2003 Geneva Show, Part IV

March 5, 2003

 

 

TCC's Auto Show Index by TCC Team (2/23/2003)
Our coverage of the world's major auto shows, year to year.

2003 Geneva Motor Show Index by TCC Team (3/3/2003)
All the best from the Swiss car event of the year
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BMW Design Chief Stays The Course

2003 BMW xActivity Vehicle concept

2003 BMW xActivity Vehicle concept

“People expect us to be controversial,” said Chris Bangle, and there’s no question that BMW’s design director has lived up to expectations. He caused a furor that continues to resonate more than a year after the introduction of the new 7-Series, and the styling of the recently launched Z4 roadster has also generated much debate. But Bangle told TheCarConnection he expects things to settle down a bit, even as observers wait for the launch of the reborn 6-er, as well as the next-generation 5-Series. Neither is likely to be as shocking as the 7-Series, he hinted, suggesting that when it comes to breaking ground, “the 7 did all the snowplowing.” With these upcoming launches, BMW will settle into a sort of “harmonization process” across the lineup, added Bangle. But don’t expect the ever-edgy design chief to simply settle back. “We’ll keep seeing change,” he promised.

 

Name That Tune?

2003 Chrysler Airflite concept

2003 Chrysler Airflite concept

In years past, industry leaders seemed to race to find catchy slogans that quickly capture the themes of their big ideas. Chrysler’s “cab-forward” design theme was easy to visualize, and the Ford 2000 program underscored former Chairman Alex Trotman’s dream of pulling together a global company for the 21st century. But suddenly, manufacturers are shying away from sloganeering. “We consciously decided against coming up with a name” to describe the new design direction at Chrysler, said one company official. “Cab rearward” has been suggested for vehicles like the Airflite concept unveiled in Geneva, but he admitted it just didn’t have the same ring. Ford, meanwhile, is consciously avoiding any effort to put a formal name on its new product development and manufacturing program, even though it could eventually reduce vehicle costs by as much as 30 percent. There’ve been a few too many big ideas at Ford over the last decade, one senior executive admitted, and once the shine wore off, he concluded, they became catchphrases for failure.

 

Fiat’s New Cars: Bigger Than They First Appear

Struggling Italian automaker Fiat took the wraps off a variety of new products during the Geneva Motor Show, including two mini-MPVs, the Idea and the Gingo, which replace aging models such as the Seicento and the ancient Panda. Despite their small size, they’ve got a big job ahead of them, stressed Gianni Coda, head of the Fiat, Lancia and light commercial vehicle unit, helping launch the humbled carmaker’s comeback. Fiat has more than $400 million invested in the Idea, which will be produced at its Mirafiori plant. It hopes to sell up to 120,000 a year. Gingo, meanwhile, will roll out of the automaker’s plant in Tychy, Poland. For an investment of about $550 million, Fiat is hoping for annual sales of around 200,000. “We want to reclaim (lost) ground,” said Coda, but considering the automaker’s steady loss of share in recent years, observers warned it won’t be easy, even with a new line-up. The Stilo, launched in late 2001 to much fanfare, has scored a much poorer reception than expected, one reason for Fiat’s current problems.

 

More GM/Fiat Ventures?

Fiat CEO Gianni Coda

Fiat CEO Gianni Coda

Fiat Auto President Gianni Coda declined to discuss the status of negotiations with General Motors over the so-called “put option.” It could potentially force GM to acquire a failing Fiat. Well-placed sources at the Geneva Motor Show said the two sides are looking for an alternative that would avoid a sell-out but still provide the Italian company with some much-needed assistance. That could involve expanding the current series of joint ventures between the two companies. “Collaboration will continue (to expand) where opportunities emerge,” Coda declared in answer to a question from TheCarConnection. Among other things, Fiat and GM are now sharing development of parts purchasing and powertrain development and production in Europe and Latin America. And they’re jointly developing a new series of small cars, such as the next-generation Fiat Punto and Opel Corsa. They’ve also put a lot of effort into a new luxury car program. But while that platform will be used for the Alfa-Romeo 156 replacement, GM has written off the project. The “business case failed,” Rick Wagoner, the U.S. automaker’s CEO, told a TCC correspondent. “Saab couldn’t afford it.”

