The latest instalment of the Abu Dhabi International Motor Show was more about what wasn't there than what dazzled the crowds.
Despite various car executives and show officials stressing the Abu Dhabi show was an important event for the Middle East, many major car companies chose to stay away. The Volkswagen Group (including VW, Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Seat, Skoda, Bugatti and Lamborghini), BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, Renault, Volvo and Honda were some of the notable exclusions. So were Chrysler and Fiat and Rolls-Royce. As well, there were almost no exotic, limited-production supercars or wild concepts to captivate car buffs; almost all the cars on display were from mainstream manufacturers. And of those, there was just two hybrid vehicles, from Lexus and Cadillac, a departure from last year's Dubai motor show, which seemed to have some sort of environmentally friendly vehicle on every stand.
But this show certainly wasn't without attraction; the few companies that did present their wares chose Abu Dhabi for the Middle East debuts of some new and exciting vehicles. Land Rover brought its Evoque small SUV; Toyota and Lexus both had small, sporty cars aimed at a younger generation; and GM brought out a few new vehicles, highlighted by the sexy Chevrolet Camaro convertible.
It's only the second time the five-door Evoque has been shown in public; the first being its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month (the three-door version debuted in Paris in September). It will go on sale in the last quarter of next year.
Robin Colgan, the managing director of Jaguar Land Rover in the Middle East, is excited about the new addition to the Range Rover line-up. "We've had really strong interest ever since the car broke cover. This is the first opportunity we'll get to educate people here about what it is and what it does. But I think anything that involves a new Range Rover in this part of the world causes a buzz of interest, and that's what the dealers have expressed."
John Edwards, the global brand director for Land Rover, agrees. "We always say this when we introduce a new car, but I have to tell you, the interest in this car has just been outstanding. Our dealers, our employees, are really excited about this car. This is a huge market for us; 65 per cent of our total sales here are Range Rovers, which is an unusual mix for us globally, so this is critical for us."
The Evoque has already undergone extensive torture testing (including hot-weather tests here in the UAE), something the company is putting more emphasis on with its new models to increase quality. The car will probably come to the UAE with a 240hp, 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. As of yet, there are no plans for a hybrid version, but Edwards hints the idea is not out of the realm for the luxury brand.
"As a business, we've taken our environmental footprint very seriously over the past five years. Every new product we've introduces has been a stepchange in performance. The major stepchanges are when you introduce a completely new model. The next generation of products, which are closely in the pipeline behind this model here, are where we'll make major, major improvements in terms of weight, in terms of powertrain performance, in terms of fuel technologies. So it's a bit further away - and I can't talk in detail about it - but rest assured there will be big changes."
General Motors, under its Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac badges, had four major reveals at Abu Dhabi, although none of them were world firsts.
Attracting the most admiring glances was the Chevrolet Camaro convertible, which debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month. Susan Docherty, GM's vice president of international sales, marketing and after-sales service, said the convertible Camaro embodies "the very best of Chevrolet heritage" and that is has been met with "childlike enthusiasm".
Drivers will be able to operate the convertible roof while the car is in motion at speeds up to 30kph and Docherty says the mechanism is "super, super quiet".
The convertible will be on sale in the UAE next spring.
Less exciting but still very relevant to the post-bailout relaunch of GM was the unveiling for the UAE of the new Chevrolet Captiva crossover.
Docherty says the new Captiva promises "a smooth yet powerful ride" and design updates include a larger grille and prism headlights. It is powered by a 3.0L V6 engine and UAE buyers will have the option of a manual gearbox.
The GMC Terrain's facelift was also revealed at the show. In a move that looks squarely aimed at appealing to Middle East buyers, the newest Terrain crossover is bigger than the previous model - with a much chunkier grille and more aggressive presence. GMC is claiming best-in-class fuel economy of 7.35L/100km for motorway driving. The base version is powered by a 2.4L engine, pumps out 182hp and has a six-speed automatic transmission. Or, buyers can opt for the beefier 3.2L, 264hp in either front- or all-wheel drive.
Luay Alshurafa, regional brand manager for GMC in the Middle East, was keen to point out new features of the Terrain including a powerlift gate, remote start function, separate DVD screens for backseat passengers and navigation radio. He says the new Terrain is "a crossover that will appeal to a wider audience".
