Andrew Frankel – Road cars

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Must the car show go on?

Can you tell me what Ferrari has in common with Skoda, or Lamborghini with Volvo? And what links VW to Aston Martin and Maserati, or Audi, BMW and Porsche to Fiat? Simply this: every one of the above-mentioned car manufacturers elected not to attend this year’s British Motorshow.

Despite being Europe’s second- largest car market and one of the biggest in the world, for decades Britain has struggled and, without exception, failed to put on a motor show worthy of its standing in the industry. It’s not because we have very little indigenous industry left and are used instead as a satellite facility by car manufacturers from around the world: the most important annual show of all takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, a country with as significant a record in car manufacturing as Iceland does in banana farming. Germany, France and Japan all have huge shows while in the US, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are all vying to take over from the crumbling edifice that is Detroit as the most important show on that continent. But if we can’t even persuade Aston Martin to travel less than 100 miles to its home show, what message does that send out to the rest of the world?

Certainly if I’d paid my £25 for a family ticket and schlepped down to Docklands with kids desperate to see the newest, sleekest and shiniest metal, I’d want to know why not a single mainstream supercar manufacturer bar Bentley could be bothered to turn up. Examples of their work was there, but you had to go to the ‘Ultimate Collection’ area where you’d be able to feast your eyes on everything from a Veyron to a Koenigsegg while being served champagne and canapés, but only in exchange for a £100-per-head ticket.

That’s not to say those who did turn up didn’t put on a good show. There were lots of different activities during the day and a good standard of live bands each evening but these are extras to a main event which, from what I saw of it, was not up to scratch.

I rang BMW and asked why it had failed to offer support to its second-largest export market and the answer was unambiguous to say the least, and more than a little surprising. Until now I did not appreciate that the cost of a decent presence at a show lasting two weeks is about the same as two to three years of normal promotional activity. Instead BMW held an ‘Efficient Dynamics’ weekend where punters were able to see how to drive and maintain their cars in the most efficient way; this led to about the same number of new customer leads as they’d expect from a motor show, at just one tenth of the cost. With some of the change, they erected a simple stand at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and again gained more prospects for a fraction of the money required to do a motor show properly.

All of which makes me wonder whether the whole motor show format is not simply tired, but moribund. The whole idea of going to a glorified warehouse just to look at stationary vehicles seems rooted in a time that has already passed. Back in the 1930s, people would flock to Olympia because if you wanted to see the latest cars in full Technicolor glory, there was no other way. Now you can not only see brochures and read magazines, you’re never more than few clicks away from seeing them in action on TV or on line.

There aren’t even any surprises at shows these days. Twenty years ago you could go to a show in the realistic hope of seeing something totally unexpected, but now cars aren’t even unveiled at shows, they are drip fed in advance, teaser shot by teaser shot to a ravenous and always accommodating press so that by the time the covers actually come off at a show, you wonder why they bothered to put them on in the first place.

Ask yourself this: if you, or your car-crazy kids, wanted to go and see the greatest collection of road-going automotive exotica gathered together in one place, where would you head? It wouldn’t be to Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, Geneva or Detroit, and it certainly wouldn’t be to the Docklands venue of the British Motorshow. Instead you’d simply buy tickets for the Goodwood Festival of Speed and spend as much time as you want getting as close as you like to the widest range of supercars ever assembled. And then, twice a day, you’d get to see every last one of them gunning up the hill, watching them move, hearing them roar, howl, snarl, shriek and bellow and, more often than not over the course of a weekend, seeing at least one overenthusiastic owner discover that the seemingly irresistible force at his disposal has come to an expensive halt against the immovable objects that are Goodwood’s vast hay bales.

In fact I’ve long suspected that the real reason for motor shows has less to do with reaching customers than it does with upstaging your rivals. It’s Jonesmanship on an industrial scale, where the manufacturer who spends the most on the biggest stand in the best hall is the one that gets to look smug and damn with faint praise the charmingly quaint efforts of its by now thoroughly cowed opponents.

I wonder, though, how important this muscle-flexing will be considered to be if the major developed markets in Europe and the US continue in their downhill spiral. It seems to me that the most important consideration among those charged with selling cars in this downturn is not showing off in public but selling cars, and it seems clear that the surgically sharp approach of smart and strategic targeting of key customer groups is more likely to achieve these ends than the old, imprecise and very blunt instrument that is the motor show. The world has changed but these shows have not. Now, perhaps, is the time for them to acknowledge the fact.

*****

Volkswagen Scirocco

Always had a soft spot for Sciroccos, thanks to the father of a friend who let us use his to hone our teenage car skills. Drove the new one last month and was, if anything, more impressed. It has the same 200bhp 2-litre turbo engine as the Golf GTi, but with less weight, a lower centre of gravity, its own suspension settings and a wider track, it feels quicker, sharper and more engaging.

Just as importantly, VW is not taking the opportunity to cream cash off the top, pricing the car at £20,940. True, the looks are not to every taste but it is otherwise a remarkably complete car, with a smart and spacious interior, a well-judged ride and good refinement, even at high speed.

They’ll make hay, particularly when it becomes available with a 170bhp diesel motor in ’09. I’ve driven this engine in an Audi TT and was convinced not only by the usual economy and emissions advantages, but its sheer enthusiasm too. There’s all the torque you’d expect, but it revs past 5000rpm and sounds good too. It hits 60mph in under 7.5sec and goes on to 140mph.

In these straitened times, the market is demanding good value cars that are affordable to run, fit into everyday life and resist depreciation. If that car also has sparkle, it is likely to prove very popular.

*****

Lotus Evora

Good and bad news from Lotus. Its new 2+2 looks streets better in the flesh than on the page and its specification, including a 280bhp, 3.5-litre Toyota-derived V6 motor, seems well placed to provide Lotus-like performance. At 1350kg it seems rather heavy – that’s over half a tonne more than an Elise and the same as a Porsche Cayman S – but perhaps that number will come down before sales start next summer. Lotus has confirmed a convertible version is on its way and an ultra-high performance model is under development. Standard Lotus practice would be to supercharge the V6 in which case an output of at least 400bhp should be expected.

My only concern is the name, which sounds like a tube of something you ask for at the chemist’s counter when no-one else is in the queue. I’m not normally a fan of resurrecting old names but almost anything in general and Eclat and Excel in particular would have been better than this. Why not just give it a number? All Lotuses have always had type numbers applied to the racing cars. If all the good names have been taken, perhaps now is the time for the road cars to follow their lead.

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