The Ten Frankfurt-Show Cars That MatterBy Bill Visnic September 22, 2011
The Frankfurt auto show offered some of the never-gonna-happen eye candy expected of a top-tier international auto show, but there was an outsized dose of concept and production vehicles with heavyweight implications for a global industry in deep and hurried transition. With a few exceptions, Germanys biannual auto show was all business: the vehicles on Frankfurts turntables present tangible insight to how automakers intend to mesh the customers perennial desire for speed, power and elegance with rapidly greening regulatory dictates. And, of course, there is a widening part of the buying public that finds economy and efficiency as alluring as the traditional definition of performance.
Overlaid against that backdrop is the still-strangling global economy. Seemingly more than ever, theres less room for leeway, less tolerance for mistakes. Balance sheets that once could unflinchingly absorb dalliances such as all-aluminum subcompact cars, oddball engine designs and multiple platforms for multiple markets simply cant support such luxuries when global sales volumes are off 20 percent or more. Its been a generation since automakers have had to play it so close to the vest, to have all aspects of the business hit on all cylinders and thats what currently makes it so fascinating to watch their strategies unveiled in the products they display at major auto shows. These are the vehicles in Frankfurt that reveal the most about an industry in the pressure cooker:
Ford Evos Concept
Serious implications here, what with this being a first glimpse of the next-generation Fusion midsize sedan, one of Fords more remarkable success stories of the past half-decade. Ford says the Evos slinky and sharply-creased sheetmetal is the avatar for the brands all-new design language, but the real proof will be in how it works for the Fusion, as that car finally brings together Fords C-segment efforts from both sides of the pond. The next-generation Fusion has enormous tire tracks to fill. The current car is well past its sell-by date, but crafty refreshes have kept it competitive against mostly aging rivals. Meanwhile, because the company was working out its One Ford global thing, the U.S. never got Europes delicious C-segment Mondeo, and the new-generation car wearing the Evos design will fix that by consolidating it all. The Fusions been an unexpectedly strong player in the U.S.s fierce family sedan segment, but theres Hyundais Sonata and a new 2012 Camry to contend with, plus the looming shadow of an all-new Chevrolet Malibu and Honda Accord coming next year, so Ford needs the Evos. If it can get the production-car metal looking remotely like the concept, Honda, Chevy and even Hyundai designers had best sharpen their pencils.
2012 Volkswagen Up
Simple and subtle, VW gives its competitors a lot to mull over with this 3-cylinder subcompact that might be one of the best expressions yet of what this brand is about in todays climate. Volkswagen continues to say the U.S. market is out of the question for this 3-cylinder, 74-horsepower minicar, but theres a dizzying number of possible variants and offshoots, in particular an all-electric job, that could find a place in a Corporate Average Fuel Economy-concerned portfolio. As good as the Up is, though, we think VW missed an opportunity. Yes, the Up is on the companys vaunted new MQB front-wheel-drive modular component set that reputedly can be efficiently and inexpensively adapted for everything from the tiny Up to the plump Passat. But think of the statement the company could have made about its global engineering prowess and its financial firepower if it had followed through with the original concept for the Up as a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive runabout. We dont need no stinking global efficiencies, Boss Martin Winterkorn could have crowed. We can do a car like this for fun.
Maserati Kubang Concept
Maybe one of the most talked-about vehicles at Frankfurt, though many figure the day is past for beasts of the ultra-lux SUV stripe. The notion is a titillating one, though: via owner Fiat-Chrysler, the Kubang would challenge the Porsche Cayenne and a number of others with a platform pirated from Jeep (which essentially scarfed it from Mercedes-Benz), engines built by Ferrari and all of it coming together at the Jeep Grand Cherokee assembly plant in Detroit. This all sounds a bit Chrysler TC by Maserati in vision, though for the prices Maserati prefers to charge, the execution certainly needs to exceed what the TC delivered. And given some of the rollbacks weve seen lately on CEO Sergio Marchionnes scheme for the groups Alfa Romeo brand, a whole universe worth of planets is going to have to align to make this work. Hey, the Kubang doesnt look half bad, though the BMW X6 and Infiniti FX have already been there and done that. And isnt the Kubang intellectual property infringement on VWs lock on awful and unpronounceable names?
Chevrolet Colorado Rally Concept
Oh, what a tangled web we weave. A GM insider tells us it was no coincidence that this concept for a new-age compact pickup designed in South America and in production form intended mostly for third-world markets ended up at a major international auto show in a region that has no interest in pickups. The company is studying reaction as it determines what to do in the U.S. with a segment its due to abandon by the middle of next year when it shuts the Shreveport, LA, assembly plant that builds the current underachieving and under-purchased Chevrolet Colorado and its GMC Canyon counterpart. Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. currently own the midsize pickup market whats left of it. The segment desperately needs fresh thinking and a re-dedication to a smaller footprint. But does GM have the courage to try something like the Colorado Rally? If it looked this good and could employ an amped-up unibody structure, there might be a market. What the heck, add a diesel, too.
