Monday, 12 December 2011

Bologna Motor Show – December 2011

Think of Bologna and you’ll most likely think of a certain pasta dish regularly seen on dinner tables across the country.  But, aside from being famous for its wide ranging food and drink supplies, this city also plays host to pretty much every supercar manufacturer worthy of note.  Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani can all call the city if not home, at least a significant neighbour.  Whilst run of the mill car production from the likes of Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia (and now Chrysler) is spread throughout Italy, Bologna is a city that lives and breathes the automotive exotic.

It’s apparent when you arrive at the airport.  Amongst the usual sight of bag shops, tourist tat stalls and purveyors of overpriced liquor, you will find a Ferrari store, opposite a Ducati store.  The beautiful city centre once featured the original Maserati factory, and the statue of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore, reminds us of this with his trident being held aloft – that same trident now featuring so proudly on the bootlid of every new Maserati car to come out of the Modena factory, up the road.

So it’s not surprising to learn that Italy’s national motor show is held every year in the Bologna Fiere district, to the north of the old city.  Whilst it’s not on the scale of the likes of Frankfurt, Geneva or Paris, the exhibition centre spans a very large area and, for this year, features an open air arena in the centre, with banks of stands filled with spectators viewing rallycross demonstrations.

In truth, this is not the reason for my attendance.  Previous trips to Bologna in search of some kind of romantic supercar ideal, have borne fruit – tours of the Lamborghini factory and museum, a one to one tour of the Pagani workshops with Mrs Pagani herself, along with a chance encounter with a certain Valentino Balboni out on a test drive in a Murcielago workhorse – these things have all convinced me that this region is the promised land when it comes to automotive excellence.

I’m here for the Italian supercars that still occupy a place in my heart, if no longer poster space on my bedroom wall.  I’m also armed with VIP passes, gained through a contact in London, for the Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati stands.  As far as I am concerned, the rest of the assembled motoring offerings are nothing more than window dressing.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Italy’s formal unification into something like the country we recognise today.  To celebrate, Maserati have starting producing a run of only 12 GranTurismo S ‘Limited Edition’ models.  The first of these is rotating slowly on the centre of the stand.  Finished in a beautiful shade of blue, with black wheels, these cars will only be sold in Italy.  It’s a beautiful car, although modifications barely go skin deep as the engine and transmission are unchanged.  It’s hard to get good photos in the low lighting conditions, but much harder to get a look inside.  With this beautiful car, comes a beautiful model.

Maserati GranTurismo S 'Limited Edition'
I’ve been to many motor shows, and the presence of a leggy model on press days is normal, but I’m here well into the show’s run.  This car, and every other car on the stand has a woman draped over it, and another sat inside it.  A request to move seems out of the question, as it seems every red blooded Italian male is expressing just as much interest in the girls as the cars.  I’m fortunate enough to be allowed onto the stand, whilst paying punters queue four of five deep to just photograph the cars, so I suppose it’s a privilege to be this close.  But, if I’m considered worthy enough to come through the barrier, surely it wouldn’t be too much to expect to get in, close the door and make car noises without an Italian girl staring at me?

No matter, I move on to snaffle some free cakes before taking a look at the Quattroporte on the stand.  This one, finished in Mafia staff car black, is hiding at the back of the display.  For most of the time, it doesn’t have a girl draped over it.  This is because, it’s likely to be the last show for this car, which is due to be replaced with two separate models next year.  It’s always been a favourite of mine, and to this day I consider it pretty much the best looking car on sale today.  It’s also been a great success for Maserati, and has had much to do with the company’s incredible ride from being an also ran on the cusp of death, to a manufacturer of significant renown.  Just take a trip around central London these days, and you’ll see Quattroportes everywhere.

Maserati Quattroporte

The GranTurismo is based on the Quattroporte – take a close look at one and you will see just how large they are.  Aside from the limited edition car still spinning in front of the starry-eyed locals, there’s also an example of a lightened racing version, the MC Stradale alongside more down to earth variants of the coupe and convertible.  To me, this car doesn’t work as a lightened, track day special – it seems to contradict the nature of this car, which is defined by it’s own moniker – and my attention wanders back to the delicious snacks on offer at the bar.

