FRANKFURT, Germany — Stanley Kubrick famously had planned a pie fight between the Yanks and the Soviets for the final scene of his 1964 classic, “Dr. Strangelove.” We couldn’t help thinking about such a pie fight breaking out in Volkswagen Group’s Hall 3 at the 2017 Frankfurt auto show, where the walking lanes came to a standstill as Audi conducted its Elaine concept press conference.
Compounding the crowd, Audi moved in with the rest of VW Group this year from its old spot in the center square between Hall 3 and Mercedes-Benz’s Guggenheim-like grand arena. Audi used to have a big, crowded, temporary arena all to itself. Dieselgate budget cuts, you know.
The Audi Elaine is a connected, electric four-door SUV “coupe” that premiered at Shanghai earlier this year (a sign of the times) and spoke to the automaker executive conducting the presser in a Cortana-like voice. It was in German, so we can’t tell you who the exec is or what he and Elaine said, but we yearned for Dustin Hoffman to yell “Elaine! Elaine! ”from offstage.
Enough of the cinematic metaphors. The big celebrity highlight was when three-time Formula 1 Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton drove out into Mercedes-Benz’s stand in the Mercedes-AMG Project One.
BMW and Mini moved from the front of the Frankfurt Messe, near Mercedes and VW Group, to Hall 11 about a kilometer away, which at least provided incentive to walk into the non-German automakers’ displays in-between. With General Motors gone, Opel shrunk to a smaller stand as part of PSA Peugeot, and nine other automakers having stayed home this year, the 2017 Frankfurt IAA was a smaller, more German industry-intense affair. Nonetheless, this show has plenty of cars and concepts to like, criticize and contemplate.
Hit: The idea behind the Mercedes-AMG Project One
I like the concept of a Formula 1-powered hypercar.
Miss: Mercedes-AMG Project One
Totally unconvincing collection-of-clichés styling. A serious disappointment.
Hit: Mercedes-AMG Project One
The biggest buzz of the show, if far from an unqualified hit. No, it’s not pretty and looks like an update of the legendary BMW-powered McLaren F1 road car. But Gorden Wagener’s team designed it for best aero and downforce, like a purpose-built racecar. Better yet, it’s the first hypercar that will be capable of speeds of nearly 220 mph from just 1.6 liters worth of hybrid turbo V-6.
Miss: Mercedes-AMG Project One Nose
Perspective matters. My first glimpse of Project One came from a second story balcony, revealing a sculptural, wasp-waisted shape bisected by a contrasting air intake and dorsal fin in matte black carbon fiber. Coming down to ground level revealed an entirely different slant: viewed head-on, the 1,000-plus horsepower sled seemed surprisingly unemotional. Despite a more than a passing resemblance to the late, great McLaren F1, the AMG’s schnoz simply couldn’t deliver on the promise of that striking top view, let alone the sculpted, tucked, and diffuser-clad rump. Blame the slavish demands of the wind tunnel (or whatever/whomever you want), but Project One’s proboscis is a reminder that form can lose charisma when it’s tied so directly to function.
Hit: Mercedes-AMG Project One Fin
Every great hypercar needs a signature design touch and Project One’s pièce de résistance is the carbon fiber piece that spans the mid/aft section of its roof. Doubling as an air intake and a shark fin intended to improve lateral stability in high-speed corners, this smoothly contoured form manages to evoke both a sense of function and touch of whimsy.
Hit: ASpark Owl
Is it a serious effort? Who knows, but in terms of styling, it really puts Project One on the trailer. Spectacular.
Revelation: ASpark Owl
I love walking along at an international auto show, minding my own business, and getting stopped dead in my tracks by an abjectly beautiful vehicle I’ve never seen before. Case in point: the ASpark Owl, a new electric supercar from Japan that makes some bold claims just begging for substantiation. Though I couldn’t find an expert on-hand, I did learn from a large format hardbound book (seriously) that this lean, mean, carbon fiber EV weighs only 1,900 pounds and packs two motors that can scoot it to 62 mph in two seconds flat. The prose includes no shortage of buzzwords (power amplifier, supercapacitor, speed reducer), but can we just brush all that aside for a moment and drool at the Owl’s killer looks?
Miss: Renault Symbioz Concept
Worst concept of the show. Lumpy plastic windshield, bad seating package, awful profile. Not at all up to the usual Renault concept standard.
Renault gets credit for unveiling not just a concept car, but an entire house to go with it. The Symbioz is one of those Internet of Things things, a battery-powered blobbymobile that can park itself and communicate with the house (i.e. if the heat’s on in the car, the house heats up as you approach). It can fold away its own steering wheel and turn into a sitting room, which is exactly what we don’t want from a car. The sad part is that in order to make the Symbioz the focus of its press conference, Renault gave short shrift to its other Frankfurt introduction, the Megane RS, a 276-hp hot hatch with four-wheel-steering. Now that’s the Renault we want to drive.
Hit: Renault Symbioz Concept
Yes, yes, it’s all that. But the good news is: 2020, your new Renault Avantime is here.
