Monday, September 9
The 2014 BMW i3 is not yet allowed to roam the public streets of Frankfurt, but it shuttles journalists between the 2013 Frankfurt motor show's eleven distant halls. First impression: It's quite spacious, but the organic surfaces are as premium as Formica tables in a no-star restaurant, the fit and finish is rather naff, and you can´t exit from row two unless someone opens the front door for you. More than 1800 i3s were sold in the first two days in Germany alone, almost all of them without the optional range-extending engine. Early adopters are a courageous bunch. The biggest market for the i3 is North America where the BEV parking garage is expected to grow to 90,000 units this year. In Germany, we hold at 4000 vehicles. So how does BMW expect this scenario to evolve?
"By 2020, we will have phased out dated technologies and installed a new level of sustainable efficiency," promises Chairman Norbert Reithofer who has already written off the 2.5-billion euro investment in project i. "If demand for i3 is stronger than expected, we can easily expand the capacity and the i line-up, having trademarked all options from i1 to i9." If sales are slow, BMW can still offer plug-in hybrid technology to all crossovers and cars from the 2-series up.
UKL0 occupies my mind as I stroll through dusk across the vast Frankfurt show grounds to the brightly lit Mercedes pavilion. UKL0 is BMWspeak for a car below the 1-series. "We have Mini there," R&D chief Herbert Diess says, "so right now, we don´t really need a smaller BMW." BMW customers aren't clamoring for a model that's shorter overall than a standard Mini, he acknowledges, "and we would find it very difficult to build such a small, 15k-euro (under $20,000) car at a profit." No one knows, however, "what yet what may be required between 2020 and 2025 when an even slimmer CO2 footprint becomes mandatory."
Ten minutes, one mile-and-a-half and two glasses of fizzy water later, I'm listening to Mercedes-Benz mastermind Thomas Weber dwell on the same subject. "We have the A-class, and we have Smart. That´s okay for now, but perhaps not for tomorrow. In the future, we might need a greater variety of small car bodystyles, and we may need further growth below the A-class." The question whether these so-called A-segment cars should be badged Smart or Mercedes remains unanswered.
Mercedes is on-track with the JC1 A-/B-class replacement for 2017, though Renault is no longer a partner on the project. The French have withdrawn for cost and compatibility reasons, leaving only Nissan to row the JC1 boat together with the Germans. The brand that supports Mercedes is actually Infiniti, whose Sunderland-built A-class derivative, the Q30, shown in Frankfurt looks every bit as attractive as the original designed in Sindelfingen. Out of the JC1 pool which will eventually offer a choice of ten bodystyles, Infiniti has selected only three: the replacement for the four-door hatch, a four-door sedan aimed squarely at the Audi A3 sedan and a long-wheelbase seven-seater evolution of the GLA crossover. All versions will be produced in a new state-of-the-art joint assembly plant in Mexico, sources say. Considering that Infiniti is a very junior partner in this deal, why did Daimler not develop the modular front-wheel drive architecture MFA all by itself? Because an additional 100,000 to 150,000 units a year is better than nothing, because the Nissan know-how in terms of production and processes is said to be worth its weight in gold, and because establishing a new NAFTA factory works so much better with a partner.
Tuesday, September 10
Two perfumed penguins dressed up in coat-and-tie uniforms start the day early in the neon light anonymity of a McCafé. Not cozy, but the future of Alfa Romeo is a touchy subject, best discussed while hiding in plain sight. The Italian despair merchants still have no firm decision on which they can base their frail future, but the exciting rear-/all-wheel-drive game plan is growing longer legs for enhanced stability and increased feasibility. In a nutshell, Alfa intends to drop its tepid front-wheel-drive offerings to concentrate on a family of RWD/AWD products capable of challenging the BMW 3- and 5-series.
