2016 Paris Auto Show: News and Rumors From the Floor

Perspectives of change

Let’s begin before the beginning, in a plane stuffed with auto execs on their way from Munich to the 2016 Paris auto show: movers and shakers from the bulkhead to the cattle class curtain. Designers? There is Mark Lichte, Audi’s prime crayon artist; he had the dubious pleasure of introducing the ho-hum Q5, which was not even his creation. Then there is Karim Habib, the man behind the stylish BMW X2 crossover and Benoit Jacob’s successor at Project i, and Gerd Hildebrand, formerly with Mini and now with Qoros. Plus a bunch of young CAD whippersnappers working for various Far East start-ups. The talk of the troupe revolves around the new look of emission-free motoring.

Eavesdropping bystanders include old-school power brokers like Frank van Meel of BMW M fame and Stephan Winkelmann, the former Lamborghini boss who is now the head of Audi Sport and plans to turn the S/RS division into a veritable OEM. The journalists discuss product and people. Can Audi CEO Rupert Stadler keep his job now that he has sacrificed his R&D chief? Is Volkswagen Group boss Matthias Müller safe? Who is going to be Audi’s next R&D mastermind—a seasoned in-house manager or a bright young talent?

AMG Takes Over

The day before the opening of the 2016 Paris Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz kicked off its pre-show evening with miniature hors d’oeuvres, technicolor cocktails, and a loud AMG presentation. It turns out the new GT-C is every bit as stunning as the defunct SLS roadster. And there is more to come: Black Series, even stronger engines, and eventually a performance hybrid with twin electric motors feeding the rear axle with 105 kW per wheel!

And then there is the Mercedes-AMG R50 hypercar to be launched at the next Frankfurt Show. The AMG power brokers under Tobias Moers have chosen a 650-hp, Formula 1-derived 1.6-liter turbo V-6 supported by three electric motors, making for a total of 1,300 hp in a 2,900-pound two-seater.

But the really big news is that AMG will develop all future sports cars for both brands. The SL and GT replacements will thus share the same modular lightweight architecture, and a new supercar is said to be in the making. Where does this leave the entry-level SLC? It needs to find a new home, perhaps in close vicinity to the next C-class. If it fails, may it rest in peace next to the breathtakingly pretty but doomed four-door C-class coupe project. Too much proliferation, Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche has said. The times, they are a-changing.

Volkswagen Goes Low Key

Less than five clicks down the road from the AMG party, VW held its pre-show group night. It was a small-scale (300 journalists instead of the usual 2,500) and low-key (flying buffet instead of seated dinner) affair—no more food for EPA spies. The message sent out by VW that night was repeated many times over by other manufacturers in the course of the next two days: Dear media, rest assured that we are well prepared for the challenges of digitalization, electrification, and autonomous driving.

But are they?

The first bespoke VW with an e-motor is about four years away. The Porsche Mission E arrives in 2019, one year after the Audi Q6 and the Mercedes EQC. The BMW i20 won´t see the light before 2021. These schedules look somewhat limp vis-à-vis readily available budget e-mobiles like the Renault Zoe, Opel Ampera-e/Chevy Bolt, and Smart’s Electric Drive. All that’s missing now is a charging infrastructure. Maybe Elon Musk can help.

Bentley’s Tribulations

Day one begins at 7 a.m. with coffee and croissants in a bar close to the home of the French Open. Beans were being spilled with regard to the various dilemmas the VW group faces. One VW-owned brand now under heavy fire is Bentley, where the new modular MSB platform developed by Porsche underpins the next Continental, Flying Spur, and Mulsanne. But what about pending projects like Speed 6, Azure/Brooklands, and a new British Supercar? “The message from Wolfsburg to Crewe is a 10-percent return on investment and no more self-destructive volume targets,” states our high-ranking corporate friend at the other end of the small bistro table. “Together, Porsche and Audi must run the show in Britain and Italy. If their efforts fail, both luxury satellites will crash-land, taking Bugatti with them. Dramatically overstaffed and about as maneuverable as the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, the mother planet in Wolfsburg needs all the in-house support it can get.”

Tricolore Triad

Paris 2016 is again an oddball show, a mix of tricolore dominance and the notable absence of big players like Ford, Mazda, and Volvo, as well as small players like Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Although PSA intends to return to the U.S. with Peugeot and Citroen in its wake, its current portfolio—enriched here and there by GM genes—offers few tangible advantages over competition from Japan and Korea.

In the old world, Renault is now doing better than Nissan, even though we searched their show stands in vain for the new Alpine, 370Z, GT-R, and Juke. While the Citroen Experience concept car described as neo-sedan was haunted by the ghosts of CX and SM, the Renault Trezor designed by the gifted Laurens van der Acker would be spot-on for a “Gran Turismo” video game. When Smart goes all-electric early in the next decade, its French partner may claim a copy of the much more popular two-door city car, also because Mercedes needs to jump on the Nissan Navara bandwagon to get its new pickup under way. In spite of the funny ha-ha Carlos Ghosn & Dieter Zetsche show, this is not a liaison without an expiration date.

Unsubstantiated Rumors

Rumors circled like drones above the shiny exhibits. A couple of suppliers claimed there are tenders out for the production of a low-volume, high-performance V-6 engine. The client? BMW. Surely, a misunderstanding; at best, hearsay.

We heard tales about the death of the two-door Mercedes S-Class models after only one life cycle, and that BMW’s 8 Series may pave the way for a new flagship project that can accommodate any propulsion system you can think of, including one powered by hydrogen fuel cells. We heard the fusion of the Audi MLB matrix (A4 to A8, Q5 to Q8) and Porsche’s MSB architecture is all but sealed, and the fact that MTP, Audi’s long-standing proposed BEV-capable multi-traction platform, refuses to die despite serious cost and complexity issues.