Miss: BMW Concept X7 iPerformance
We love a big, imposing SUV just as much as the next jerk, but the BMW Concept X7 iPerformance’s odd proportions and massive maw is more off-putting than it is badass. Sure, it gains eco points for its plug-in hybrid drivetrain. But let’s leave the mean, menacing look for the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, shall we?
I wouldn’t be so offended by the hideously massive “Star Wars” tie-fighter kidney grille if it weren’t for the Nissan Patrol/Infiniti Q80-style rear quarter-windows and d-pillars. Why didn’t they simply tap partner Toyota for a Land Cruiser to reskin?
Hit and Miss: 2019 Bentley Continental GT
The new Continental GT is big, bold, and breathtakingly beautiful. I’d call it a hit if the back end didn’t look like it was ripped off from an Audi A7—a sin that might be forgivable were both brands not owned by the Volkswagen Group. The A7 may well have the best-looking rump this side of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, but grafting it on to the Continental GT is just plain lazy.
Hit: The Bentley Continental GT’s Creased Haunches
Bentley’s long overdue Continental GT replacement has a lot going for it, including a new platform from Porsche, nearly 300 pounds of weight savings, and, finally, a modernized interior. But one curious detail caught our eye in Frankfurt: the coupe’s sharply creased haunches. “[Showgoers] haven’t stopped touching it,” one Bentley flack said of the aluminum panel. Manufactured using an aerospace-derived superplastic forming technique, the panels have an interesting engineering backstory. But arguably more important is a tactile invitation that bodes well for the car’s market appeal.
Hit: Borgward Isabella concept
Best concept in the show. Illustrates what happens when a brilliant designer tackles an electric car. Anders Warming, ex-Mini design chief, is one of the best young Germans in the business. The Isabella has many innovative styling ideas, but some old ones that didn’t work 40 years ago, and don’t work now, such as the fading paint on glass.
Hit: Borgward Smartphone Fan
No question, the best swag at this year’s Frankfurt Auto Show was this little fan that plugs into the bottom of your smartphone. It was given out by Borgward, a once-well-known German concern now reborn and backed by China, where its cars are sold. (They plan to return to Europe soon.) This little gizmo is exactly what you’d expect from a Chinese concern: Useful, amusing, cheaply made and potentially dangerous (good luck unplugging it without sticking your fingers in the whirling blades). I plan to steal about half a dozen of them by any means necessary. And what about Borgward’s SUVs, you ask? Trust me, the fan is better.
Instead of showing us a Tesla Model S with a kidney grille, I’d like to have seen BMW unveil something new and forward thinking, like the Borgward Isabella concept.
Revelation: Jaguar I-Pace Trophy
With plans to electrify their entire lineup by 2020, Jag is going gangbusters on EV tech. This much we know. But the latest surprise from Frankfurt is that the folks from Coventry are transforming electric I-Pace crossovers into a support series for the Formula E series. Built by the carmaker’s Special Vehicle Operations division, the I-Pace eTrophy racer packs a satisfying visual punch: despite its family-friendly configuration, the wide-hipped, spoiler-clad, roll cage equipped sport ‘ute looks mean enough to appease the most hardcore internal combustion apologists.
Hit: Ferrari Portofino
To me, a successful Ferrari design is one that looks instantly familiar. You know you’re looking at something you’ve never seen, but you also know you’re looking at a Ferrari. The Portofino is one of those cars—it just looks right, and it manages to look right whether the top is up or down. Thirty years down the road, this will be remembered as one of the great Ferrari designs, and it’s a privilege to have seen it make its world debut.
Hit (qualified): Ferrari Portofino
Much better than the California, still not up to the usual Maranello standard.
Hit: Hyundai Kona
If the Genesis G90 shows that the South Koreans can do a great imitation of Lexus, the Hyundai Kona shows they can do a great imitation of Citroën. This car has just enough nutsy details to keep it interesting without veering off into weird (Toyota CH-R), controversial (Nissan Juke), or downright ugly (Kia Sportage). What with all the mature-but-dull designs Hyundai has introduced over the past couple of years, the Kona might be the vehicle that gives them back their mojo.
Revelation: Hyundai i30 Fastback
This car is exactly what the name says: Hyundai’s compact i30 (sold in the States as the Elantra GT) with a Kia Stinger-like fastback grafted on. It’s a bit understated but very attractive, and I have to wonder how American buyers would react. I’d be surprised if it came to the States. My guess is it’s too close to the Elantra sedan (and perhaps the Ioniq hatch) to find its place in the lineup—but then again, the South Koreans are inscrutable. If it were to come here, that’d be a real treat, as the Elantra GT is easily the most enjoyable, underrated, and underappreciated car in Hyundai’s U.S. lineup.
