Geneva Then

10 Mar

Of the major European auto shows, Geneva has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, it’s in Geneva. Amazing coincidence, that. Second, it’s held in early March, so there’s some hope that the earth will once again tilt toward spring in the northern hemisphere. And third, the show brings back memories. (Fast forward to today at “Geneva 2014“)

My first Geneva show was in 1980, and three of its elements are still bright in the otherwise murky landscape of my memory.

Number One: Paper

Reams of paper. Brochures. Booklets. Photos. The Internet was only a concept in 1980, and journalists used typewriters. There was no World Wide Web, so of course there were no web sites. Press information was doled out as printed matter, and there was lots of it. I must have accumulated about 25 pounds of press kits, which included a lot photography, mostly black and white.

The challenge of covering the show today is posed by the sheer volume of press presentations, but the Web and press kits on USB drives have eliminated the stevedore element—no more lugging mass quantities of printed material.

Number Two: Ferrari

Geneva has long been a favored forum for Ferrari, and in 1980 its major introduction was the Mondial 8. This was my first Ferrari intro, and it’s composed of two chapters in my memory. Chapter one was the show car, a handsome mid-engined 2+2 styled by Pininfarina. I was impressed.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

But that positive impression was tempered by chapter two, when I drove a Mondial across the country, from New Jersey to Sunset and La Cienega Boulevards, in Hollywood, where I was employed by Motor Trend magazine. The Mondial turned heads, but it didn’t turn them quickly. There was a 3.0-liter twin cam V-8 engine mounted behind the cabin, driving the rear wheels. It was nourished by Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection—the same engine was fed by carbs in the GT4, the Mondial’s predecessor—but at 205 horsepower, propelling some 3500 pounds of car, acceleration was distinctly ho-hum, and not at all what I expected from a machine bearing the logo of Enzo Ferrari.

Number Three: De Lorean

Perhaps this should have been number one, because it’s certainly my most incandescent memory from that 1980 show.

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

photo credit: SpeedHunter XxX via photopin cc

You’ll recall that John Zachary De Lorean was the General Motors renegade who left GM to establish his own company around a mid-engined two-seat sports car with gullwing doors and stainless steel skin.

The set designers for the De Lorean presentation must have been theater professionals, because the stand was beautifully set up, with soft lighting that dramatized the car’s silvery skin as well as the man’s thatch of salt-and-pepper hair. He wore his hair fashionably long, and the team that prepped the set may have spent as much time on that coiffure as the car. De Lorean was a handsome man with a strong presence, a compelling presenter, and a very good speaking voice—qualities that served him well as a fund-raiser, as they had when he rose to leadership of GM’s number one sales division.

I can’t recall specifically what De Lorean had to say in his Geneva pitch. It was generally predictable—the bold independent casting off the shackles of convention to create something memorable. But just about everyone crowded around the stand seemed mesmerized by De Lorean’s delivery.

It was a great moment, and proved to be the zenith of the entire DMC (De Lorean Motor Company) saga. I suppose it glimmers in my memory as it does because what followed entailed so many disappointments and so much disillusion.

Many of us were rooting for De Lorean and his dream—naively, it seems. Because even as we listened to John Z’s oratory, the dream was already coming apart at the seams. The car may have looked dramatic, but assembly quality was abysmal, power was tepid, and at about $25,000 it was overpriced. Though not as exotic, a new Corvette delivered much more performance, as well as readily accessible factory service, for about $9000 less.

Beyond that, the British government, which had heavily subsidized the startup, to create jobs in Northern Ireland, was already asking hard questions about where its loans were going. De Lorean, for his part, was simultaneously asking for more financing.

So in retrospect that great beginning at the Geneva show was actually the beginning of the end for De Lorean. Though there was a memorable press preview driving event in Northern Ireland. But that’s another story.

Requiescat en pace, John Z.

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2015 Kia K900

27 Feb

An elegant example of the difference between luxury and prestige.

The new car market is awash with mouth-watering vehicles conceived to pamper your person, enhance perceptions of your status, and make you happy every time you settle in behind the wheel. Maybe make you happy even when you merely look out the window, and see that seductive ride of yours sitting there, poised, waiting, provoking covetous stares from passersby.

