What will the 2009 Frankfurt auto show be remembered for? While you’ve probably read it was all about electric cars, that misses the bigger story from the Messe show floor. This was the moment the auto industry got its mojo back.
Whether this sense of optimism is misplaced (especially when you take into account that scrappage schemes across Europe seem likely to end soon), only time will tell. For now, it serves as an antidote to the damp-squib of Geneva 2009, which was sorely needed.
Back at the turn of the year, people like Renault-Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn were saying things like “I can’t even predict what’s going to happen next month, so don’t ask me about plans for 2010”. In Frankfurt, he assuredly hung Renault’s future on EVs, saying “the time to act is now” before unveiling four electric car concepts, and promising they’d all land by 2012. Whether consumers want them is now the 64 billion dollar question. Should the answer be a full-on no, Renault’s on a very slippery slope. If yes, its alliance with Nissan is extremely well positioned, backed up by its infrastructure partner, Better Place – who placed an order for 100,000 electric Renault’s on the first day of the show.
Alongside Renault’s offerings, BMW was a shoe in for car of the show with the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept. Pictures leaking out prior to the show’s opening didn’t diminish its impact in the flesh, and no-one has missed its relevance to the future of BMW’s M Performance division – previewing a future for high-performance cars in a carbon-constrained world. It’s a great halo car for the Efficient Dynamics campaign, too (which incidentally, is much smarter than the cheesy, over-arching new brand slogan, “Joy”).
Ferrari’s 458 Italia was the prettiest looking core-model Ferrari since 1994’s 355. The stunningly executed Rolls Royce’s Ghost showed Bentley’s Mulsanne the way in elegance terms, showcasing some particularly fine English craftsmanship - check out those door inners, and ingot-like door handles.
Rolls Royce Ghost doors
Lexus and Saab still disappoint. The Lf-Ch was predictable – somehow feeling a little too close to Toyota’s similar sized cars in its execution, and bringing little new to the premium C-segment dominated by the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. SAAB’s 9-5 doesn’t really stand cross-examination against Audi or BMW either. While a welcome new product on a stand starved of product under GM, it suffers from a slightly dated feeling (not surprising really, as its design was signed off some time ago). We wonder how – and if – things will change for SAAB under Koenigsegg.
Citroen’s ReVolte was much talked about before the show as being a modern interpretation of the 2CV. Yet for all the talk of plundering a heritage line, this was Citroen having a bit of fun. Drawing inspiration from a certain section of Parisian society, the interior takes on the feeling of a boudoir in the rear (crushed red velvet) and clashes it against an integral rear-facing child seat and hi-tech, pilot-like driver’s chair. If nothing else, it made us smirk, and provided an amusingly playful contrast to the seriousness of the Germans.
Sister brand Peugeot produced an intriguing concept in the form of the BB1. A sub-Smart sized city car, the BB1 actually seats four, although they may want to be more than just good friends with one another before all climbing aboard. Cleverly for a product that in size approaches something many might hesitate to classify as a car, there is strong use and reference made to Peugeot’s road bike heritage (bike inspired front seat perches, bike-based driving controls). It felt like an authentic gap-bridging vehicle between car and bike. We expect to see much more of this type of thing aimed at the urban populations of mega cities. Certainly Renault’s Twizy appears to be just that, too. It provides an interesting contrast to the BB1, being physically smaller but designed to imbue the driver with the sensation that they are in a real car, in a way the Peugeot passes over.
Favourite vehicle of all for me was the VW L1. Some explanation is appropriate here. Last year I finished an MPhil at the RCA, and my final project was a VW-branded city car, arranged in a tandem formation, and in part inspired by the 2002 1 Litre concept – brainchild of Ferdinand Piech. For many reasons, a very aerodynamic, light, narrow, tandem format car makes sense for our future world.
Yet just eighteen months ago (when completing my project) I thought VW had shelved the 1 litre. It was a Piech pet project, and featured rocket science tech that was too expensive, too weirdly packaged to ever see the light of day in a production car. Never underestimate Ferdinand Piech is the message to take from this... more than ever, he’s very much in charge – and in the seven years since the original 1-litre car, the production techniques and cost of making its carbon fibre monocoque have fallen. Meanwhile, the two-cylinder diesel motor has entered the realms of economic reality too – as it’s likely to be pressed into service under the hoods of future Up! and possibly even Polo models, as the internal combustion world continues to downsize. So the L1 is very much set for future production according to VW.
The headline is that the L1 has a drag factor of just 0.195cd (the lowest I’ve heard of – and for comparison, today’s best the Prius, is 0.25), and weighs under 400kg – the monocoque accounting for a scarcely credible 65kg of that. But after talking to designer Maximillian Missoni, there’s a sense that the real achievement has been to create a beautifully spare exterior style, reflecting the purity of purpose in the engineering, with design language that is recognizably VW, and acceptably car-like.
The low cockpit, and side-hinged canopy enclosure make sitting in the L1 feel more akin to piloting a fighter jet than merely driving a car, an idea that is intentional. The design theme was inspired by aeronautics, and intended to convey a sense of speed. More than that though, Missoni says that there was a desire to create a positive sense of drama and forward thinking here “you want to be able to drive up in front of a restaurant, and not feel embarrassed, you want to feel “I’m a pioneer’”.
Compare this to the other future we’re presented with; the forgettable, dumpy forms of the Prius or Leaf - essentially the cars we have today with new powertrains underneath. There’s much merit to what these cars have done to condition markets and move consumer’s mindset. Yet there’s also evidence that – from both an environmental perspective, and an urban mobility one - we need to go further, rethink some first principles. For me, the L1 is that car, it shows a really different way forward - in a positive way. VW’s a huge car maker, but it’s proving that size isn’t a hindrance to thinking differently.
So while the Prius may be a green darling, and its current iteration reputedly very good, the VW is – in many regards – much more elegant when viewed from a holistic design and engineering point of view. Of course, you won’t be able to fit a family of four and the dog in an L1, so many will dismiss it. But think about how often you travel alone, or with just one other – and think about how menial a task day-to-day driving has become. The L1 shakes those ideas up, and says that the future could be different, but the future could have a real sense of adventure, a sense of fun about it. If VW is truly saying that a car as pioneering as this can now be produced, at a cost those pioneering individuals can afford, then it suggests there is every reason to be optimistic about the future - of not only the car, but of how we can push the boundaries of travel itself within the constraints of the world today.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 23rd September 2009