Geneva Show stoppers

McLaren’s star car outshines its rivals

We are used to car manufacturers saving their best stuff for the Geneva show in March. They might produce concepts in Shanghai or Beijing, make important announcements in Detroit or Tokyo and, of course, the Germans will always keep something back for Frankfurt, but the greatest concentration of exotic (but real) street machines is shown in Switzerland.

This year the show found a new level, even for Geneva. Almost every sports and supercar manufacturer brought its newest and best: the Ferrari 812 Superfast, McLaren 720S, Porsche 911GT3 and Lamborghini Huracán Performante to name but four, and that’s before Bentley did that rarest things and actually managed to keep a car secret until the covers came off. The all-electric and tortuously named Bentley EXP12 Speed 6e might or might not get built but, even as an indication of current thinking in Crewe, it was great to see a low-slung, convertible sports car wearing the wings.

We even found out that Aston’s hypercar, hitherto catchily named the AM-RB 001, will be called Valkyrie, which will presumably prompt its well-heeled owners to rechristen their garages Valhalla.

If there was a star, it was the McLaren, a car fascinating for many reasons, but none more than the fact it’s the company’s first attempt to replace a pre-existing product. As reported last month, its 4-litre V8 produces 710bhp. Coupled with a 1283kg kerb weight, that provides a better power to weight ratio than some of the most coveted ultra-high performance supercars of all time, the Bugatti Veyron and McLaren F1 among them. The extra engine capacity has been achieved by using a longer stroke because its bores were already at their limit, so a few revs have been lost at the top end but with lightened internals and variable geometry turbos, McLaren’s executive director of programme development Mark Vinnels tell me the power delivery has been “utterly transformed”.

The McLaren people all seem rather more excited by the chassis modifications – not just the lighter, stiffer ‘Monocage II’ replacing the roofless ‘Monocell I’ monocoque of its 650S predecessor – but changes to both the suspension’s hardware and software. As you’d expect with a new car, all the suspension geometry, spring and damper rates are different. It has new uprights and less unsprung mass too, but Vinnels says it is the way the car’s hydraulically linked, roll bar-free suspension units keep more of the tyre in better contact with the ground for longer that has made the biggest difference. Thank a doubling of the number of suspension sensors (to 22) for that. The headlight apertures, which double as air-intakes, and a clever system for ducting the air down the sides of the cars without the need for ugly scoops, also mean it has half as much downforce again as the 650S.

So how quick is it on the track? We don’t yet know but the bald numbers – 0-60mph in 2.8sec, 0-124mph in 7.8sec and a top speed of 212mph – give a broad idea. After various off-the- record conversations, I believe its track performance is directly comparable to that of the more powerful but heavier P1 hypercar. On a long circuit doubtless the P1 would get away; on something tighter and twistier? McLaren staff then tend just to smile knowingly.

Prices for used P1s start at about £1.6 million. You can order a 720S today for £207,900.

A mid-engined 911?

It would be easy to conclude that the new Porsche 911 GT3 is effectively a production version of the massively hyped limited-edition 911R from the previous generation. Like the 911R it has a 4-litre flat six producing 493bhp and at least the option of a manual gearbox, overturning Porsche’s much-criticised move to make all its GT 911s two-pedal machines.

But it has not as simple as that. The engine may have the same capacity and output, but it has been dramatically overhauled, with new heads, a stiffer crank, liners with less friction and deleted hydraulic valve adjusters, allowing the engine to rev to the same 9000rpm as the previous 3.8-litre GT3 – the poor old 911R gave up at about 8750rpm.

Even so, you sense Porsche has spent as much time ensuring the everyday credentials of the GT3 are being maintained as its performance enhanced. Its dampers now operate over a wider range, as much to improve the ride as the handling, and inside Porsche’s new navigation and entertainment system has been fitted. There are also track apps, an increasingly obligatory feature in any car even partially intended for circuit work.

But there was far bigger news from Porsche than this. When I asked Porsche Motorsport’s manager of high performance cars Andreas Preuninger about the possibility of the mid-engine configuration now used for the RSR racing car finding its way onto the public road, he replied, “There is nothing coming soon, but in the mid-term don’t rule it out,” before adding, “I think that adding some excitement to the car in this way wouldn’t be bad.”

Porsche purists will probably foam at the mouth at the idea of a mid-engined 911, and some have already described it as a contradiction in terms, but the car exists in racing form and uses a competition version of the GT3 engine. In engineering terms, then, it would not be such a difficult job. It will probably come with the next ‘992’ generation of 911s launched in 2019, but the GT cars are always left until later to provide some mid-life spice and it would be no surprise to see the mid-engined car left longer even than that. With the engine showing 608bhp on the bench without any turbos, it might be worth the wait.

Blast from the past

Of course Geneva was not all unaffordable exotics. Land Rover launched a Porsche Macan rival called the Range Rover Velar (I have no idea what that means, either) and Volvo the conspicuously attractive XC60. But of all the cars that something close to £50,000 will buy, it was to the diminutive Alpine A110 that I was most closely drawn.

I’ll preface all that follows with the rider that the last time we got all excited about a cute, light, mid-engined, four-
cylinder, two-seat sports coupé, the car in question – the Alfa 4C – proved to be less than the sum of its interesting parts, and the same may yet be true of the Alpine.

But I found the car quite compelling. First I want to know if Renault can finally make a success of the Alpine brand: it’s a big ask, particularly as post-Brexit the car will likely cost more than £50,000 and will therefore be inevitably compared to the Porsche Cayman. The last Alpines, the A610 and GTA, were actually fine cars and excellent driving machines, but their plastic bodies and humble origins were their undoing: in a continent of badge snobs, few wanted an Alpine, least of all one built by Renault.

Even so, the new car has most of the right ingredients, including a superb 1080kg kerbweight and double unequal length wishbones at each corner. I hope Alpine makes its 250bhp, 1.8-litre four-
cylinder turbo engine sound better than Alfa’s and I lament the absence of a manual gearbox, but when you hear its engineers speak more of slip angles than lap times, you sense their priorities are correctly ordered. Modest tyre specifications and three different ESP modes back this up. I also liked the fact that all 6ft 4in of me could get in and out with ease and was comfortable on board. Quality, at least on the show car, seemed first rate too. 

Whether the Alpine will drive like its specification suggests or, even if it does, whether the public will embrace it as they failed to do its forebears, is unknown, but all Alpine can do for now is start as it means to go on. It appears to have set off at a decent rate and in the right direction.

Following PSA’s acquisition of Opel and Vauxhall, Volkswagen has refused to rule out some kind of merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. If that were to happen, it would create an automotive conglomerate to dwarf every other on earth. Moreover, FCA’s Sergio Marchionne was talking freely about the idea in Geneva and in warm terms. “You need to achieve scale or we will end up delivering an incredibly poor return and margins on this business.” For its part, VW says it’s had no talks with FCA but CEO Matthias Müller said of the suggested deal, “I would never exclude it.”