Special Coverage

Auto Show

GENEVA – This year’s auto show here delivers at least three vehicles bound to leave people scratching their heads, wondering if they’ve entered an alternative dimension.

The Rolls-Royce Phantom Experimental Electric, Lancia Voyager minivan and Ford Ranger Wildtrak pickup might be well-executed, but all three represent significant departures for their respective brands and the European market, in general.

The Fiat-owned Lancia brand is known for luxury cars but now will offer a rebadged minivan, a result of Fiat’s ownership stake in Chrysler.

Lancia will market the Voyager in Europe as a multipurpose vehicle, but it actually is much larger than those currently on the road in Europe, including the MPV the Voyager replaces, the Lancia Phedra.

At the press conference here, a black Voyager rolls out on stage to the urban beat of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” the same song that drove the success of Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial last month. But the Lancia unveiling of the Voyager lacks the same emotional impact.

Ford unveils the Wildtrak, a version of the Ranger compact pickup slated to go on sale in the U.K. in November. The new Ranger will be produced in Thailand, South Africa and Argentina for more than 180 markets worldwide.

The sporty Wildtrak variant, a 5-passenger, 4-door pickup designed and developed in Australia, will offer 4-wheel drive and two diesels, a 2.2L 4-cyl. or 3.2L 5-cyl. Perhaps there is a small niche for a vehicle that offers Land Rover-like off-road capability, a modest tow rating and a comfortable interior. But the real market for pickups is the U.S., and the Wildtrak won’t be available here.

Ford’s rationale for leaving out the U.S. actually makes sense: This new Wildtrak is larger than the U.S.-built Ranger, which ends production this year in St. Paul, MN.

Ford officials contend the new Wildtrak is too close in many dimensions to the F-Series, which has been the best-selling pickup in the U.S. for 34 years, according to Ward’s data.

So even though the European market for pickups may be small, Ford wants to position the Wildtrak in anticipation of growth in the segment.

“We want leadership in pickups in all markets we compete in,” a Ford insider says. “We have it in the U.S., so no need for any change or any additional products there. We need it in the rest of the world.”

Another puzzler at the show is the Rolls-Royce Phantom EV, which replaces a V-12 gasoline engine with 96 lithium-ion battery cells and two electric motors capable of delivering 389 hp. Expected range is up to 124 miles (200 km), and a full recharge will take about eight hours.

The BMW-owned auto maker will tour extensively this year with the experimental concept and gather feedback from customers and others in determining whether a business case exists.

“Can electric luxury fulfill the Rolls-Royce promise of perfection, or does it represent an unacceptable compromise for our owners?” a marketing brochure asks. “By the end of the year, we hope to have the answer.”

Hats off to the storied British luxury maker for trying to be green, but a brand built entirely on conspicuous consumption cannot easily recast itself as a serious proponent of conservation – at least not while 18 cowhides are necessary for every Rolls-Royce interior.

Slightly more palatable is the rear-wheel-drive Porsche Panamera S hybrid, which goes on sale in the fourth quarter and uses nearly the same powertrain as the Cayenne hybrid cross/utility vehicle, a 3.0L supercharged V-6 paired with a 34-kW (46-hp) electric motor to produce a combined 380 hp.

Nickel-metal-hydride batteries under the cargo floor can store up to 288 volts of power to keep the vehicle running after the engine shuts off. The vehicle can “sail” at speeds of 103 mph (165 km/h). With a soft foot, the auto maker says the Panamera S hybrid can accelerate from 0 to 53 mph (85 km/h) on electric power, alone.

Compared with the Cayenne hybrid, a key differentiator for the Panamera S is the addition of an active cooling system that uses ambient air from the cabin to cool the rear battery compartment.

In the larger Cayenne, the battery compartment is more spacious, so active cooling is not necessary, Stefan Utsch, Panamera project manager-sales and marketing, tells Ward’s on the show floor.

Based on the combined European driving cycle, Porsche’s new hybrid is rated at 35 mpg (6.8 L/100 km). Electric power steering – not available on non-hybrid Panameras – contributes to the fuel efficiency.

Porsche’s first hybrid, the Cayenne, has been available since November in the U.S. Since then, the auto maker says it has sold 4,089 Cayennes, including 662 hybrids.

Utsch says he hopes the Panamera hybrid will find similar success.

“We still have to fulfill both targets – best-in-class performance and really good fuel consumption,” he says. “I think the Panamera S hybrid is one answer to this question.”

For historical perspective, Porsche also rolls out an exact replica of the “Semper Vivus,” the world’s first functional full-hybrid car, which was unveiled 111 years ago by company founder Ferdinand Porsche.

After the show, the replica will be exhibited in the Porsche museum in Stuttgart. Two concepts from Renault – the Captur and R-Space – illustrate the artsy leanings of the Geneva auto show.

The diesel-powered Captur crossover coupe offers a visually stunning interior consisting of illuminated elastic ropes stretched tightly around seat frames and along the instrument panel, interior trim and the exhaust tunnel, running the length of the vehicle.

The concept is not terribly practical but manages to capture the attention of future-oriented automotive designers at the show, filling the cabin with a warm neon glow.

The Geneva auto show wraps up March 13.