The British Motor Show 2008
Posted by Kuang on Thu, 31 Jul 2008.
This year's British Motor Show is hosted at ExCeL in London's Docklands, and features over 600 cars plus a number of exhibitions and features ranging from Land Rover's off-road experience to a drifting display by Westfield. We decided it was worth a look, so made the trek down there...
The event spans the two halls at ExCeL plus a large outdoor complex for all of the special and interactive features. The first thing that strikes you is that Vauxhall have an overwhelming presence this year, with posters and billboards lining the Docklands Light Railway on the way down and an absolutely huge banner advertising the new Insignia (the replacement for the Vectra) plastered over a disused mill on the opposite site of the docks.
Indeed, walking in through the nearest entrance leaves you face to face with the Insignia itself which is a remarkably good looking car in the metal with amazing interior quality to match. You can see why Vauxhall are using this car to distance them from the Vectra, which was uninspiring at best. The Vauxhall stand makes a point of showcasing the VXR range of cars with the Nurburgring Astra, Corsa and VXR8 in display, all looking amazing in white. Looking across the entire display reveals that Vauxhall really don't have any bad looking cars in their range, which you definitely wouldn't have said just five years ago. This theme continues through the show with exceptionally good looking production cars on offer from almost every major brand - Ford and Mazda get special credit on this score, maybe due in part to the platform sharing deal between them, but more about those later.
Moving on takes you through a quintet of American brands - Corvette, Cadillac, General Motors, Hummer and Chevrolet - and there are few surprises here. The Corvette Z06 looks fantastic with a notable increase in interior quality and extremely strange depth cued dials on the dashboard. The Cadillac range just doesn't transfer to the UK well at all, leaving you with the impression that the cars are too big, yet too small on the inside and that the finishing has a long way to go before it'll meet European expectations. Take a look at the strange analogue clocks shoehorned into the centre of the dashboards for a perfect example of how there's always something just not quite right about them. With the exception of the stunning Flextreme concept vehicle, the General Motors stand was entirely forgettable and even managed to make advanced hybrid technology look boring. Hummer were just Hummer, with the addition of a futuristic sporty looking short wheelbase model that would look great in a film but hugely embarrassing on the high street. Chevrolet showcased the interesting Beat and Camaro concepts, but otherwise served up a diet of rebranded Daewoos and pointless SUVs.
We then dive back into European territory briefly with Saab’s surprisingly weak showing of the 9-3 and 9-5 range, which have recently received a less-than-successful external facelift, and have yet again avoided the desperate need for a new dashboard layout across the range to replace the ‘cliff-face’ they inherited from previous generations. The 9-X BioHybrid concept was an intriguing piece of design despite clearly dividing opinions among the spectators.
One of the surprise displays of the show was to be found on the Kia stand, with the fantastic Kia Koup concept dressed in retina-scorching lime paintwork and the entire strangely punctuated Cee’d and Pro_Cee’d range. Kia have a strong selling point for this model in its unique 7 year warranty, and when you take into account the good looks, apparently superb build quality, and high trim and equipment level on even the basic models it’s amazing you don’t see more of them on the road – I may have even admitted to quite fancying the sporty Pro_Cee’d for myself before remembering that money might pose a teensy problem. They also brought along the bizarre and daring trio of Soul concept cars – the Diva, Searcher and Rider - which don’t all succeed as Kia might have hoped, although I did quite like the matt black tribal themed Rider variant.
Citroen were across the hall with a less than stellar range, which did however feature the handsome new C5 saloon and the stylish C6 in possibly the worst colour combination of dark blue with a cream interior. They brought along a nicely airbrushed C-Crosser featuring surf scenes but this only helped to highlight how uninspiring this badge engineered Mitsubishi Outlander really is. They brought the Cactus concept too, but as this looks like a pug dog that’s just snorted a handful of Wasabi we’ll move swiftly on.
Jaguar brought along two variants of their new fantastic XF, the current X-Type (which is rumoured to be nearing the end of its product life) and their XJ in its normal and crudely bodykitted forms. The stand was lifted by the appearance of the fantastic XKR-S, but I think that new owners Tata will have to think very carefully about Jaguar’s future direction in order to compete with the advances in the executive car market from other marques.
Renault brought a touch of Gallic flair to the show with the stunning Megane Coupe and Laguna Coupe concepts, backed by the stylish and cute Twingo Renaultsport and a brace of hot Meganes including the brand new track bred R26.R. The Koleos and Kangoo rounded off the product range nicely and demonstrated the brand really starting to nail the ‘feel-good’ factor across all of its models.
Nissan’s stand revolved around one car – the GT-R, or Godzilla as it’s affectionately known. They brought a pristine silver model for their main display, a black one for people to sit in and adjust the steering column (no idea why they all did that) and a further one that had been sawn in half to showcase all of the technical gubbins going on just under the skin. It’s a remarkable looking beast, although you’d struggle to call it handsome. You could also see the latest revisions of the 350Z and Murano, and the strange little electric Denki Cube concept among others, but next to the star attraction they struggled to keep up.