Cadillac took the covers off one of the few green entries at the show with the XTS Platinum concept, a plug-in hybrid with a 3.6L V6 engine. Following the advances of Cadillac Escalade's hybrid models, the XTS features a battery that can be fully recharged in five hours via an electrical socket.
It is a large, luxurious saloon that, if it ever makes it to the production line, could provide a strong challenge in the luxury hybrid market to offerings from BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.
Despite the quiet show, the mood was definitely upbeat on the Toyota and Lexus stands, with the announcement of a five per cent increase in Toyota's market share from 2009, rising in 2010 to 31 per cent from 26 per cent. In an announcement aimed at demonstrating that the brand has bounced back from the recalls, a five-year unlimited mileage warranty is now offered across the whole range in the UAE, a decision Simon Frith, managing director of Al Futtaim, the UAE distributors of Toyota, says was "a no-brainer - this is what the customers want".
Toyota purists will welcome the two unveilings in Abu Dhabi, which signals a return to the brand's tradition of small, sporty cars rather than large saloons or SUVs.
The Zelas, on sale as of this week in the UAE, and the FT-86 concept car, are both pitched at attracting younger buyers to the brand.
"A car for tailgate parties," laughs Masayuki Nagai, chief engineer for the Zelas and a Toyota employee for 35 years. It is his unique way of explaining that the car is aimed at a youthful demographic. The Zelas's large hatch and excellent sound system are perfect for parties favoured by young people in Japan, where the hatch is opened and the music is cranked up.
Masayuki says the Zelas, a two-door, front-wheel-drive hatchback with a 2.5L engine, has been four-and-a-half years in development.
"It is a sporty car that is fun to drive, but it also for everyday use, it is not just for limited use or special occasions," says Masayuki.
The base model Zelas is priced at Dh90,000, but the sport version, with paddle shifters for the six-speed automatic transmission and front and rear spoilers, starts at around Dh95,000.
Frith says that, while he expects some customers to opt for the base model, he also expects a large number of buyers will choose to upgrade.
The FT-86 concept car is expected to go into production and go on sale during 2012. Harking back to the Toyota Corolla AE86, an aggressive rear-wheel drive sports car produced from 1983 to 1987, the FT-86 is also rear-wheel-drive with a 2.0L turbocharged engine, twin exhausts, Recaro sports seats and a six-speed gearbox.
Introducing these two cars into the UAE market is part of Toyota's plan to maintain customer loyalty as well as attract new buyers, says Frith. He says the improvement he has witnessed in recent years of South Korean brands is "a lesson in complacency - we have to keep making great cars to keep up and, with these cars, [the Zelas and FT-86], we are going back to our roots".
Also shooting for a younger demographic is Toyota's premium brand, Lexus. Along with the production-ready version of the super-exclusive LFA performance car, Lexus had the lone eco-friendly launch of the motor show with the CT200h, a premium compact with a hybrid powertrain. It will be on sale in early 2011, though no price has been set as yet.
"We are trying to attract a younger skew, a market that is not usually part of our base," Saud Abbasi, general manager for Lexus in the UAE.
"It is nimble, it is compact and the hybrid has amazing performance," he says. "It is aimed at those who are socially and environmentally aware."
The LFA performance car, meanwhile, will have an exclusive allocation for the UAE and orders are now being taken, although exact numbers from the limited 500-car production run have not yet been confirmed. The car, described by Abbasi as "ultra-VIP" that can be customised to every owner's individual preferences, will cost Dh1.6 million.
Mazda's grand unveiling is still in the concept stage, but like the Japanese automaker's Shinari concept, a sleek four-door coupe, the Kazamai will no doubt influence the design of showroom-ready Mazdas in the foreseeable future.
The Kazamai is a futuristic concept crossover with headlights and tail lights sharp enough to shave with, large wheels and intricate seam designs incorporated into the doors. No production date has been set for a sturdier production version of the Kazamai but with the current line of Mazdas already featuring sharper design, this concept is an interesting and eye-catching hint of things to come from Hiroshima.