The dedicated R&D team's headcount is now into triple figures, and while it includes some well-known names, none are American. Apparently, Sergio Marchionne was not happy with proposed Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger replacements conceived in Detroit, so he selected a European task force with specialists from Fiat, Alfa, Ferrari and Maserati to run the development program. Now based at the premises of Maserati Corse in downtown Modena, the think tank is working in a busy shop floor littered with cut up 3- and 5-series BMWs. The basic approach has not changed: create four new highly competitive RWD/AWD Alfas, put them into production starting in 2017, and sell at least 250,000 units a year, globally. The recent product-related alteration concerns the crossovers. Instead of preparing a pair of X1 and X3 rivals, the focus is now on the X3 and X5 segments.
The key question marks concern funding, timing and the Chrysler/Dodge link. What about Jeep? The idea to derive the Alfa crossovers from Patriot and Cherokee has long been shelved. Instead, the new soft-roaders will be, if approved, pure Alfas sourced from EU plants. Chrysler and Dodge would get a larger, but decontented version of the new architecture which has absolutely nothing in common with the high-end Ghibli and Quattroporte. Is such a Trans-Atlantic consensus hard to achieve? If BMW can do a 5-series that accommodates a four as well as a V-8, Harald Wester´s boys should not be too concerned? No, the biggest worry is how to keep the Alfa brand alive between now and 2017. Since the proposed five-door MiTo has bitten the dust, we may instead see the on-off Giulietta Sportwagon materialize in 2014 to be followed by a very pretty Gulietta sedan in 2015. Add to this the Mazda-built Spider due in 2015 and the open-top 4C expected late next year, and the marque may have just enough metal to survive until the arrival of the exciting new-generation cars.
My second breakfast was at Bentley, where everyone is peacock-proud of the fully funded new SUV. Across the aisle at Lamborghini, the Italians are still waiting for Wolfsburg to approve the closely related Urus. Even though Wolfgang Schreiber, who pulls the strings at Bentley and Bugatti is as tight-lipped as a monk, the lower ranks confirm that the flying B has actually started clapping its wings again to catch up with the competition. By switching from the ancient Phaeton DNA to the brand-new MSB matrix invented by Porsche, the next Continental GT/Flying Spur due in 2017 will be 400 kilos lighter, and it adopts a front-mid-engine layout for superior dynamics.
The Mulsanne gets an early facelift that essentially swaps the inner headlamps for the outer ones and adds a restyled front bumper and a truly advanced MMI and infotainment system. When the new models arrive, expect a much sharper Supersport version and an even plusher Mulliner edition, along with matching engine upgrades and enough assistance systems to put the chauffeur out of his job. Also based on MSB, the much talked about small Bentley (coupe and cabrio, no sedan) are waiting to get the nod, but it will only happen if Porsche approves the Panamera junior, so we won´t know for another year or two. Outside help is also required to put the first hardcore Bentley sports car since the Le Mans winning EXP Speed 8 on the map. Still tentative but very exciting and definitely not a pipe dream, this mid-engine super-coupe could within five-years pop up in the Porsche 960/Lamborghini Aventador/Gallardo replacement triangle. Powered by a 3.95L V8 and weighing under 3550 pounds, the halo project would do the brand far more good than a second handbag collection or more Breitling for Bentley watches.
Over at Audi, the crowd besieges a low, wide yellow something which looks from a distance like a redesigned Camaro coupe with a single-frame grille. Compared to the crisp and compact 2010 Paris Show car, the 2013 variation of the Sport quattro theme fails to convince, but it still collects at least twice as many brownie points as the Nanuk design exercise prepared in haste by Giugiaro. Ferdinand Piech planted the seed for the Sport quattro concept some time ago, suggesting that Ital Design should do a crossover sports car, which is a very clever idea for China, Russia and India where decent roads end at the city limits. But the Nanuk which was badged Parcours when it first saw the light at the Geneva show in March does not benefit from the crafted on Audi front and rear ends or from the rear-wheel steering borrowed from Porsche. The car´s true mission in life is perhaps to showcase the new 544 hp, 738 lb-ft 5.0 liter V-10 diesel. We don´t know whether the chairman of the board actually inspected the gullwing home of his pet motor in person, but he did attend the show, and despite rumors to the contrary, allegedly pedaled by a high-ranking insider, Ferdinand Piech, now aged 76, is on the record for being determined to hang on until his contract expires in late 2017.