I go off in search of Ferrari.  I’m pleased to find a selection of Ferrari racing biased cars.  The latest Formula One car is proudly displayed, alongside trackday versions of the Enzo and 599.  These are nicely set out, in a large number of small ‘pens’ which enable circulation of the general populace, allowing them to pay homage to the local speciality.  It’s nice to see a breaking down of the normal barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ at this show, as Ferrari stands generally occupy a rarified space where it is usual to look, but forbidden, except for the chosen few, to touch.

My democratic feelings soon fade away when I discover that Ferrari has no formal display of road cars at this show.  I’ve travelled a long way for this spectacle and I’m quite shocked to find this out.  I’m not sure if I’m more disappointed about missing the chance to see the 458 Spyder, or another opportunity for snacks.  The quality of the latter is normally second to none.  I find a solitary 458 Coupe on show in a hall dedicated to posh cars with unofficial origins, which seems to have been installed as a sort of apology to those, like me, expecting the big supercar maufacturers, and the more exotic specialists, to have a presence here today.

It’s here that I realise that not only are Ferrari road cars missing, but so too are Lamborghini, and Pagani.  There’s a current model Aventador getting a lot of attention in one corner, opposite a middle aged Zonda C12S, but the sorry collection of cars presented here is no real consolation.  The situation is made worse by the presence of a toxic waste yellow coloured Bentley Continental Flying Spur in the same small hall.  I figure it means Bentley’s stand, normally well worth a look even for one so keen on Italian supercars, is not here either.  I am correct in my assumption.  Rolls Royce are missing too.

I take my pass to the information desk in the centre of the show to make sure I’ve not missed something obvious.  A brief conversation comprising shouty English and hand gestures, along with some name dropping brings forth a moment of joy – I’m told I will find Lamborghini upstairs, at the top of an escalator up which only those with a pass are allowed.  I’m presented with the pass and I ascend to find a display of Lamborghini branded furniture and carpets.  There are some free snacks here and, having duly abused my pass, I go back down to see if it’s possible to recover the day.

Things don’t improve rapidly.  It’s clear that not all of the major manufacturers consider this show worth their effort.  A conversation with a member of staff on the Audi stand leads me to understand that the last couple of years have seen fewer brands being on show.  Ferrari and Lamborghini, I am told, have not attended since 2009.  As I wander, I find that Toyota, the world’s largest and most profitable car company, do not have a display.  They’re not the only ones.

At the Frankfurt motor show this year, Mercedes Benz built a multi storey temple to the three pointed star.  It was more showpiece than showcase and the experience of a fifteen minute shuffle, shoulder to shoulder with sweaty Northern Europeans, left a lot to be desired.  I didn’t actually look at any cars, as I just wanted to get out into the fresh air.  At Bologna however, the stand was much more conventional.  On show were a couple of SLS’s, and the A-Class concept car that has been doing the rounds recently.  We were too early for the new SL, but in the more traditional setting of this show, it was nice to have a chance to try out the new SLK and ML Class.  The previous models had their gestation in the profit obsessed, troubled times following the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler merger experience, and these new models seem to be imbued with a feeling of quality that was never quite there  with the previous models.

Current Benz cars are doing much to invoke the glory days of the likes of the W124 E-Class, when drivers had the impression that their cars were hewn from solid rock and would last as long.  It’s clear in the design both externally and internally, that curves are out and bold, straight lines are back in, harking back to those days.  It makes me smile to see a G-Class being displayed on this stand.  If there is any model in the marque’s history which better sums up the principle of longevity better than this mother of all SUV’s, then I’m yet to see it.

This car is kept locked shut, but a flash of my special pass gets me in, or rather up.   I have to climb up on the running board to get in behind the wheel, before closing the driver’s door to revel in the experience.  Mercedes have done a lot to bring this car up to modern standards.  This model is a G500, a 5 litre V8 petrol with automatic transmission, satellite navigation, beautiful nappa leather and the latest multi function steering wheel.  But it’s clear the moment I close the door, that this car has history.  When the door is pulled shut, it emits a sound akin to the closing of an antique safe.  There’s none of the sound design of modern equivalents here – the door shut sounds good, because for all I know, these doors are actually fit to be used on a safe.