Also rumored is that Porsche is contemplating a new intelligent sports-car architecture which can do front-engine, mid-engine, and rear-engine—plus all-wheel drive. Sounds truly revolutionary, except that Ferrari has owned and honed such a layout for more than a decade. More gossip? Lamborghini is working on a crossover sports car, Italdesign is contemplating low-volume coachbuilding, and Maserati is fusing the Ghibli and Quattroporte replacement while adding a long wheelbase version.

Wolfsburg’s Turnaround

Two PR guard dogs protected VW brand chief Herbert Diess from spilling the beans when asked how he intends to pull VW out of the doldrums. Reading between the lines is essential to understand the many cul-de-sacs the group and its master brand need to escape from. The headcount must come down swiftly despite resistance from the unions and the land of Lower Saxony; the American authorities are being urged to issue a cap on dieselgate ASAP so that VW has at long last a budget it can plan with; and the marque has to reinvent itself in the U.S. and South America. At the end of the day, the Germans may again make eyes at Martin Winterkorn’s old flame Fiat Chrysler. Meanwhile, the overdue and over-budget VW economy car (three body styles plus one new battery electric vehicle) is taking shape in China with a Chinese ally. Elsewhere however, the brand still lacks a proper people’s car, which must be much more basic and affordable than a Beetle on a Golf platform.

Skoda in America?

A terrine made of sows ears and manta-ray filet kicks off dinner with Skoda. With vintage Pomerol loosening tongues, brand chief Bernhard Meier is in a chipper mood. Will Skoda attempt to gain a foothold in the U.S.? “We’re thinking about it, but won’t decide before the end of next year.” Up north in Wolfsburg, plenty of insiders will bet a crate of Budvar Pilsner that the Atlantic crossing is nothing but wishful thinking. An unknown brand from a former communist country attempting to sell Americans badge-engineered VWs through a non-existent dealer network—sounds like the perfect recipe for disaster. On its home turf, however, Skoda is thriving with a range of desirable products. Trouble is, the brand’s design language does not differ sufficiently from VW and Seat: check out Kodiaq against Ateca and Tiguan. Instead of using its low-cost production base to generate a no-nonsense entry-level model, the crew from Mlada Boleslav is working on up-market niche products like a Kodiaq coupé and a BEV CUV derived from the modular MEB matrix. Another glass of fine Bordeaux, anyone?

Ferrari and Porsche’s Coming Attractions

Day two begins with a latte on the Ferrari stand, where the taste police overlooked the grotesque anniversary editions. Now that Amadeo Felisa has, in what surely is his final act, installed the V-8 in the FF, the optional V-6 for the next 488 is a given. Unlike most of its rivals, Ferrari typically freshens its cars after four years and replaces them after eight, not to mention the addition of three or four limited-edition specials over their life cycle.

Porsche is pursuing a similar sequence with 718 and 911. The 911 GT3 and the GT2 RS are both due next year, the 911 GT3 RS follows in 2018. The all-new 992 expected in 2019 will not go fully electric, and even the proposed PHEV is on hold. At this point, an electric charger and a potent booster is all there is in terms of CO2-reduction means. The 718 GTS out next year will be followed by a GT4, sources say, and in this guise it reportedly revives the coveted flat-six engine. Although the Macan receives a makeover in 2018, its replacement is still up in the air. Instead of pegging it on the new Audi Q5, which was unwrapped at the Paris Show, Porsche may whiz down a completely different avenue with a cool crossover BEV loosely based on the low-riding J1 components set under development for the Mission E.

Chinese Bureaucracy

Lunch is a 25-euro salade nicoise washed down with 9-euro cappuccino, even though my contact, who is an expert in all things Chinese would have probably preferred a plate of dim sum. Since the Beijing government is requiring new indigenous brands—like the MB/BYD Denza or the Volvo-Geely LYNK offspring—as qualification for a BEV production license, the air is getting thinner for foreign automakers and battery suppliers.

Right now, more than 30 enterprises worth $1 billion or more have filed applications for this precious license, but so far only three—among them one manufacturer of trucks and buses—have received the go-ahead. Still stuck in the queue are big names like SAIC, Alibaba, Faraday Future, and Next EV. Since they no longer depend on technology transfer from Europe, Japan, and America, the Chinese attempt go it alone more often, and with inventive new handicaps like real-time charge monitoring (PHEV) and random extended-range requirements (BEV), the comrades make forward planning for the rest of the world increasingly difficult.

Nuclear Energy?

Early Friday afternoon is the perfect time to roam the supplier floor and check out the latest potentially game-changing gizmos. On the stand of a consulting firm, a flock of engineers wearing different badges are noisily debating the next big thing on the battery front, allegedly a nuclear yet non-radioactive energy cell that barely needs precious rare Earth metals. Wishful thinking or a breakthrough invention?

“I heard about it, but I don’t know how exactly it is supposed to work,” answers Christian Senger, leading e-mobilty specialist at VW. “At this early point in the game, it is very difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff.”

Dieter May, director of digital services and business models at BMW, agrees. “The other day, I had no choice but to disappoint our board of directors. They wanted me to present a five-year plan, but the best I could provide was an outlook for the next twelve months.” While it must be tricky to pick the best hardware and software combination, it is equally critical to coordinate timing, volume, and investment. “The key is speed and flexibility,” believes Herbert Diess. “And the willingness to take risks. Which ain’t easy when you’re at the beginning of a major restructuring process.”