 

Talks To Resume

Thursday will bring another round of discussions between senior GM and Fiat officials, though it is not clear if the Italian company’s new Chairman, family heir Umberto Agnelli, will join in. He is scheduled to be attending the annual auto show in Geneva, where the talks will take place. Things are becoming more intense for both sides. It is just about a year from when Fiat could theoretically exercise its put option, forcing a takeover by GM. But despite promises of an imminent turnaround, the financial picture for the Italian firm goes from bleak to bleaker. With Standard & Poor’s and Fitch joining fellow debt rating agency Moody in downgrading Fiat, the company’s debt is trading somewhere between non-investment and junk bond grade. It has been reported Fiat would like help from GM as it attempts to recapitalize. But so far, the U.S. company is resisting.

 

Maserati Follows Ferrari’s Lead For ‘Gentlemen Racers’

2003 Maserati Trofeo

2003 Maserati Trofeo

Maserati is underlining its racing heritage as part of its business revival as a close companion marque to Ferrari. The first step is to create a one-make racing series aimed at Maserati owners. This echoes Ferrari’s policy, which for some years has seen championships open only to Ferraris. These have given those owners who are skilled enough and wealthy enough the chance to enjoy the thrills of racing by competing against similar cars and drivers whose abilities behind the wheel are in most cases competent but not outstanding. Ferrari runs championships for what are called in Europe ‘Gentleman Drivers’ (although women have also competed) in Europe and the USA, and at the end of each racing season there is a season run-off that decides the overall champions. The competition is tough, but efficient organization ensures that the competitors and their supporters are treated in the way that those who are able to buy a Ferrari expect to be, with on-track entertainment facilities and an enjoyable social scene.

The formula has worked well for Ferrari, and this year Maserati owners will be getting the same treatment. The firm is building a special lightweight version of its road-going Cambiocorsa model that has been equipped with racing safety devices and will be called the Trofeo (Trophy). Twenty-six of the cars have been built so far, and buyers will have the opportunity to race them in a series of six races that will take place at major international race meetings including two Formula 1 Grand Prix events, at Silverstone in Britain and Monza in Italy.

The races will be of one hour’s duration, making them mini endurance races. This gives a clue to the future plans for Ferrari’s sister marque. While the world champions concentrate on F1, Maserati’s future role will be to carry the Italian flag in long-distance races like the classic Le Mans 24-hours.

 

Europe Takes The Top Down

2004 Renault Megane Cabriolet

2004 Renault Megane Cabriolet

Convertibles have always been the poor relations in the ranges of major European manufacturers, but that seems to be changing as younger buyers get more money and the market becomes split in to so many niches. Today, majors like Ford, GM, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault need a convertible in the middle of the range, rather than as a minority offering at the top of the price structure. Ford is about to start deliveries of its cute Streetka, built for it by Pininfarina, and Renault has used the show to unveil the drop-top version of the new Megane, which will go on sale toward the fall. The Megane is a ‘coupe convertible’, a new breed that is caching the eye of wealthier young buyers in a big way. Instead of the traditional fabric top, the coupe convertible has a metal hardtop that folds automatically, providing a weatherproof cover for bad times and a full open-air experience for the sunny days and balmy nights. Mercedes started the trend with its SLK, but Peugeot brought it right down market with the 206CC, an open-topped two-seater with a folding top developed by French coachbuilders Heuliez. Geneva saw another variation on this theme, the 307CC, which takes Peugeot’s compact and applies the same top technology to a four seater. Renault’s entry in the coupe convertible battle, the Megane, uses technology from Germany’s Karmann, but the aim is the same — a cosy top that opens up at the touch of a button when the weather is right.

Citroen showed its convertible last year, and deliveries are starting now. It’s called the Pluriel, and it offers a variety of options for open-topped motoring, all the way from a roll-back roof similar to that of the legendary Citroen 2CV to lift-off side supports that make the car into a completely topless four-seater. Unfortunately, there’s no way to put the roof up if it rains while you are in full open mode because the roof supprts have to be left behind in the garage; but who cares if you are driving your Pluriel round St Tropez?

