Geneva Motor Show 2011 Trends

The Geneva Motor Show 2011 is over but there are trends that go beyond the show’s doors. The general feel of the show was optimistic, of having past a painful hurdle and moved on.  All references to the economic downturn and dismal global growth we in the past tense.  Even if there are still tough times ahead the industry is now ready; recessions and cuts are no longer a surprise and none of the companies are as exposed or vulnerable as they were a few years ago.  What does that mean for design? 

Well as we covered in our Green Car Design Challenge two years ago, design usually thrives in adverse times.  Financial problems distract management long enough to allow design chiefs of respective companies to come forth and ‘save the day’.  An important, non-design, trend that we have seen growing over the last year is the pivotal role of heads of design becoming involved directly in business as usual on the board of directors.  Gerry McGovern, of Land Rover, and lately Mark Adams, at GM have both taken a seat at the table and are very influential.  Shiro Nakamura’s voluptuous title is Senior Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of Design and Brand Management of Nissan and Infiniti, and he is known to be actively involved in all these areas.  Even Michael Mauer, head of Stlye Porsche, was keen to note that “(d)esign is considered more important now and we have been given a lot of freedom”, when speaking about his new CEO and Porsche’s new direction.  The result was that an awesome amount of creative information was pumped out into the show with the largest number of world premieres in recent years.

Vintage Retreat

All this doom and gloom about the economy and environment has taken its toll on everyone, especially designers.  And what do designers do when they are antagonised?  They rebel.  Thankfully!  Instead of going with the deep dark moods that colour the daily news they have broken away and decided that the carefree days of yesteryear were not only a better place, but also a more chic place.  The mixture of past and present was everywhere in the show.  Many companies dug through their archives to find electric or hybrid ‘we did it first’ ancestors to today’s concept cars in an effort to justify their credentials; the oldest on show was Porsche’s Sempre Vivus “the World’s First Hybrid Car” from 1900.  Indirectly it also harks back to an era when the future was uncertain and possibilities were endless, much like today.  In that uncertainty there is hope and an alternative to what admittedly has become an unsustainable world of affairs. 

For design this meant the vibrant use of warm colours, from orange and yellows to fiery reds, and electric liquid blues to pure whites.  Although there was a huge range of colour there was little in the way of corporate greys.  Overall shapes of the concept cars, such as the VW Bulli restyled Microbus or Rinspeed’s Bamboo nostalgic concept, were a touch retro.  It is important not to use retro in the way it was used at the turn of this century, to mean redesigning the past; this incarnation is essential, and pure – straightforward simplicity.

Carbon Crazy

There has never been such an extensive use of carbonfibre as was on display at the Geneva Motors Show this year.  From lightweight to faux textures to in fashion wraps the car industry has gone crazy for the carbon.  Supercars, the likes of the Lamborghini Aventador or Pagani Huayra, have routinely exposed their carbonfibre chassis but the charismatic material was widely used decoratively on concepts such as in Nissan’s Esflow, Renault’s Captur, and very elegantly on the Audi A3.  The car with the most carbonfirbre details was by far MINI's Rocketman; not only was it used as the material that makes the Rocketman’s spaceframe light and rigid it was also used as trim elements on the door hinges, the floor, window frame, wheel arch, and hub caps.  On the Esflow the flowing grid of the carbon fibre created a 3D effect over the dashboard and on the Captur is highlighted roof openings.

Lately there has been a trend in the US and UK in the use of car wraps, and you guessed it the most popular one is the carbonfibre print.  It is a quick, cost effective way of getting some supercar bling.  But what if your car was made out of plastic and you could dip those panels in any pattern available?  If you were on the mia electric design team then perhaps you would cover the whole car in it!  It is ironic that during this time when companies are obliged to decarbonise and as individuals we are meant to lower our carbon footprint that this material is so vehemently coming back into fashion; as we said, designers like to rebel!