It should smell of musty leather and petrol in here, but it doesn’t.  It feels like the comfy pair of shoes you never want to throw away, but without the holes that let in water – it’s wonderfully familiar and gives me the feeling that this is a car that would last forever and survive anything that was thrown at it.  More than any other car today, I want one.  But then I realise that it’s on sale for Maserati money, and I head over to Land Rover to compare notes with the Defender, which must surely be the only other contender for the G-Class crown.  It too is locked, but nobody lets me in.  I peer through the window and only get to consider how these two compare for a few moments before moving on.

There’s not that much in the way of new product launches, or vehicles which haven’t already grabbed headlines.  I look with interest at some of the Chinese and Indian manufacturers on display, the former with brands I neither recognise nor care about.  No doubt this will change, but for now, I’ll pass on anything more than a cursory inspection of the RAV4/Vitara clones on show today.  VW are pushing their new up! at this event.  There are posters all over town for this new city car, and it’s the first chance I get to take a decent look at it.  I’ll assume they won’t be selling the ‘black up!’ version in the UK, nor the ‘white up!’ for fairly obvious reasons, but aside from these basic errors in nomenclature, the car passes muster.  It’s light years ahead of the sickly Fox and tinny Lupo models it succeeds, and had a great deal of the spirit that small cars should have apparent, just from sitting in the cabin.  It shouts ‘drive me hard’ at whilst I grip the lovely three spoke steering wheel.  I make a mental note to have a go in one when they go on sale in the UK, to compare to my own Fiat 500.

For old time’s sake, and to get my money’s worth  before the show ends, I head over to the Fiat/Lancia/Alfa Romeo area to go and prod the switches on the new Panda.  For Italians, this is a car which can not be ignored.  More often than not, this car is the choice of the cash strapped Italian, to be used as a dodgem around city streets and as a grand tourer, come the August holidays.  This new model doesn’t differ much visually from the model it replaces.  Some refinements in the design, particularly internally, bring it up to 2011 standards but the major change is under the bonnet.  It’s the second Fiat car to get the innovative TwinAir parallel twin motor, and the first without a turbocharger attached to it.

This engine is likely to feature heavily in the Fiat group product lineup over the next few years , and that’s no bad thing.  The environmental credentials of the parallel twin petrol engine are second to none, and it also makes the cars attached to it, fun to drive.  It’s full of character, and makes a great sound.  There’s a display area outside, where I watch various Fiat group cars so equipped get punted around.  I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the 875cc engine, and can almost imagine being in any Italian city in the 1960’s.

It’s funny how my journey through the show has gone from one extreme to another.  I note that I have gone from eating posh cakes and dodging catwalk models on the Maserati stand, to eating a KitKat, leaning against a barrier, watching Fiat Pandas drive around a small section of tarmac.  But this fairly sums up how things are right now.  Money is tight.  Italy is a country in financial straights, like much of the rest of Europe.  This sort of thing is more relevant than any supercar at the present time.

I decide not to go back in to the show as the sun sets.  I’ve seen what I need to, and I can’t stand another moment of the God awful hard house music being incessantly pumped out of every stand by a legion of Eurotrash DJ’s.  I’ve tired of the models draped over every car, from Maserati to Megane and the free cakes have run out.  I know that I should have researched before coming out here, but had I done that, I would have missed out on an experience that comparatively few of my countrymen and women get to see.

Any remaining doubts about the need for the trip dispel after a short taxi ride into the centre of Bologna.  Piazza Maggiore, complete with that statue of Neptune holding his trident, has been transformed into a warm coloured, winter wonderland.  I wander around the magnificent covered arcades and find a shop devoted to selling Fiat branded chocolates.  I ask you, where else in the world would such a thing be possible? 

Alex Wakefield

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