple children and all living under the same roof. We’ll wait to see the products themselves, but the theory makes perfect sense.

Honda hits comeback trail

Geneva was also the place we saw the first sign of what Honda promises to be the comeback of all comebacks next year. On the list is a return to F1 in the back of a McLaren, a new hybrid NSX and the car you see above, the new Civic Type-R. This is allegedly a ‘concept’ but, having spoken to its designers at length and being at least passably well versed in the art of reading between the lines, the ground-hugging road warrior that showed up in Geneva is visually more than 90 per cent of the real thing.

And it will need to deliver on the promise of those looks. As I was standing looking at it, news arrived that Seat had become the first manufacturer to lap the Nürburgring in under 8min using a standard production road car (a Leon). This is more than a mild inconvenience to Honda, which had claimed precisely that goal as a target for the Type-R. So now the benchmark is a 7min 58.4sec lap. I don’t think these times mean a thing in terms of what the car is like to drive, but the idea of a road-tyred family hatch circulating in less than 8min is almost beyond comprehension. Put it this way, it would have qualified 14th out of 38 for the last 1000Kms race held there in 1983, with 11 of the cars that beat it being Group C machines.