by Robert Llewellyn
I was only there for one day, and I'm still recovering; car shows are fairly energy sapping events. Everyone I met in Halle 7 said the same thing, "Oh, Geneva is the best one. It's not too big, you can get around and see everything."
Remind me never to go to the really big ones, then.
Having never been to a motor show before, it's hard for me to make a definitive statement that this one was different. I was told by a few veterans that it certainly was, due to the incredible number of electric cars on display.
I was there on press day, so the general public were not present. It was very busy though, hundreds of men in dark suits festooned with cameras and a professional attitude, rushing from presentation to presentation, all of which were accompanied by thundering action movie soundtracks and impressive 50 foot wide video screens.
Words like, "emotion" and "excitement" and phrases like "live for the moment" appeared in 10-foot-high letters as yet another red sports car with a big internal combustion engine would be shown driving along yet another deserted mountain road.
Rolls Royce Phantom Experimental Electric 102EX live photos
The web is already awash with things like the electric Rolls Royce Phantom, which I have to say was pretty impressive.
The Rolls Royce 102 EX Phantom Experimental Electric, to give it the proper title, is fitted with a 71-kilowatt-hour battery and an induction (wireless) charging system. As with so many manufacturers, Rolls Royce just whipped out the massive V-12 engine and gearbox and replaced it with some rather swishy British made lithium-ion batteries.
However, unusually for such a conversion the car is no heavier than the drill-and-burn original. The ridiculous thing was so heavy in the first place that the introduction of close to a ton of batteries makes no difference.
2011 Volkswagen Bulli Concept live photos
As I wandered around I started to discern the difference between a greenwash concept car and one that companies were actually selling. The VW Bulli electric camper van was particularly enticing. It was beautifully put together, but of course you can¹t buy one, they're not making it right now. Even though it will garner VW an amazing amount of publicity, it was just for show.
The Bulli was surrounded by dozens of Bluemotion 'eco' diesels all plastered with their staggeringly low CO2 tailpipe spume. Sorry, I'm not impressed. I'm sure they are really good, I admit they are better than big, heavy, gas-guzzling ego cars, but they are used by phalanxes of neoconservative auto bullies as 'proof' that electric cars just don't do the job.
As I wandered around, I didn't need to look for electric cars stuck away in dark corners, I just looked for the dense crowds. Sure enough, in the middle would be an electric car--they clearly were the central theme of the whole show.
Somehow the lumbering, carbon-fibered, old fashioned supercars, the Veyrons and race-tuned Porsche Cayennes, just looked so last century: behemoths for the rich and stupid.
2012 Ford Focus Electric at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
On the Ford and Audi stands, the Focus Electric and the Audi e-Tron were definitely the main attraction. At GM, the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera (the UK version of the Volt) looked very interesting and was getting a lot of attention.
I'm looking forward to test driving one soon, but after all this, the only true, built-from-the-ground-up fully electric car you can buy at the moment is of course the 2011 Nissan Leaf.
The Leaf was perpetually surrounded by a seething mass of journalists. Nissan are rightly very proud of the position they are in, and after pumping close to $5 billion into the project, it seems fair to acknowledge they are putting their money where their mouth is.
Nissan ESFlow at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
The only new model presentation I actually watched was for the Nissan ESflow, sadly another concept. It's certainly very swish, and from what I gathered from Nissan, they clearly want to put it into production.
This led to the most interesting conversation I had all day. The architecture of an electric car is so different, so unconstrained by the layout of blocky internal combustion engine, gearbox, and drive shafts, that Nissan are rethinking the whole notion of what a car is.
Frustratingly for us, this is going to take rather a long time.
Mia at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
One very refreshing approach was from the French firm Mia. They have been quietly building electric cars for some time, selling them too, loads of them. It seems there are many people in France who don't suffer from the very Anglo Saxon male hang up that unless it 'looks like a proper car,' it's only an ugly box and 'you wouldn't be seen dead in it.'
Well, Mia are making a wonderful 'un-proper' car that I really liked.
The four-seat model was refreshing, with a central seat for the driver and three seats to the rear. It felt surprisingly roomy inside for such a small car, and the visibility was incredible. Having the driver in the middle is a really good idea.
Inside the Mia at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
After spending many years pointlessly railing against Range Rovers and the type of people who think they are even remotely necessary, I have to say I was intrigued to see the Range Rover plug-in hybrid.
It's a 3-ton sport utility that puts out no more CO2 than a Toyota Prius. I couldn¹t help wondering how accurate these figures are, but Land Rover are apparently going to put this model into production.
Hybrids were the most common drive type on display, along with the new model Toyota Prius Plus. Honda had bag loads of Hybrids, even Mercedes-Benz had one.
I sat in it and the well-spoken German salesman explained how they had used hybrid technology to increase performance. Those Mercedes fellows are going to faff about with eco stickers on the side, but their hybrid uses just as much fuel as any of their enormous, heavy cars, it just goes a bit faster.
Electric drive powertrain at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
I spent a lot of time with the Volvo folks. They unveiled the V60 diesel plug-in hybrid. This is a very nice car and a big step for them. Again, not a concept, a production car, but still a good 18 months away from going on sale.
Sadly, it has little chance of getting into the American market, but in hybrid mode Volvo are claiming less than 50 grams of CO2 per kilometer, which translates to 124 miles to the gallon.
They too had a battery electric model proudly on display, the C30. It's a conversion from an existing model, and they aren't selling it, just leasing a few hundred in Europe. It's a great car, I've driven it, but Volvo are taking a very cautious, step-by-step approach.
BYD e6 at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
I am missing out literally dozens of other electric cars, including the Tesla Model S, which was on display but in mid-construction form--just an unpainted body shell with no motors or battery. I would imagine three years ago Tesla would have been the star of the show, and I'm sure they will again when there is a finished Model S on a glossy turntable.
One company which stands out in my memory was BYD. I heard all sorts of stories from automotive journalists about the slightly worrying safety record of Chinese car builders, but BYD had a good range of all electric cars on offer, ones they are actually making as opposed to exotic concepts, plus an impressive electric drive system for trucks and buses.
All the manufacturers I talked to mentioned China. Volvo is now owned by a Chinese company, China is the big market, China is building more cars, buying more cars and importing more cars than all the rest of us put together.
Opel/Vauxhall Ampera at 2011 Geneva Motor Show, photo by Robert Llewellyn
So after all that, there was even less doubt in my mind that the electric car is coming. They are coming in numbers and it will have an enormous impact on the way we drive and the way we consume energy.
This has already elicited an equally enormous reaction in the press and I see negative spin increasing with a vengeance in the next few years. The powerful vested interests that stand to lose out from this change will not go down without a fight.
At the show, I was people-watching as much as car-watching. Something has shifted now, and the male journalists who just last year would have belittled any electric car were looking confused, worried, unsure of what the future holds.
I must admit I finally felt a little smug, but I tried to hide it.
Robert Llewellyn is a British actor and presenter best known for his roles as Kryten the mechanoid in the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf and presenter of Scrapheap Challenge, the U.K. version of Junkyard Wars. He also regularly presents shows for the Discovery network and his web-based chat-show CarPool has just finished its first season on U.K. television network Dave.Llewellyn's latest web-based show, Fully Charged, is a regular podcast in which he explores the world of plug-in vehicles. He also writes regularly on the subject of electric vehicles on his own blog and can be followed on Twitter. Llewellyn was one of 25 participants to take part in Mitsubishi's 2009-2010 public trail of the 2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car.