There are two factors at play here: luxury and prestige. Luxury is readily achievable in an automobile, given sufficient financial resources and a competent design team. Prestige, however, is far more elusive.

Which brings me to the K900, a new rear-drive sedan designed to elevate Kia to previously uncharted territory: the realm of luxury, in fact. It’s big, it’s roomy, it’s posh, it’s handsome. And like other Kias, in the template established by parent company Hyundai.

That’s where it gets tricky. The K900 certainly has essentially all the attributes that make for luxurious motoring. But it lacks the pedigree that distinguishes the luxo establishment. So what will that mean? Let’s come back to that question a little later.

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The Car

Like other Kia vehicles, the K900 shares a lot of its structure and drivetrain with a corresponding Hyundai, in this case the Hyundai Genesis, as well elements from the bigger Equus, Hyundai’s big executive sedan.

The exterior design comes across as cautiously contemporary, a slippery shape with raked back windshield and fast rear window. Its most distinctive element, at least to my eye, is Kia’s so-called Tiger Nose grille (squint as I might, I can’t see anything feline in this design) and the 16-element LED lighting array at the front. LEDs have become pretty common as design enhancements, thanks to Audi, but the K900’s lamps look spiffy, particularly at night. And the headlamps angle up to 12 degrees in the direction of a turn.

Inside, the K900 has everything you’d expect in a $65,000 luxury car—17-speaker orchestral audio; attractive instrumentation; a vase parnoramic moon roof; a very cool color head up display that includes speedometer, nav info, cruise setting, and blind spot warning; high quality materials including heated and cooled Nappa leather seats (power reclinable in the rear, as well as up front); up to the minute telematics including navigation with a 9.2-inch screen.

On the Road

In the luxury tournament, where Kia hopes the K900 will become a player, the dynamic standards are defined by cars developed on and for the toughest crucible on earth—the German autobahn system. On superhighways that still include stretches where top speed is at the discretion of the driver, the car must possess the reflexes of a world class boxer, surgically precise steering, ample power, and potent brakes.

Those qualities still distinguish the big sedans of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, but assessed by those standards I have to say the K900 measures up as a pleasant surprise. The suspension tuning hits the sweet spot where firm and smooth co-exist comfortably, and the combination of solid chassis and decisive roll stiffness keep body motions to a minimum during quick transitions.

The K900 executes rapid direction changes with very little reluctance and minimal rock ’n roll. Quick maneuvers—accident avoidance, for example—would be even more decisive if the electric power steering was capable of providing a little more information about where the front wheels are pointing. The driver will likely be making little adjustments after the initial turn.

But that lament applies to many of the new electric steering systems in varying degrees, and in any case the K900’s tiller is a little more tactile than the system in the Hyundai Equus, its mechanical cousin, and the same can be said for its dynamics.

Power, delivered in the test car by a 5.0-liter V8 (a V6 model will be offered later), rates as abundant: 420 horsepower is far from unusual in this class of car—all the Germans offer much more potent engine options. But it propels the K900 with gratifying vigor, and I’d bet it’ll be more than sufficient for most owners. Makes stimulating power noises at full throttle, too. The eight-speed automatic transmission is smooth, and EPA fuel economy ratings competitive at 15 mpg city, 23 highway, though not what anyone would call outstanding.

I mentioned power noises, which brings me to a K900 dynamic virtue that may be best-in-class: noise. As in absence of. This is an exceptionally quiet car, as befits a luxury sedan.

The Bottom Line

I mentioned a $65,500 pricetag for the K900 V8. That’s not exactly inexpensive, even by the standards of some of the Germans Kia hopes to rival. But that’s the price for the car I drove at Kia’s intro event, V8 VIP, the K900 model that will be the first to appear in Kia showrooms. The basic K900, which will be available a in a few months, will be priced from about $50,000.

The V8 VIP is the top of the line, loaded with just about every feature in the order book, and as such rates as a very tempting value.

Tempting, that is, unless you want the intangible that goes with one of the Teutonic lords of the autobahn: Prestige.

That takes time, and while the K900 has everything that makes luxury luxurious, prestige will have to be patient.

—Tony Swan

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