IF THERE'S ONE event on the global calendar of motor shows that everyone wants to attend, it's Geneva. Held in late winter in one of Europe's most genteel and affluent cities, the Salon International de l'Auto has something of the cachet of the European fashion weeks with which it often coincides, attracting not only leading motor manufacturers and key figures from the industry, but also legendary names such as Bertone, Pininfarina and Italdesign Giugiaro – automobile couturiers whose latest creations are subject to as much critical scrutiny as any collection by Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada or Marc Jacobs.
In stark contrast to the louring clouds hanging over the Alps, painting the Swiss city in a dour wash of grey that perfectly mimics Europe's overriding economic gloom, within the cavernous halls of the Palexpo the scene at this year's event is glittering, the mood upbeat. Here in a country that produces no motor cars – save for the odd wild and sometimes wacky conversion beloved by Middle Eastern potentates, as well as a handful of Formula 1 chassis – the world's automakers have come together in a remarkable display of confidence. Or perhaps that last word should read chutzpah.
I've arrived in Switzerland as a guest of Porsche, so my day at the show begins on the stand of the German marque's parent company, Volkswagen, which, with its bulging portfolio of brands, seems more intent on global domination than ever. Flanked by its Seat and Skoda subsidiaries, the VW display not only features the star of its current range, the seventhgeneration Golf that has rightly just been voted European Car of the Year, but also the lightweight diesel-electric hybrid XL1 that may well be the most economical and efficient motor car ever built.
This tiny, teardrop-shaped machine with carbon-fibre body and staggered twin seats boasts a drag coefficient of 0.189, which should certainly help it achieve its projected fuel consumption of just 0.9 litres per 100km. Clearly aimed at burnishing VW's green – or, as the Germans prefer it, blue – credentials, it's an amazing and ground-breaking vehicle that could well point the way to the future. There is a snag, however: each of the limited production run of 250 XL1s is expected to cost in the region of US$150,000.
I admire the much-anticipated GTI version of the Golf, the Beetle Cabriolet and a handsome World Rally Championship Polo R before joining the crowd – including the VW Group's formidable Supervisory Board Chairman Dr Ferdinand Piëch, and CEO Martin Winterkorn – trooping over to the Audi press conference on an adjacent stand, which gleams with lines of cars resplendent in the corporate colours of red and silver. In line with the eco theme at VW, its Bavarian subsidiary unveils the impressive A3 e-tron Sportback hybrid, which mates a 150bhp, 1.4-litre petrol engine to a 102bhp electric motor, and can achieve speeds of up to 130km/h using the latter alone. Alongside it on the dais stands the somewhat less environmentally friendly high-performance RS version of the Q3 soft-roader, which gets a 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder to hustle it along, and comes adorned with all manner of bumps and bulges, and air intakes on its porky snout, to denote its extra muscle.
This year, Porsche is celebrating a remarkable anniversary, the 5oth birthday of its 911, which over the past five decades has morphed from an admirable if unassuming sports car into one of the world's most desirable, enduring and iconic supercars. Up on the stage stand two sleek silhouettes shrouded in sheets: are these identical shapes a pair of yet more 911s, or perhaps pre-production examples of the 918 hybrid hypercar that we know will go on sale later in 2013?
A thunderous soundtrack kicks in, Porsche CEO Matthias Müller steps onto the podium and the drapes are pulled back to reveal…a brace of fifth-generation 911 GT3s, one in “standard” road-going guise and the other a semi-competition Cup variant producing 475bhp from its naturally aspirated 3.8-litre engine, sporting a new six-speed manual gearbox and weighing in at less than 1.2 tonnes. If these two road rockets aren't enough for us to gawp at greedily, there's also the European debut of the new Cayman coupé – longer, lower, prettier, faster and, perhaps most important, even nicer to drive than its predecessor. As for the production 918, we'll clearly have to wait until nearer the end of the year.
The focus of attention now switches across the aisle to yet another outpost of the VW empire, Automobili Lamborghini, owned by Audi since 1998. We've been primed to expect something new here, too, and as if in confirmation there's a shrouded shape fronting a pair of Aventadors, one a coupe and the other a roadster. As the latter, which was recently described in one motoring journal as “a bunga-bunga party on wheels”, can be counted among today's most crazily covetable cars, we're all wondering how on Earth the folks at Sant'Agata Bolognese are intending to top it.