Ford went all-out this year with one of the largest stands of the show, and a huge area dedicated to the New Fiesta. This is without questions a good looking little car, but the interior quality just seemed a little... off to me. The centre console layout feels a bit intrusive and not particularly intuitive, and the driving position wasn’t what you’d expect from such a sporty looking vehicle. Much as it surprises me to say this, I can’t help thinking that the superb Mazda 2, which is based on the same chassis, might actually be the better car to own. Also on display were the new Focus RS, which looks every bit as edgy as you’d hope and loses a lot of the dumpiness of the current Focus ST, the Kuga and Ranger, and a WRC rally Focus in Abu Dhabi / BP Ultimate livery. Full marks also go to Ford for dishing out free drinks and ice lollies on such a hot day, although we still can’t work out what the lollies actually tasted of…
We mentioned Mazda back there for a moment, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about their display. The absolute highlight of this stand was the appearance of the mind-bogglingly beautiful Furai racecar – this thing looks even more astonishing in real life than in photographs, and you have to watch it go round on the pedestal quite a few times before you feel you’ve started to understand the complex bodywork and aerodynamic surfaces. It looks like a cross between an organic spaceship and a shark in a bad mood, and really does have to be seen to be believed. The amazingly cute Mazda 2 made an appearance in its normal form and an intriguing little sport variant complete with bucket seats and very suggestive performance tyres. I wouldn’t imagine Ford would let the little Mazda get too big for its boots before they can release a Fiesta ST based on the same platform, but the Mazda already has it beat in the looks department. The rotary engine RX-8 was there in a number of different guises, and it was interesting to see how the hidden ‘suicide doors’ add a surprising level of practicality to a small sportscar. Despite this, you still wouldn’t want to be stuck in the claustrophobic rear seats for any long journeys.
At this point we moved across to hall 2, pausing to look a the Top Gear police cars (or what’s left of them) from a recent challenge. You’ll be pleased to hear that Hammond’s Suzuki Vitara really does look every bit as camp in real life as it did on screen, whereas May’s Lexus actually looks quite intimidating because of its sheer size.
The Honda stand is even more extensive than Ford’s, and was split across two levels. There weren’t many surprises from the current fleet, which included variants of the new Civic, lots of Accords and the S2000 but there were some pleasant appearances in the form of the CR- Z concept, which is a spiritual successor to the original CR-X hatchback, the hydrogen powered FXC Clarity, a Formula 1 car in Earthdreams colours and the extremely pretty OSM concept roadster. The OSM appears to have Civic like proportions but I can imagine it taking over from the S2000, which is probably just as well because the S2000s we looked at really didn’t feel as special as you’d imagine they should. By contrast, the build quality and interior of the new Accord cabins was particularly impressive, giving an almost tank-like impression of solidity at the expense of a little airiness.
Suzuki picked up on the eastern concept theme from Mazda and Honda with their astounding Kizashi concept, which looks like a mobster’s car from the 25th century. This seems to have been built to a scale slightly larger than life and casts a very imposing presence over the other Suzuki concept on show, the A-Star. Opinions were divided on this, with two of us thinking it looked great, and one stating that it looked far too camp. I think that once Suzuki do the decent thing and make this with a small but heavily turbocharged engine, it’ll give Mini something to worry about.
Lexus were on hand to continue the futuristic sportscar theme with their stunning LF-A, a long, low monster of a coupe that appears for some strange reason to have three exhaust pipes. Despite this anomaly it’s a real looker and one of the stars of the show. They’d also brought their hybrid LS models, but next to the LF-A they looked a bit porky and showy, and the dashboards resembling Blackpool illuminations didn’t help.
Hyundai had the next stand along, and all attention was focused on the new Genesis coupe - a lean and low orange and black beast rumoured to have a 300hp V6 under the bonnet powering the back wheels. They’d also brought the i10 and i30, even going as far as turning an i10 into a miniature ice cream van and dishing out ice pops, and thrown in the current generation of the Hyundai Coupe for good measure.
At this point I’m informed that there was an Isuzu stand, but it appears to have left an indelible blank on my memory, and the Toyota display really wasn’t that much better despite offering the ugliest concept car of the show. The same can’t be said for Ssangyongs models just across the aisle, which are so spectacularly ugly that the brain edits them out in shock.
While we’re on the subject of ugly, the new Subaru Impreza really takes the biscuit. It was never an attractive car, but at least it gave off a sense of purpose. The new one gives off a sense of having eaten all the pies then gone back for pudding, and there really isn’t a flattering angle from which to photograph it. Subaru had brought along the latest Outback and Legacy models too, which were understated as ever but still quite handsome. It seems as if they’re finally getting to grips with interiors too, banishing the bad old days of brittle dashboards and cheap switchgear to the past. I’d personally leave the Impreza alone and look at the Legacy B spec, which is very nearly as quick, a lot more practical, and won’t make small children cry in the street.
