By on March 2, 2010

At the Geneva car show, this year’s bon mot among the journos is: there are two kinds of auto companies, those with problems and those that will have problems in the future. That’s one of the many reasons to take interest in the latest crop of concept cars: today’s concept could just be tomorrow’s catastrophe. Look past the bright lights and posed displays, and you can see visions of designers gone mad, branding gone astray, and a complete lack of any managerial imagination. Luckily, not all is dark on the horizon…

When I first heard of the Mercedes F800 Style I was reminded of the Mitsubishi Charisma: a car likely to have nothing of what it is named after. But up close, it’s not quite so bad. Mercedes’ designers are expressing themselves rather defensively, and they say future Benzes will no longer have ‘additive’ shapes. In other words, none of the ungainly, almost tacked-on looking fenders and trunk lids that the present S-class has.

The F800 sports lines that begin somewhere near the radiator and end… somewhere else. I don’t really understand all this sculpting, all these creases; just look at Mazda’s concepts from 2007 and then at the new Mazda 5 to see how much can go wrong in translation between crazy-fantastic wavy concepts and real-life cars. (More about the 5 tomorrow). To Mercedes’ benefit, this rendition of what the next C-class is likely to look like has short overhangs, a thoughtful snout, and no really ugly elements.

That’s more than you can say about the Hyundai i-flow. This looked good on paper but I am sorry to say it is truly ghastly in the flesh. A German, Thomas Buerkle, designed it, and it’s totally overwrought, with an oddly aggressive shark’s-mouth front and all kinds of lines that go nowhere fast. Clean sculpture is one thing; sedans are not supposed to look evil/nightmarish. One has to assume that Hyundai’s management already knows this, and just wanted to show they are able to do something daring.

Speaking of nightmarish. I don’t know how to say this after Bertone’s personable head stylist spent several minutes with me, trying to explain the Alfa Romeo Pandion concept’s styling language to me, but I fear I will sleep badly after seeing the Pandion. It has a HR Giger interior and an absolutely atrocious rear full of metal flaps that would doubtlessly command respect at any traffic light. Google ‘Indonesian tree man’ if you want to know what it makes me think of.

There are several concepts on display in Geneva that would properly be called ‘teasers’ because they are near-identical to upcoming cars. The Peugeot 5 is full of copycat elements (S-class trunk lid, Hofmeister kink, S80 shoulders) that somehow manage to gel. The Citroen DS High Rider is basically the upcoming DS4, and can be considered bizarre, because it is a coupe-SUV-hardtop. Who the hell needs that? My take is that the design works well enough to be interesting, nevertheless. If Peugeot’s HYbrid4 Diesel-electric system (which the DS4 will employ) turns out to be a technological success, then why shouldn’t the DS4? Speaking of Peugeot: the droptop concept they are showing in Geneva is, in my mind, Aston-Martin-league beautiful. Not that anybody was asking for a French competitor to Aston.

The Opel Flextreme GT/E is an expanded, faster, uprated, nicer Volt. There is nothing wrong with its styling; as a matter of fact it’s downright impressive. It would be nice to know that GM has enough money to design luxury cars for markets in which it hasn’t had a successful luxury car in decades — if it wasn’t taxpayer money they were spending.

Fisker doesn’t have much of a heritage either, and there’s a certain taxpayer element to the company too (but isn’t that the case everywhere nowadays?). They didn’t show a concept car in Geneva but they did display the space frame of the upcoming Karma series hybrid. A Fisker guy who prefers to remain unnamed after having experienced many a tussle with a certain Robert Farago, said the space frame is way more rigid than the frame of just about any other car you could think of. Of course, I couldn’t confirm that, but I did have a sit inside a Karma and it is without doubt a totally gorgeous and cool interior design. The rest, as the joke goes, is a “mere matter of implementation”.

A major qualm one might have with concept cars is the problem of what is left after you subtract the gull-wing doors and the 22″ wheels. Happily, there are some truly innovative ideas on display in Geneva. Famed designer Giorgio Giugiaro joined forces with Malysia’s Proton and England’s Lotus to design the car, as he says, he’s been thinking about for five years. His concept has enormous interior space for four (I sat in it, so I know) on a tiny, 3.5 meter footprint. And his concept is a series hybrid, meaning it has a gas engine in the front, batteries in the middle under the seats, and an electric range-extender motor in the back. And it even looks good — not at all tippy-narrow like other sandwich-layout concepts tend to be. Proton wants to bring this car to international markets within a year, and since they are known to bite off more than they can chew, I’d be sceptical. Still, this is a fantastic concept that gives hope to those who are dismayed at the news of Mercedes giving up the sandwich concept for the upcoming A-class.

The Heuliez Mia is another intruiging yet ambitious project. France’s Heuliez has a new Turkish investor, so the Mia’s designer, Murat Guenak of Passat CC and Mindset fame has hopes of bringing it to market soon. Here’s what makes this electric car special: a tiny footprint yet space for three; easy entry via sliding doors; Lithium-Phosphate batteries that don’t have the range of Li-Ion but need no cooling, as they are less thermally temperamental. Heuliez makes the batteries themselves; Guenak says the first 1,500 Mias will be built already in 2010, and sold at the highly competitive price of 15,000 Euros.

Have I overlooked anything? Oh yes, the Rinspeed UC? (you see?), a shortened, electric Fiat 500, is cute but crazy — too crazy, I fear, with joystick controls and a Tonka-toy interior. The Honda 3R-C is pretty good looking for a three-wheeler, offers a modicum of side impact protection, and is weather-proof, so one can expect the likes of it to be a solid contender in the electric-micro-city-vehicle market, if such a market should ever begin to exist. The Toyota FT-86 is either boring or I don’t get it. On paper, I thought the Subaru Hybrid Tourer was boring too, but in the flesh, it looked like a remarkably clean and pretty design. After all the convoluted, pretentious, super-wavy designs, after all the crazy “look at me” concept cars, the Subi looked sane, solid, sweet and yes, sexy. Will something like it survive market research and the heavy hand of niche marketing? Don’t hold your breath.

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9 Comments on “Geneva Day One: Attempting to Grasp the Concept of Concept...”

  • avatar

    Thank you for shining a light on this topic. By and large, I find concepts to be boring. Once the actual designs make it to production models, they’ve been watered down and homogenized.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Martin; Thanks; I always look forward to your epistle from the European shows. The Proton is quite successful in its particular mission; it does somewhat remind me of the MB A Concept/Vision, before it was prettified.
    That Peugeot convertible has to be RWD, from the lack of front overhang. Is that a vision of things to come?
    I’m starting to get used to MB’s new design language, and while I thing the SLS AMG is a mess, this F 800 is starting to work for me. And the FT-86 works for me, at least from the pics.
    Looking  forward to the next installment.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    If it doesn’t have a place for a front license plate, then don’t may much attention to it.

  • avatar
    Kyle Schellenberg

    Transformers, robots in disguise…

  • avatar

    Well, Alfa can pretty much kiss off the “Most Pedestrian-Friendly Design” award.

  • avatar

    Wow, unless that Alfa’s hood is made out of memory foam, and those little blades sticking out of the grille are deflatable, when that car hits you it is gonna hurt like a son of a bitch!

    EDIT: Oh wait, I just looked at the pic again and realized this is the back of the car … not only better on the peds, but it won’t catch as many bugs… but, BTW, how the heck do you clean that thing?

  • avatar

    Okay, it won’t kill you driving into the supermarket parking lot, but it’ll slice-and-dice you backing out of a parking space. I was thinking Cuisinart might step up with an award, but they might as easily inspect that rear end for a possible patent infringement suit.

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