How will the VW group restructure when the current leaders step down, and who is going to run what may then be the world´s biggest car maker? Frankfurt rumors have Martin Winterkorn replacing Piech, Hans Dieter Poetsch (finance) replacing Winterkorn, Rupert Stadler replacing Poetsch, and Christian Klingler (sales) replacing Stadler.
After talking to several parties involved, it transpired that only a dyed-in-the-wool engineer is deemed fit to run VW. Potential candidates include, in alphabetical order, Rolf Frech, Harald Ludanek, Hans-Jakob Neusser, Matthias Rabe and Frank Welsch, plus of course Matthias Müller, CEO of Porsche. All these guys and a few others have about two years to prove their worth and to qualify for the top job.
If Piech, Winterkorn and the powerful union leader Bernd Osterloh fail to agree on a candidate, the group may be split into two separate units, one serving as roof for luxury and sports cars, the other one being the new home of the volume brands. Strong horizontal links looking after R&D, finance, production, procurement, personnel and important regional responsibilities would hold the two columns together. In either case, D-day will come some time in 2016.
The afternoon commences with coffee and croissants at Renault where the Espace concept hints at crossover 2.0. One rung below the SuperCaptur, the French carmaker will replace the slow-selling Megane station wagon with a mid-size crossover twinned with the next-generation Nissan Qashqai. The same fate may affect the Clio estate. Diminishing demand for MPVs will make the follow-ups to Scenic and Grand Scenic merge into one vehicle. The reinvented Grandtour will combine a rather striking design with a very generous packaging. Not emotional enough? The next 300 hp-plus Megane coupe will be even sportier, brawnier and more extrovert than today´s Renaultsport edition. The mid-engine Alpine A410 is also still on track for 2016, weighing under 2200 pounds, powered by a turbocharged 250 hp four-cylinder engine and built by Caterham. Two years after the coupe, we might see a roadster.
Karl-Thomas Neumann, the lanky, wiry and notoriously optimistic new chairman who worked for supplier Continental and VW before defecting to the Blitz hosts dinner with Opel. It´s not as easy as expected to see through K-TN´s future product strategy.
"I don´t think Opel needs a car above Insignia," is his opening gambit over a bowl of potato soup, and yet the Monza concept previews just that. "Crossovers are hot, MPVs are not." There is a lot of talk about how the brand must come first in all deliberations, how a cute image-boosting Eve could partner the (arguably not-so-cute) Adam, what exactly the Ampera is contributing to the Opel image, and that the OPC models add a credible touch of sportiness. But are there not more urgent issues to be addressed? Does Opel not need a spacious Insignia wagon in addition to the compromised Sports Tourer? Should the Agila not make room for a clever urban mobility concept? Is there no way to derive a brand-shaping 2015 Manta from the North American RWD Alpha components set? "I think about it," K-TN says, before leaving early.
Wednesday, September 11
Room service breakfast with a friend from Porsche. Am I familiar with XL, XS and XR? Not unless we´re talking Nissan trim levels from the mid-'60s. Here is the Weissach translation for these acronyms: XL is the VW XL1, which started life as a one-liter car (fuel consumption per 100 kilometers) priced above $125,000 and limited to 250 pieces. The phase-two model will be less extreme, a little less green and a lot less expensive.