Back to Europe with a bump for the joint Mercedes-Benz / Brabus stand where you could see the batman-like SLR and a variety of extremely evil looking Brabus specials including the matt black Bullit. There was also a Brabus tuned Smart, but knowing how scary the handling is on the normal one I really wouldn’t like to find out what it’s capable of. Mercedes-Benz were notable as the only German manufacturer who thought it was worth attending the show – Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Rolls-Royce and Porsche decided it wasn’t, despite the UK being large part of their respective markets, although BMW did send the Mini brand along. Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Fiat were also notable for their absence. I’m not sure if this was financial or political but it certainly raised a few questions throughout the event.
Fortunately Seat decided to come along despite being a subsidiary of VAG, and brought various Leons including the limited edition Cupra K1 which is only available in white. They’d also brought the cute new Ibiza, but the BocaNegra sport hatch concept was curiously absent. I spoke to one of Seat’s staff, who assured me that the hot version of the Ibiza will appear soon and follow the styling of the BocaNegra very closely so that’ll be one to look out for.
Bentley put in an appearance, but unfortunately the brand gives off an uncomfortable air of glitziness and you get the feeling their popularity now revolves around footballers and RnB stars. I think people overlook their bulky and not particularly appealing styling because of the sense of money and therefore exclusivity behind the brand, which is a metaphor for many things.
Morgan were quite the opposite bringing the latest 4/4, a knockout duo comprised of the Aero8 and Aeromax and the amazing Lifecar. Where Bentley seem to have left their heritage behind, Morgan are fuelled by nothing but and still build their cars by hand around wooden frames just as they always have. The result is a small but tight range of endearing and stylish vehicles that stands alone in the marketplace. The Aeromax gets more and more impressive the closer you look, right down to the superb turning on the wooden dash and the beautifully milled hinges for the rear hatches, and the Lifecar is a textbook lesson in stylish minimalism. Morgan has one of the smallest stands in the show, but certainly one of the most charismatic regardless.
The Alfa Romeo stand was a highlight for me, and showed a product range that’s arguably unrivalled in terms of style and desirability. From the 8C coupe and roadster, through the Brera, Spider and 159 down to the new MiTo, the styling cues and brand DNA are evident and consistent. Dynamically it has to be said that the Brera leaves a lot to be desired, but there there are always cars where performance really isn’t the key factor behind buying one, and the Brera and Spider are perfect examples. The MiTo is a lot cuter than I’d expected it to be, and even though you can tell from the interior that it isn’t an Alfa from the nuts and bolts up (it’s based on the Fiat Grande Punto platform) it still wears its badge extremely well. The performance oriented GTA version that’s bound to follow is likely to be a scorcher, and if Alfa can keep the wayward handling that dogged the 147 in check, and the price below the current Golf GTI then they’ll have a winner.
Peugeot had a small display this year without too many new concepts and models, but they did bring along the new and extremely attractive 308 RCZ coupe to show us, as featured on Top Gear a couple of weeks ago. The front of the display area was graced by the shark-like Spider 207 Cup with its open cockpit whilst the rest of the space was taken by a number of uninspiring variants of the current 207.
Towards the end of the exhibition hall you could find the Ultimate Supercar Paddock, which featured a variety of extremely expensive vehicles including the Koenigsegg CCX, McLaren Mercedes SLR, Pagani Zonda, Maserati Quattroporte, Ferrari F430 Scuderia, Jaguar XJ220 and a few Weismann Roadsters Coupes. Scattered elsewhere throughout the show were the electric powered Tesla Roadster and Lightning Coupe (with four in-wheel motors), a couple of racing Aston Martins (despite the absence of the marque themselves at the show), a pristine Ferrari F40, a Ford GT alongside an original MK1 Escort rally car and a Model T, and a smattering of tiny and generally weird electric vehicles.
Despite concerns about some absent high profile exhibitors, the Motor Show was a huge success and worth a visit. The problem for future shows is that the Britain government appears to be taking an anti-car stance through recent legislation and taxation changes, and this won’t endear the country to brands from overseas so they may not bother attending in future. Many manufacturers now see shows in other countries as the keystone ones (Geneva, Tokyo etc) and tend to save their major launches for those. This might not sound like a big deal, but a lot of cars are built in the UK and a lot of jobs and areas depend on the industry financially, so the removal of the ‘halo’ products that can be shown off at these shows would have a damaging knock on effect for brand desirability, and ultimately for the future of those workers. Let’s hope that isn’t allowed to happen, and the British Motor Show can regain some of the prestige it once enjoyed.