The automotive year kicked off September 15th with the 64th annual Frankfurt Auto Show, properly known as the Internationale Automobil Ausstellung. It’s clear from what I saw there (the show closes this weekend) that manufacturers continue to ramp up innovation at all levels. It was the most energizing automotive display I’ve attended, including Detroit, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Paris, living up to its tag line: “The Future Is Standard.”
Manufacturers went all out. It was huge in terms of sheer size of exhibit space – about 2.5 million square feet in nine exhibition halls – and huge in numbers of exhibitors – more than a thousand from 32 different countries, including parts makers, after-market manufacturers and gadget makers. Automakers presented almost 90 world premiere vehicles, half German-made including Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Smart (Daimler) and VW.
The Germans really tried to top one another: BMW’s indoor, two-lane demonstration track; Mercedes’ three levels of cars and Audi’s building-with-a-building which rivaled the exhibits at Epcot Center and cost an estimated 12 to 15 million Euros.
One key impression from Frankfurt was that carmakers are trying to cover their bets by developing and manufacturing both energy-efficient models at the same time as making faster, more powerful cars.
Green vehicles, spurred by government mandates and high energy costs, included full electrics (EVs), hybrids and plug-in hybrids, clean diesels and diesel hybrids, a couple of hydrogen-powered and compressed natural gas (CNG) models and the so-called “city cars” that usually seat just one or two and have limited ranges and speeds.
BMW caused quite a stir with i3 subcompact and i8 luxury concept electrics. The i3 (production target of 2013) has a 100-mile range per charge on lithium-ion batteries, carries a 170 hp-equivalent engine, and takes an 80 percent recharge in less than an hour. The i8 plug-in hybrid, has new laser headlight technology; it can do 0-100 km in five seconds. Volvo showed off its first all-electric C30.
Ford created buzz with two Ford Focus models, an all-electric version and the ST hatchback with a 2-liter EcoBoost 247 hp gas engine emitting 20 percent less CO2 and using 20 percent less fuel. Ford’s Fiesta ST concept with a 1.6-liter turbocharged, direct-injection four-cylinder engine gets up to 180 hp. Industry observers think it will go into production soon.
Other notable more energy-efficient cars I saw included the VW Up, a small (139.4 inches) car accommodating four with a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine; it hits European showrooms this winter. Natural gas and electric versions will follow, but no plans for the U.S. market. Mercedes’ small B-class vehicles will come to the U.S. next spring, beginning with a turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline direct-injection model, to be followed with hydrogen fuel-cell, compressed natural gas and EV versions.
Looking for the cool factor? Volvo showed a You concept with an interior display screen that projects on the windshield and activates only when you look at it. Volvo’s design chief says it’s the “ultimate intuitive car.” Audi’s A2 concept with “Semi-Autonomous Drive” moves the car for you in stop-and-go traffic and assumes a bunch of other boring tasks. The Ford Evos concept electronically monitors driver heart rate and vision focus. Cars that park themselves are becoming old hat quickly. Internet connectivity is becoming standard in many cars.
For muscle and luxury, watch for the new Porsche 911 Carrera: it’s longer, wider, lower and more fuel-efficient and does 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds. Maserati offered the Kubang SUV concept built on a Jeep Grand Cherokee platform; Bentley showed a convertible Continental GT for $250k; while Rolls-Royce’s $246k Ghost is a smaller executive sedan and the Aston Martin V-12 Zagato – only 150 produced – is going for a mere half-mil.
I could go on and on – like I said, it was very exciting, and some models, concepts and those destined for the American market, will show up at our own Denver Auto Show next March.