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Virtuous indulgence is the mantra in Geneva

V SUMANTRAN | Updated on March 10, 2018


A glimpse into a future where motoring is fun and sustainable, at Geneva Motor Show

What if life’s desires and pleasures were actually good for you? What if the tastiest delicacies were actually healthy?

A scholar of Vedanta or Buddhism might argue that for an enlightened soul and its quests, this is indeed the case. But for the rest of us mortals, as Bernard Shaw famously observed, “Virtue is insufficient temptation”. Every parent coaxing a child to eat up the serving of spinach or broccoli knows this.

Dreaming big

The Geneva Motor Salon of this past week seemed oddly discordant with global portends of redefinition of mobility by the likes of Apple and Google. It transported visitors to a world of dreams where the harsh realities of a Europe in struggling recovery were academic.

But then Geneva has always been about dreams. It was indeed the same stage in 1966 that the term supercar first entered our lexicon, when the auto world was vowed by the launch of the Lamborghini Miura, a timeless object of beauty and speed. Soon to follow was the Ferrari Daytona. With them, 250 kmph motoring became possible and indeed fashionable for the dash down to the Riviera.

Half a century later, headline makers at Geneva were typically the Bentley EXP 10, a sports car pumped full of testosterone and bling. Stable-mate Lamborghini’s counter salvo was a 740 hp Aventador. If that was not enough, newcomer Zenvo from Denmark promised 1100 hp for their $1 million ST1 while Nordic rival Konigsegg pushed bragging rights to 1500 hp.

While manufacturers may rightly claim that they are producing only those products their customers desire, I can hear social anthropologists and industry analysts, a half decade from now, accusing both society and industry of yet again getting seduced by cheap oil exhibiting little concern for a sustainable planet. Hence it was a relief to catch a glimpse of a future where motoring can be fun and easy on the conscience. At the show, one could see three supercars that could make a case for sustainable indulgence.

Sustainable approach

The first to show the way was the BMW i8 – a plug-in hybrid with an engine no bigger than that in your family Hyundai. It is already in the market and changing people’s perceptions of performance. With this car one can still motor down to the Riviera at 250 kmph yet soothing one’s conscience that the car’s fuel efficiency has been rated at 32 kmpl – better in fact than the best rated petrol car in India.

Honda was not to be left far behind. In the 1990s, their NSX set the standard for a thinking man’s supercar, helped in its development by the legendary Ayrton Senna. Honda had long threatened to replace the NSX but waited till a truly worthy car, relevant to today’s sustainability concerns, could adorn that label. The new NSX made its European debut at Geneva. Producing 550 hp from its engine, a derivative of the one in a Honda Accord, augmented by three electric motors, this car also allows pure electric motoring for limited range and promises to set new fuel efficiency and performance standards.

The ne plus ultra of this genre has to be the Porsche 918. With this you could potter around town and achieve a level of fuel efficiency (33 kmpl as per European test standards) that will embarrass a city car. Yet, when called upon, it is capable of unleashing 890 hp and giving the world’s fastest 1000 hp Bugatti a run for its money.

Good, clean fun

In current practice, the auto industry is used to measuring fuel consumption of a car through equivalence to CO{-2} emissions. Less than two decades ago, I recall an advanced technology European Eco-car project at GM that I was a part of codenamed G90, because the target was to achieve 90 g/km of CO2 emissions, equivalent to about 27 kmpl.

This was a small city car, about the size of a Hyundai i10, with a small diesel hybrid, exotic light-weight materials and a body that looked like styling authority has been wrested from Italian stylists and entrusted to German engineers – in other words, functional but not very pretty. It could barely outrun a Maruti.

To think that a Porsche 918 could breeze by with its fuel efficiency equating to just 79 g/km of CO2 emissions just boggles the mind. To set this in perspective, the European Cyclists Federation has estimated that the average cyclist would account for 21 g/km of CO2.

So the two occupants in a BMW i8 (rated at 33 g/km as per EU ECE R101 test standards) could be forgiven for beaming as they drive past a bicyclist – just so long as they can hold their breath for a short while! Their carbon footprint, per person, for traversing a kilometre would be lower.

Seeing these intelligent supercars interspersed between the glam toys in Geneva restored confidence in one’s belief that the purpose of diversity in the world is that through such exploration, we find natural selection of solutions capable of taking us forward. While we may not wait for large fractions of our population to get enlightened, if our indulgences can be virtuous, we mere mortals can afford to have a good time and still be smug about it.

The writer is an auto industry leader who is currently working on a book on the Future of Mobility.

Published on March 12, 2015

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