I’ve been to many motor shows in my time, but never in the UAE. So I’m approaching this year’s show at the International Convention Centre in Dubai, hoping it’ll be more low key than Geneva yet much more alive than the last UK show in 2008, which was so poorly supported by manufacturers and public alike that it was ditched indefinitely.
The Middle East is a very important market for almost every motor manufacturer, however, so their support is almost guaranteed. And the market is still young enough for pessimism and jaded apathy not to have set in with the buying public. There’s a proper buzz about this show and it’s quite contagious.
Entering the first of two large exhibition halls (SS1), what greets visitors is a glamorous, brightly lit arena of car heaven. There are shiny cars and extravagant displays wherever you look, and one of the biggest displays – and perhaps the biggest story – is at the Chevrolet area. For the first time ever, the Dubai show will host an international unveiling, this being for the Chevy Trailblazer seven-seat SUV. The body-on-frame truck actually looks somewhat svelte, a tribute to the Sao Paolo, Brazil-based designers who were also at the event. It will be built first in Thailand and then also in Brazil and should appear in the UAE late next year. John Stadwick, the head of GM Middle East, is excited to soon have it in his lineup.
"I think the global reveal here just shows the commitment GM has for the Middle East, especially with this Trailblazer. It has been our best-selling vehicle prior to 2008, more than 15,000 units a year. It’s been five years in the making with a $2 billion dollar investment, and our biggest concern is are we going to be able to produce enough."
Of course a motor show wouldn’t be a motor show without the glamour vehicles. On the Jaguar Land Rover stand there are two disguised cars: the quite extraordinary C-X75 hybrid supercar and the funky looking DC-100 Land Rover concept – the C-X75 is scheduled for production and the DC-100 is a good bet to make it, too. That’s apart from a brace of Evoques and Jaguar’s new Sport and Speed variants of the luxurious XJ, XKR-S and XFR. As a show of strength and a confident future, this will take some beating.
Aston Martin has been pretty quiet here of late due to changing its dealership structure but that’s set to change with the opening next year of a splendid new showroom in Dubai, a stone’s throw from the newly-opened McLaren facility. Aston has the V12 Zagato sharing space with the Vantage S, a Virage Volante, a Rapide, a DBS and a couple of Cygnets "just to test the waters". Personally I hope they eventually sell the diminutive runabout here – it’s cute and as well appointed as a Chanel handbag.
McLaren, as mentioned, is new to Dubai and this is the first time many have been able to cast an eye over its MP4-12C (despite our hopes, it still hasn’t been given a proper name) supercar. It’s another winner in the making, even if it does look a bit bland compared to what’s just a minute’s walk away. The company also revealed its Special Operations bespoke programme; not only can you get the colour and seats to your liking, but McLaren will work with a client – who has enough cash – to actually make a different body for the car, in case you want to spice it up a little.
Over on the Ferrari stand there’s a stunning white FF, as well as the new 458 Spider, which blew our socks off last month on the international launch. I get the feeling that the order books will be filling nicely but there’s a real shock next door at Maserati. The gorgeous GranCabrio Fendi special edition (basically it has some leather trim with lots of Fs embossed on it) on display has attendees dribbling but it’s sharing stand space with a car that divides opinion like no other Maserati: the Kubang. A Trident-wearing SUV, the Kubang is, in fairness, less unattractive in the metal than photos suggest – not that it’s pretty, you understand.
Based on the underpinnings of the much lauded Jeep Grand Cherokee, it will be assembled alongside said Jeep in Detroit (Maserati parent company, Fiat, now controls Chrysler) and it’s the Italian marque’s attempt at replicating the staggering success of Porsche’s equally controversial Cayenne. That model’s stood the test of time and has allowed Porsche to survive in rude health, meaning the cars we love, like the 911, can continue getting better with each generation. A smart move by Maserati or a dire mistake, only time will tell. But we’re expecting it to be a big seller over here.
Speaking of Porsche and the 911, there’s a new one. Yes, it looks almost exactly the same as the one before it but that’s probably a good thing. But it’s actually an all-new car with an extended wheelbase to overcome the handling problems inherent with having a heavy engine slung out over the rear axle. The rear lamp treatment is particularly neat and the interior is more in line with the Panamera’s, which gives the venerable 911 a much-needed shot in the arm when it comes to cabin ergonomics. We’ll be driving this in a couple of weeks’ time and we have extremely high hopes.
Bentley is making a bit of noise about the Continental GTC, and this is its official Middle East unveiling. It’s a handsome machine and exquisitely engineered but I was expecting the flagship Mulsanne – an excellent drivers’ car – to have had a more prominent position on the crowded stand. Over at Rolls-Royce, however, the Phantom DHC is causing jaws to hit the floor. With a jewel-encrusted Spirit of Ecstasy up front, ahead of a polished aluminium bonnet, the stark blue and white interior, inlayed with mother of pearl trim, has to be seen to be believed. At $250,000 (Dh918,300) over the list price of a "normal" model, this is as extravagant as a factory car gets.
Extravagance is something Lamborghini does better than most and the show marks the first official glimpse here of the genre-defining, game changing Aventador. It’s stunning in every respect and we’ll be testing one on the UAE’s roads within a couple of weeks. But any international motor show is about more than luxury barges and shouty sports cars. The presence of so many "ordinary" manufacturers here goes to show just how diverse the market is.
Most of the usual suspects are here, representing Europe, the Far East and the Americas, and Honda is showing off its humanoid robot ASIMO in case you’re suffering from automotive overload. Very impressive he is too – proof that Honda, even if its cars are rather staid at times, is busy turning the future into the present. Chrysler has a huge stand that included all its new offerings, including a Jeep Grand Cherokee in a sparkly, sandy gold. Jack Rodencal, the managing director for Chrysler Middle East, says his company has enjoyed a 13 per cent growth this year and he expects 2011 will be Chrysler’s best ever year in the Middle East. Rodencal attributes this success to one thing: the new and improved products.
"After 2009 [when Fiat bought controlling shares in Chrysler], our chairman Sergio Marchionne really let excellent people do what they wanted to do. And he drives at it in a hard, demanding pace, but that’s the marketplace. And to do this in a short timeframe – all these vehicles have been changed in a 24-month time – but when you let people do what they want to do, and be passionate about it, that’s what can be done."
Peugeot’s RCZ still looks like a sexy concept car, even though it’s been in production for 18 months now, while Nissan and Toyota’s enormous stands are positively rammed with shiny metal, much of which points to a more environmentally aware motoring future.
Unlike shows such as Geneva and Frankfurt, there isn’t the overwhelming impression that green motoring is high on the agenda. And yet, tucked away in the back of hall SS2, is a blue Tesla Roadster. Dubai’s newly formed Green Car Rental only found out there was some available stand space a couple of days before the show. General manager Mazen Al Toukhi is on excitable form, extolling the virtues of environmentally aware transportation, and he’s ecstatic to report that there’s huge interest in his business, especially from the big corporations here.
And while you’re walking back to the main concourse, perhaps take a moment to stop at the Brabus stand. Surrounded by the likes of Gemballa, TechArt, Mansory and loads of others that take perfectly good cars and obliterate them with gaudy "personalization", Brabus is all about discreet yet stunning performance and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum pays the guys a visit after officially opening the show to personally welcome them to the UAE. The lovely Brabus 800 Coupé is the most powerful and fastest of its kind in the world, with a top speed of 350kph, and it’s here on the stand. Green it certainly is not but it does at least show that there’s something for everyone at the Dubai Motor Show.
* With files from Neil Vorano
The Dubai Motor Show ends on Monday