Hit: Kia Proceed concept
Design boss Peter Schreyer hits it out of the ballpark with this unexpectedly svelte, striking wagon concept. Though KIA’s familiar ‘tiger-nose’ grille leads the way, the rest of the Proceed is an exercise in curvilinear purity, with a silhouette characterized by two simple arcs. The vibrant metallic red paint is a dominant outside and in, but subtle touches like a floating c-pillar finished in chrome offer just enough flash to break up the crimson tide. The only downside? We’re unlikely to see anything like the Proceed Stateside not only because of its extreme shapes, but doubly because it hails from Kia’s European division.
The Proceed wagon concept clearly has the style and the dash-to-axle proportion of the RWD Stinger four-door hatchback, which means Europe soon will get a Kia sport wagon. North America seems a long shot.
Revelation: Brabus Classic
You learn the darndest things at Frankfurt, like the fact that Brabus, builder of such unorthodoxies as a hopelessly steroidal, 900-horsepower G-Wagen, also has a six-year-old Classics division that faithfully and authentically restores vintage Mercedes-Benzes. In partnership with Mercedes-Benz, Brabus Classic can take the crème de la crème of old Benzes (from 600 “Grossers” to 300 SL Gullwings) and bring them back to like-new condition at their 28,000 square foot facility in Bottrop, Germany. Included with the restoration is a two-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Who knew?
Hit: Honda Urban EV concept
It reminds me of Marc Newson’s Ford 021C concept from the Tokyo Motor Show 18 years ago. They’re both product design oriented, not particularly automotive. The zillion-spoke wheels are very cool.
Miss: Honda Urban EV Concept
Honda’s Urban EV Concept is a perfect retro-mobile, combining a cool ‘70s/’80s shape with modern details. Too bad it’s a dead ringer for the first-generation Volkswagen Rabbit.
When I first saw it in the tin on the stand, I thought the photos hadn’t done it justice. It’s not at all a retro reminder of the first Civic, but gives off a certain ‘60s/early ‘70s vibe. Then I got a look at the interior, with its bench seat, odd shag carpeting on the rear seat, and video game-style dashboard-wide navigation screen. If the ’19 calendar-year production model loses those interior details, the Honda Urban EV could fall back into my “hit” column again.
Hit: Volkswagen Polo GTI
Size of a Golf Mark IV GTI. Not too small, not too big. Just right.
Miss: Volkswagen I.D. Crozz II
Still a gawky looking crossover four-door coupe with a big body and small greenhouse, which suggests a tight interior. The I.D. Buzz Microbus EV looks 10 times cooler. Wouldn’t it be great if VW manages to turn the vast preference for SUVs compared to MPVs/minivans on its ear?
Miss: Volkswagen T-Roc
This cute little crossover has tons of curb appeal. It’s more daring than other Volkswagen designs, with sharp creases and a contrasting-color roof, and it’s the right size to take on the new wave of small crossovers that are selling like hotcakes in the US. Personally, I think it offers a combination of size, style and street smarts that would make it a huge hit in America. So why is it a Miss and not a Hit? Because, for reasons no one can adequately explain, VW doesn’t plan to bring it to the United States. Excuse me while I go find a solid object against which I can bang my head.
Miss: Wey Logo
This may be low hanging fruit, but here goes: Lincoln called, they want their logo back.
Revelation: Perspective on Garish Bentleys and Rollers
Big, garishly painted cars from German-owned Bentley, like its ba-lue Mulsanne, and Rolls-Royce are the ‘10s equivalent of loudly colored tweed hunting jackets favored by some German gentlemen of a certain age and class, a generation ago.
Hit: Suzuki Swift Sport
The Swift Sport is tiny and cute, and with 138 hp from a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, it’s probably going to be downright scrappy. The Swift has been Suzuki’s best car for years, and they never offered it in the States—instead we got a half-baked Chevy Equinox clone, a three-quarter-baked Fiat joint venture, and those horrible Daewoo rejects. Looking over this cute little rocket ship makes me wonder what could have been.
Hit: Audi RS4 Avant.
RS4 means 444 horsepower, Avant means station wagon, and if you don’t know why that’s enough to make it a hit, you are hereby ordered to cancel your Automobile subscription and replace it with Consumer Reports.
Hit: Mercedes-Benz EQA concept
Mainstream Mercedes look pretty conservative these days, and the EQA concept is no exception, though this compact hatchback EV is a pretty clean design under its lightshow display and other show car eyewash. What’s more, if you change this two-box design into a three-box sedan, I think you’re looking at the basis of the upcoming Benz A-Class, an Audi A3 competitor coming to the U.S. some time in the 2019 model year. It will be a welcome addition to the CLA lineup.
Revelation: Suzuki Jimny
I had no idea Suzuki was still making the Jimny, the successor to the much-maligned and now much-missed Samurai, until I stumbled across one at the 2017 Frankfurt show. (Heck, I wasn’t even sure that Suzuki was still around.) But there it sat, in all its box-it-came-in glory. The Jimny hasn’t changed much since its last redesign in 1998, and the interior is a twenty-year time warp, cheap plastics and all. I understand the current Jimny is brilliant at off-roading and absolutely dreadful at everything else, and that makes me want to drive it all the more.