BMW i3 Concept
If its inevitable the whirr of electric motors is going to replace the rip of an inline-six, thats one thing. At least with this not-so-handsome electric vehicle concept (and its better-looking hybrid-electric i8 cousin), BMW is offering some solace: rear-wheel drive. The i-Series line is BMWs range of new-tech models for a future of less pollution and less of everything. But the brand at least understands that the idea of future mobility coming in the form of characterless electric boxes isnt anybodys idea of Ultimate Driving. By ostensibly committing to rear-wheel drive, BMW is suggesting there might yet be driving entertainment in the future.
Land Rover Defender DC 100 Concept
Is the world crying out for a replacement for the hoary Land Rover Defender? Whether it is or isnt, theres one reputedly coming around 2015, and the Defender DC100 concept is the first suggestion of Land Rovers thinking. Were surprised nobody in Frankfurt asked Land Rover who jacked up the Kia Soul. But this concept car mostly is about the brand and whether it can stay relevant or even survive when carbon dioxide emissions regulations, fuel-economy standards and public perception take your choice seem stacked against it. Everyone from marketers to engineers will be watching to see how Land Rover works this one.
2013 Mazda CX-5
This taut compact SUV is already being driven by journalists and will be on sale in February, so in a sense doesnt qualify as a new auto-show candidate, but basically everything that influences Mazdas near-term future is wrapped up in the CX-5. The compact SUV is the first major product introduction for Mazda after its almost complete break with former managing partner Ford. It uses an all-new, weight-optimized platform that will underpin several future Mazda models including its bestseller, the Mazda3 compact car as well as Mazdas clean-sheet Skyactiv high-efficiency, low-friction 4-cylinder engine design and equally new automatic and manual transmissions. Ultimately, what it all means is this: Mazda needs to sell this car. The CX-5 goes into what remains one of the markets hottest and highest-volume segments. How well the CX-5 does against some of the industrys most popular nameplates will be a strong indicator of Mazdas chances to remain independent. The companys Tribute currently is a non-entity in the segment, while Hondas CR-V sells upwards of 18,000 per month. Mazda needs to sell at least 50,000 CX-5s in the first year to make an impact.
2012 Porsche 911
Nothing at stake here but Porsches ability to cut through the crap and improve sales of its signature sports car despite a crippling global recession and the uncomfortable fact that Porsches big and non-traditional models the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan are now its sales leaders. Apart from that, the latest-generation 911 (internal code: 991) is a rolling test bed for whether this niche automaker can still make a good business with affordable sports cars. This in a recession-addled world market, while transitioning to the coming epoch of global fuel-economy and emissions clamp-downs. The new 911 seemingly is moving in the proper direction. The base horizontally opposed 6-cylinder engine is downsized, yet is more efficient and more powerful. The car itself is lighter (albeit marginally), another crucial directional shift. If anybody can leverage technology to stay relevant while continuing to generate the operating profits that long have been the envy of the industry, its Porsche.
2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
Its small. Its front-wheel drive. It aint all that good-looking. Mercedes has resisted testing whether its U.S. customers will go this far downmarket, but now it reckons theres no choice. The so-called MFA platform is all-new and the direct-injection gasoline engines are sure to be frugal, but even with $3.50-a-gallon gasoline, its a crapshoot whether Mercedes customers will plump big money for an upscale Mazda5. Mercedes would like it if they would, as it would help immensely in complying with the 35-mpg CAFE standard starting in 2016. Strangely, nobody seems concerned with the slippery slope embodied by Mercedes-Benzs first front-wheel-drive vehicle in America. At least all-wheel-drive is a possibility.
Kia GT Concept
What to think, these days, of Kia? Not long ago the favored butt of automotive jokes, practically the entire lineup has been replaced in the past two years and almost everything is better than good. Now Kia shows up in Frankfurt with a striking if slightly overstyled concept sedan that seems to have distinct upscale aspirations. Looking at the rear-wheel-drive GT concept, one might think Kia has Porsches Panamera in its sights, or at least the high-styled, squashed-roof coupe-sedans currently all the rage with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Concept cars typically are just as the name implies, but is Kia perhaps serious here? Sister brand Hyundai already has a tolerable rear-wheel-drive platform and Kia seems to be intent on being the more assertive mirror image of its in-house rival, so a Kia-branded premium-grade GT car isnt completely far-fetched. The cars chief designer said the GT is the kind of car Kia should be building. A production version of the GT concept, faithful to this design and done with Kias usual nod to affordability, would be a provocative direction for this always-surprising company.