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The Rolls-Royce 120EX is an electric powered Phantom.
The Rolls-Royce 120EX is an electric powered Phantom.

Swiss Rolls is electric

Rolls-Royce dominates the green rollout in Switzerland. Neil Vorano reports on the concepts and launches from the Geneva Motor Show

Switzerland has a tradition of neutrality, which I won't go into so much here. Look it up. But that famous neutrality is reflected at the Geneva Motor Show - since the country isn't home to any large car maker, no one participating manufacturer dominates the show, so everyone tries to upstage everyone else. It makes for plenty of new model launches and wild concept unveilings, and the 2011 version of the show, which closes on March 13, is no exception.

It seems just about every car maker in the world is here, and just about every booth has at least one launch or concept car on display, far too many to go into detail about. And, in a trend that has been popular at every car show in recent memory, the Geneva Motor Show was swathed in the green of environmentally friendly vehicles; again, just about every manufacturer, save the performance marques of the likes of Lamborghini, Pagani and Koenigsegg, had some form of electric car on display.

One such vehicle proved to be one of the biggest shocks of the show. Rolls-Royce, the epitome of excess, showcased its 102EX fully electric Phantom concept. It marks the first time the British car maker has even thought about an electric car, but don't think Rolls is going all green just yet.

"We're trying very hard not to position this car as being a green project, because that's not what it's about," says Nigel Wonnacott, product PR manager for Rolls-Royce. "It's not about sustainability as far as being green; it's about being a sustainable business model in making sure that we're prepared for the future.

"I think for us, we're very mindful that we're brand guardians for Rolls-Royce," continues Wonnacott. "The brand has been around for 107 years, an enormously successful brand, and we have to be careful of that. So we really need to think about how we can ensure that, in the long term, we have a sustainable business model 20, 30 years down the line."

The manufacturer has no plans to put the 102EX into production just yet; it's a single concept that Rolls-Royce built not only to test the technology's viability with the brand, but to gauge client feedback on whether they would be happy dropping a big engine for green power. The company plans a worldwide tour with the 102EX to meet with clients.

"Because it's so important that we listen to our customers," says Wonnacott, "we've created a car with an electric drivetrain so that we have a vehicle to present them and say, 'This is a working prototype. We know you like your V12 engines, but we need to think about it'. We need to consider what kind of drivetrains might be powering our cars in 20 or 30 years time. And so 102EX is really a market research tool that lets us take the discussion to our clients, and start a discussion about what they think would be an appropriate drivetrain for Rolls-Royce."

Will Middle East clients go for an electric Rolls-Royce when the 102EX comes out here in August? The company's chief executive, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, isn't sure. "In the Middle East, that will be interesting; I can't judge on that. Knowing that hybrid cars aren't popular in the region, I wouldn't be surprised to see the same reaction with that car. Especially since our Middle East customers like their V12s and the power."

Another stand that was full of new models was the large, clean white Volkswagen spread. They showcased the new Golf Cabriolet, which was last produced in 2006. The Amorak pickup truck was there, as was the highlight of the stand - the Bulli retro electric minibus concept, plugged into a charging station.

Above the crowd in the private lounge area, Stefan Mecha, VW's affable managing director for the Middle East, rushes around and brings me a slab of apple pie and a bowl of sausages - which he insists are made by a VW-owned sausage factory - to munch on as we talk. He says the new vehicles here will come to the region soon, but he's more excited about what's coming afterward.

"Of the cars you see on the stand, yes, the microvan is still a concept study, but it could be something that could work for us. The Cabriolet could also be something that works for us as well. The Golf is a relatively strong brand; the GTI and R models we have will be good. So the Golf makes a lot of sense. And the Tiguan will be good for us as well."

Volkswagen's market share at the moment is around one per cent in the UAE, which is extremely low compared with other markets he said. "However, when you look at how the market is structured in the Middle East, it's understandable; the biggest segment by far is the sedans. And when you look at our sedans, we have a very good share in the premium sedans; our Passat has very good sales here. But this is not where the volume is, and VW is striving for being a volume brand, so this is something we need to look at.

"With the new models to come, with the Jetta in May, and then next year is the new Passat and the Polo G, the sedan version, we'll have three sedans in the sweet spot of the market. And this will bring us up to a much, much higher market share."

Toyota has a whole raft of Prius hybrids on display, including the new Prius+, a hybrid people mover with room for seven passengers. Morgan has its retro Threewheeler there, and Alfa Romeo unveiled its gorgeous little 4C sportscar concept.

Mercedes debuted its new C-Class Coupe, which, of course, will be followed closely by a high-performance AMG version, as well as the new SLK, which is decidely more upscale with an interior resembling that of the SLS supercar. Right beside its large stand was the bubbly Smart car booth. My ears were drawn to a loud, V8 engine sound revving there, but it was not even coming from the sinister-looking Brabus version; it was coming from a normal Smart car with a speaker box sitting beside it.

The young attendant (the booth obviously caters to the in-crowd, with iPhones and iPads) explained that this experimental Smart car linked interchangeable sounds with actions in the cockpit. For example, pressing the accelerator produced that deep engine growl; turning on the lights produced a Star Trek-like whine; and upon opening the door, the theme song to Magnum PI played. "You can make the sounds anything you like," said the attendant, "or you can turn them off." That's a good thing.

That's what I like about the Geneva Motor Show; with a vast array of supercars, cute electric cars, and weird, quirky displays, there seems to be something for every kind of car fan.

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