We don't have long to wait. More gutchurning music heralds the arrival on stage of President Stephan Winkelmann, clad in signature skinny-legged suit and with sideburns bristling manfully. The former paratrooper welcomes us in Italian and gives a short speech in English, then off come the sheets – and there, stunning in gunmetal grey, stands the prototype Veneno, Lamborghini's outrageous reimagining of the Batmobile, of which only three examples will be made at an even more outrageous price in excess of €3 million (don't bother queuing, they've been snapped up already).
Resembling a cross between a LeMans racer and an alien spacecraft, but highly aerodynamically efficient for all that, the Veneno gets a mildly tuned version of the Aventador's 6.5-litre V12 and also shares its basic monocoque, though the outer skin is a mix of carbon-fibre and composites. No doubt about it, this Lambo is a sensational machine, though I can't help feeling that its underlying purpose is to act as a spoiler to what's going on just a few metres away.
For it's there I go to next, to watch as McLaren supremo Ron Dennis, along with new Formula 1 signing Sergio Pérez, presents the production version of the P1 hypercar, apparently little changed from the prototype exhibited last year in Paris. Powered by an uprated version of the 3.8-litre V8 that's already found in the MP4-12C, but here producing an astonishing 727bhp, and supplemented by an electric motor that provides a further boost of 176bhp, the P1 is as close as most of us will ever get to driving a grand prix car – provided, of course, that we can spare the more than £850,000 that McLaren is asking for each of the 375 scissor-door machines that it plans to build. Word has it that this ultra-high-performance hybrid will only be available in left-hand-drive, though as the company is cherry picking which potential customers it deems suitable for ownership, this may be a moot point.
But if there's a frisson of excitement around the British carmaker, that's nothing in comparison with the feeding frenzy surrounding Ferrari. I can hear but not see company Chairman Luca di Montezemolo as he takes the stage to unveil its long-awaited hypercar – which turns out not to be called F150, as we'd all expected, but LaFerrari. So deep is the crowd around the stand that I decide to wander elsewhere, taking in Toyota's GT86 cabriolet – wonderful, but why so long to reveal a concept that probably won't make it into production for at least another year? – and Alfa Romeo's equally desirable mid-engine 4C coupe, which looks not only like a worthy competitor to the Porsche Cayman, but also set finally to revive the fortunes of Fiat's troubled sporting subsidiary.
At Aston Martin, I admire a stunning DBR1 Le Mans racer from the late 1950s, as well as the sharp Ozwald Boateng threads worn by the company's sprightly septuagenarian CEO Ulrich Bez, while wondering why they've tucked their lovely 2013 Rapide S 4-door in a cubby hole round the back. Across at Jaguar Land Rover there's not much new to hold the attention, even though the F-Type really does look the business. Centre stage, though, belongs to a gorgeous XK120 with split front windscreen, which must be at least 60 years old.
I linger at Pininfarina, where the svelte and sinuous Sergio barchetta – based on the Ferrari 458 and named as a tribute to the house's late chairman – recalls the coachbuilder's glory days of the 1960s, though updated in a thoroughly contemporary way. Long-time competitor Bertone, meanwhile, presents a shootingbrake variation on the Aston Martin Rapide; named the Jet 2+2, it's sleek and beautifully proportioned if lacking the absolute wowfactor of the Sergio.
And then it's back to Ferrari, where some time in the afternoon I manage to negotiate my way past the line of heavies and onto the stand. Di Montezemolo's still there, talking animatedly to TV cameras about LaFerrari – and it's easy to understand why he's so proud of it. The prancing horse's riposte to McLaren's P1 has many similarities: hybrid power train, carbon-fibre tub and Formula 1-inspired technology. Both cars are prodigiously fast and both are wildly expensive, though LaFerrari – of which 499 examples will be built in a two-year production run – is around £150,000 costlier, with a price-tag of around €1.3 million. And it could just be that in terms of sheer desirability, the Italian car's normally aspirated 6.3-litre V12 gives it the edge over the P1's turbo V8.
As for the rest of the stand, no one's giving the brace of 458s, the single California and even the fabulous f12 a second glance, for this is the day of the undisputed star of the show – LaFerrari.