Moving up the market, Saab introduced its new convertible here in Geneva, but it is above the level of the new affordable drop-tops. Saab’s open car has always been at the top of the Swedish manufacturer’s range, and the new model stays firmly planted in that area. For the ultimate expensive convertible, the New Pagani Zonda Roadster takes the prize. Crouching on the show stand resplendent in ‘How Dare You Ignore This Car’ yellow, it was a magnificent example of hand-made quality and living proof of the fact that if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

 

Local Color

2004 Rinspeed Bedouin

2004 Rinspeed Bedouin

Geneva would not be Geneva without something special from Rinspeed, the highly individual firm from Zumikon, close to Zurich. The company used to specialize in tuning Porsches, but as time has moved on its Geneva showpieces have become more technically adventurous. This year’s however, returned to the Porsche roots in the form of the Bedouin. This was proof that if the Porsche factory can go into SUV territory with the Cayenne, Rinspeed can take the brand into the owonderful world of trucks. Of course, since it’s Rinspeed, it’s not just a question of grafting a bed onto a 911. The Bedouin converts — automatically — from a four-seat wagon to a two-seat pickup by folding the roof over the rear compartment and splitting it in two. The forward part forms the rear of the newly-created two-seat cab and the rear part becomes the pickup bed, tempting the onlooker to wonder why nobody did that before. Power — 360 hp — comes from a twin-turbo engine running on natural gas, making the Bedouin environmentally friendly as well as driver friendly. Don’t expect to start seeing too many Bedouins on the road in the near future, but do be thankful for companies like Rinspeed who continue to inject some new approaches — and some fun — into the world of cars.

2003 Sbarro concept

2003 Sbarro concept

Another Geneva Show standard is Franco Sbarro. For over twenty years now, this Swiss-domiciled Italian has been turning out off-the-wall projects that take a new look at the automobile and sometimes the motorcycle. This year is no exception, for Sbarro’s contribution this year is a super-wide wheel with an engine incorporated in it. Details are sketchy, as they often are with his projects, but at least this time he is working with a major auto industry supplier in the form of O.Z., the Italian wheel specialist that provides high-tech alloy wheels for some of the world’s most advanced race teams. The concept is shown in the form of a motorcycle, a three-wheeled streamlined single-seat vehicle that looks right out of Star Wars, and a high-performance road car. Road tests are not likely to be high on the agenda for the projects, which could, like so many Sbarro projects, sink without trace. But at least for two weeks each year he injects some fun and interest into the solid business atmosphere that covers the show.

 

Anything Ford Can Do, Russia Can Make A Stab At

Ford has become a specialist in drawing on its past models to influence modern concept cars. It’s an idea that has merit, and it’s no surprise it has been copied. The source of the copying is somewhat unusual, however. The spirit of J Mays is alive and well and living in Moscow, at the headquarters of A:Level, a company specializing in “exclusive car tuning and styling.”

2003 Volga

2003 Volga

On a somber stand on the upper floor in Geneva, just a few yards away from the glittering stands of Cadillac and Chevrolet, A Level was showing the Volga V12, a 2003 rendering of a classic Volga GAZ 21 of the Sixties. Lowered and stretched, and with a BMW V-12 straight out of an 850 CSI coupe shoe-horned under the hood, it was uncannily reminiscent of the Ford Forty-Nine concept car shown at Detroit in 2001. The resemblance was intensified by the fact that the Volga was painted the same shiny black as Ford’s look back to its heritage.

The transformation of comrades’ car into classic coupe took 17 months and was displayed at Geneva to draw attention to A Level’s next project, named simply as THE BIG. This will rely on the same BMW V-12, but it’s to be hoped that the company’s engineering standards are higher than then linguistic efforts of its PR staff. The press release describing the projected BIG contains the following gem: “THE BIG’s design seems to convey the message: ‘This car is designed to fly over the highway like an iron slug.’”

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