Matte Touch

This trend is one influenced from the streets.  Much like catwalk fashion takes inspiration from street fashion sometimes it seems car design teams, or at least the colour and trim teams, have been gathering influences from cars on the street and adding their own touch.  In the eighties the odd car fanatic would buy a beat up car and spray paint it matte black (there are a few of you out there still thinking about it!), its an old-school thing.  Finally the technology has caught up with the will to mattify and recently the streets of London have been witness to a selection of Range Rovers, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis painted in matte black.  We have even seen a white pearlescent Maserati Quattroporte, but that was probably wrapped.

At the show this trend was taken to a more sophisticated level with paint finishes used as visual textures to differentiate forms and sections of a car; we call it two-touch.  The Renault Captur is perhaps the best example where the centre of the car is covered in an orange metallic finish and where cut-out shapes in the front, rear, and side intersect the main body the finish then turns to a matte finish, albeit quite reflective.  If you had a chance to look at Renault’s design chief Laurens Van der Acker’s shoes on press day you would have noticed a keen resemblance.  There is no doubt there is a connection between fashion and his design team’s mission to create a series of concepts inspired by the circle of life.  Another unique example of the two-touch trend was Alfa Romeo’s 4C concept.  The contrast comes not only from the use of glossy vs. matte but from matte vs. soft-touch.  It took 7 layers of speciality paint to achieve the rubbery soft-touch finish that looked silky and futuristic as the car revolved on stage…notice the carbonfibre use in the headlight, grill, and sideview mirrors.

Tablet Connect

Connectivity is the buzzword in automotive technology these days.  Maybe to distract people from the things that don’t quite work yet, like battery range and charging, car companies have turned their focus to what is already available.  Mobile connectivity is at the forefront of many longterm plans for the automotive industry, and none other has embraced it more than BMW.  A few weeks ago BMW announced the naming of their new sub-brand ‘i’.  BMWi and the Mega City project go hand in hand as BMW looks ahead at what mobility will look like in our future.  They aim to be the hub for all our social networking, navigation information, and safety upgrades as vehicles become more like mobility assistants, aka robots, rather than just a car.  Taking a page from the city car clubs, such as Zipcar, and hoping to fend of startups such as Whipcar, BMW has started their own hourly car hire service in Munich called BMW on Demand, once again breaking our own preconceptions of owning a vehicle in the city.  To showcase this vision BMW showed their ConnectedDrive concept at the show that we covered in our Auto-Shows section.

Aside from this global view of connectivity many of the cars on show used tablets as a replacement for IPs.  VW Bulli reduced the dashboard to the max by porting all communication to an iPad.  When asked if other devices could be used Klaus Bischoff told us that it was merely the tablet du jour as it were, the removable port can be easily adaptive to other and future models.  TATA used Samsung’s tablet as a key/IP/phone and conversation piece in its new small wonder Pixel.  Even the minimalistic geniuses at mia electric recognised the advantages, “with the iPad there is no need to create a whole new proprietory dashboard, its all out there, we just need to integrate this and be flexible”, says Murat Günak.

Electric Performance

Electric powered vehicles have a negative image they just can’t shake.  That image is of a boring vehicle that has little power and cannot be recharged easily creating range anxiety.  For all the marketing and explaining with words companies and marketing haven’t been able to sell the electric car to consumers.  So how can they create the image of performance, which car segment has the most pull in the car business?  You got it, the sports car.  There is a good reason why Tesla started with the Roadster; based on the Lotus Elise it not only had the engineering platform ideal for electric drive but also had the visual credentials.  If you can make electric driving fun, exciting, and even faster than expected then you capture the consumer’s ever-waning interest.  No matter that these vehicles start from £80,000 pounds, and that its easier to make an electric sportscar go from 0 – 60 because torque peaks at almost 0 revs.  It is good old brand image that still differentiates a product.

At the show Nissan used its flagship Z’s body language to create a new and exciting electric concept car.  Mercedes SLS electric epitomises nostalgia outfitted in latest and fastest technology, even in fluorescent yellow.  Fisker is still tempting Karma, Porsche rolled out the first of three Boxster E to take part in the “Electromobility Region Stutgart” and BMW, or course, showed the afore mentioned Vision ConnectedDrive.  Its just the beginning of the sportscar evolution as as production hybrids such as Porsche’s 918 Spyder Hybrid have already been signed off for production.

Green is good, and it can be a wicked ride!