More to the point, it provides a cost-effective carbon-fiber cradle for XS by Audi and XR by Porsche. All three cars share the same lower-cost tub, which is wider, more spacious and modular in concept. To differentiate the three two-seaters, each brand is creating its own nose and tail modules, its own roof treatment and its own interior theme. Chassis, suspension, steering and brakes are related. The drivetrains are not. Porsche intends to use the 210 hp, 1.6L four-cylinder twin-turbo boxer they had planned to install in the mothballed 550/Mimo roadster. VW will likely resort to a high-performance 110 hp, 1.2L three-cylinder gas engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Audi is toying with a high revving, 130 hp, two-cylinder motorcycle unit borrowed from Ducati. Another Ducati engine in a re-engineered prototype of the A1 e-tron replaces the unloved Wankel, but this program is still on the backburner. Although Ulrich Hackenberg, father of the Mimo roadster, recently moved from Wolfsburg to Ingolstadt where his beloved mid-engine sports car may be revived as the Audi R5, Porsche claims not to be interested. My coffee-mate explains: "Everybody in Zuffenhausen loves the car, but the hardcore Porsche customers don´t. In clinics, they resented anything smaller or cheaper than a Boxster, but they will have to rethink. As soon as the CO2 hammer drops, we need a sustainable solution, and it´d better be shaped like a sports car."
The mid-morning meeting takes place on the Toyota stand where the man to my left gets his paycheck from Skoda and the person on the right works for VW commercial vehicles. Vans and trucks? That´s where some of the biggest profits are generated. Just ask Ford and GM. A few days after VW pulled out of the commercial vehicle deal with Mercedes, we are discussing a new line of lightweight trucks and vans for brands as diverse as Scania and Skoda. There is a new VW Crafter van imminent without a Mercedes counterpart, a T6 replacing the Microbus in late 2016, and a new Caddy on the way. Skoda will soon have its own variants, and the Czechs are going to play a leading role in the crossover market. Signed off and looking good are a new A+ SUV based on the long-wheelbase Tiguan II and the Yeti replacement derived from the smaller MQB-A components set. A plug-in hybrid powertrain will be optional for these vehicles and for the new Superb sedan, which is bound to give the Passat replacement a good run for the money. What´s next from Skoda? A stunning, long-wheelbase five-door coupe. Think 6-series Gran Coupe for 2-series money.
Sergio Marchionne, Ron Dennis, Wolfgang Dürheimer and Carlos Tavares are missing from the show. Sergio is allegedly in Italy wrestling with the unions, Ron is in China trying to sell several hundred MP4s to his freshly recruited dealers, Wolfgang is in his white Audi RS6 driving through Ingolstadt, Carlos might be in the United Kingdom talking to Aston Martin about an unconfirmed vacancy. There are also new faces to be welcomed and familiar hands to be shaken. Wolfgang Ziebart (ex BMW/Infineon/Artega) is back from hibernation and now firmly in charge at Jaguar Land Rover. Magna's Burkhard Goeschel still can think six months faster than most of his fellow chief engineers. Kay Segler must bid farewell to Mini and make room for Jochen Goller. Tobias Moers is about to take the helm at AMG. Ola Kallenius will replace retiring Joachim Schmidt as sales and marketing chief of Mercedes.
Like all motor shows, Frankfurt is one big glorious stage for the designer community. Some crayon artists are on everlasting ego-trips while others are in constant doubt. Gordon Wagener from Mercedes was given carte blanche by Dieter Zetsche, and this time he made full use of it as documented by the interesting S-class coupe and the well-balanced GLA. Ian Callum has created yet another must-have Jaguar in the C-X17. The great Walter de Silva will eventually select his own successor from in-house talents like Jozef Kaban (Skoda), Walter Mauer (Porsche) and Filippo Perini (Lamborghini). BMW´s Adrian van Hooydonk can rely almost with eyes closed on exceptional pros like Benoit Jacob (project i) and Karim Habib (BMW brand).
When did we last see so many good-looking new middle-ground efforts? Here is my personal Top Ten: Mazda 3, Audi A3 convertible, Seat Leon ST, Peugeot 308, Skoda Rapid Spaceback, VW Sportsvan, Mercedes GLA, Ford S-Max, Hyundai i10, BMW i3. Worst of Show? Surely the Lexus LF-NX crossover, origami design created under the influence of too much sake, perhaps on a night flight from Europe to Tokyo.