2019 Frankfurt Motor Show: Hits, Misses, and Revelations

The best, the worst, and the eye-openers from this year’s IAA event.

Automobile StaffWriter, photographerManufacturerPhotos

Once again, the Internationale Automobili-Ausstellung (IAA) invites us to question the relevance of motor shows. Several major Euro-market players, including Fiat, Peugeot/Citroën, Mitsubishi, and Toyota, were conspicuous by their absence in Frankfurt this year. What about the home teams? While the Volkswagen Group devoted an entire pavilion to six of its seven brands (VW, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, SEAT, and Škoda), BMW and Mercedes shrunk or scaled back their displays, and Opel and Ford had modest stands.

Aside from the conspicuous absences, what stood out most at this year's show was electrification—not just talk, but actual cars. Production-model debuts included the Porsche Taycan, Volkswagen ID 3, and Honda E, and most of the concepts were electric or electrified. Even the show's biggest star, the Land Rover Defender, offers a hybrid powertrain, albeit of the mild variety. The pressetaxis (shuttles) that helped journalists run from one end of the massive ground to the other included Mercedes EQCs and F-Cells, Hyundai Ioniq Electrics, Audi e-trons, and Mini Cooper SEs, along with some rattly diesel Škodas and a vintage VW bus. Still, the message was clear: Europeans aren't merely giving lip service to environmentally friendly cars, and the vehicles are here.

As always, there was plenty to like, plenty to loathe, and plenty to open our eyes. Here are the highlights and lowlights from the show, as seen by the Automobile staff.

MISS: Land Rover Defender styling
When news of the new Defender broke, I was as excited as anyone else—I loved the old Defender, miserable as it was to drive. But when I finally saw the new one, my first thought was: This is it? This is the heir to 70 years of hard-core Land Rover heritage? It looks like an LR3 made out of Lego. What is exciting about this design? What is different? How does this relate, in any way, shape, or form, to the original Series 1 Land Rover, or even the last-gen Defender? If I were a designer at Jeep or Mercedes, I'd be laughing my ass off right now.—Aaron Gold

HIT: Land Rover Defender everything else
Set heritage aside—in other words, don't think of it as a Defender—and everything else about this SUV rocks my soul. The interior is fantastic and the off-road abilities promise to be mind-blowing—and with a hybridized straight-six under the hood (and maybe the diesel? Please, Land Rover?), it should be a good performer on-road as well. And can I just take a minute to praise the commercial version with its awesome steel wheels? I don't know how many tradespeople can afford £35,000 ($43,250) for a work truck, but still. —AG

HIT: Land Rover Defender "commercial" version
Coolest thing on the Land Rover stand was the steel-wheel, short-wheelbase Defender truck with the sign "Wilks Bros, 4x4 specialists since 1948. "—Robert Cumberford

HIT: Porsche Taycan
The Taycan got a loving if formulaic introduction here after last week's three-continent extravaganza that was themed around wind, water, and sun, the renewable sources that will provide a small fraction of the energy used by this 911-like four-door EV. It even gets the misleading Turbo S label because of its chart-topping performance—124 mph in 9.8 seconds plus the ability to get 62 miles of range via a five-minute quick-charge. Unlike the original Panamera, which also emulated the 911, the Taycan is more correctly shaped. Inside, the instrument panel spreads clear across the dashboard, but without a tachometer, it's hardly Porsche-like. Nevertheless, the Taycan is a hit because it will thrill.—Ronald Ahrens

Be still my beating heart! Let's set aside the utter coolness of an all-electric, long-range, high-performance Porsche sedan and concentrate on the styling. The Taycan has none of the awkwardness of the Panamera; instead it gracefully blends a bucket-load of traditional Porsche cues into a beautifully cohesive whole. I'd love this car no matter what was going on with the powertrain. P.S.: Look out, Tesla. —AG

MISS: Porsche Taycan Turbo and Turbo S
Turbo? What, like the "turbo" button on the 486 desktop computer I had in 1992? Come on, Porsche—if you can come up with such a brilliant car, surely you can come up with new words for "really fast" and "really, really fast." Ludicrous is taken, though. —AG

MISS: Porsche Taycan Turbo and Turbo S pricing
Going beyond the nonsensical names—the German car industry long ago gave up on logic when it comes to nomenclature—the first two Taycans out of the gate are mighty pricey, at $152,250 and $186,350. And those numbers are before you even start adding customization or options. Putting aside the Taycan's vastly superior fit and finish and promise to offer full performance until the batteries are drained—Teslas go into limp-home mode quickly when pressed to the limit—the specs aren't wildly improved over the Model S's, which can't crack $120K even with all the fixin's. While cheaper Taycans are surely in the pipeline, they'll also offer less performance.—Erik Johnson

HIT: Mercedes-Benz Vision EQS
The teaser video for the EQS concept had led us to expect "a beauty that moves you" but not the whispery classicism of this concept EV. Some might mock it as an obscene protuberance or say it belongs in Roger Rabbit, but we saw perfect proportions and evocations of the past—quite stunning, really. It's as if Mercedes' designers rolled up their sleeves and said, "OK, we'll just show you guys." The Audi AI:ME from Geneva is good, but the Vision EQS makes it look labored. I loved the two-tone livery and playful lighting. The 24-inch, 12-spoke, umpty-nine-fin wheels were hardly subtle, but we were too dumbfounded to argue. This EQS is a hit that drags the S-Class into a new era.—RA

MISS: Mercedes-Benz Vision EQS
This electric S-Class hint has a huge fat rear end worthy of a kartofflen-fed, middle-class, middle-age haufrau. Awful. But the interior is a hit. —RC

HIT: Audi AI:Trail
Remember 2003 when executive Wolfgang Bernhard clung to the almighty Dodge Tomahawk four-wheel motorcycle in Detroit? All these years later, an inversion occurred: Audi's new board member for sales and marketing, Hildegard Wortman, rode a four-wheel e-tron scooter onto the stage, proclaiming it the "perfect solution" for the last mile. But Audi's mind is also in the dirt. The AI:Trail concept joins the AI family established in the last year with the :Race and :ME. It has suicide doors, clever use of lighting, and a common style of convex rear light bar. This crawler-pod scored with me, although I'm not aware of demand for an EV in the boonies.—RA

MISS: All of the Audi AI concept cars
Cute-name, bad shape on all four Audi AI concept cars. The off-road study AI:Trail was the worst of a bad bunch.—RC

MISS: BMW iNext concept
A concept station wagon with four different seat designs and the entire rear compartment—seats, floors, side walls—covered in shag carpeting. —RC

MISS: BMW X6 in Vantablack
Vantablack—not so much a paint as it is an aggregation of tiny tubes that absorb light—is very, very cool stuff. An object covered with it supposedly looks like it isn't there, as if it's a hole in reality. But in reality, it looks like…well, it looks like velvet. Which, come to think of it, probably would have been a much cheaper material to slather on an X6. How velvety is it? Paint Elvis or some poker-playing dogs on the hood, and the image is complete. —AG

A BMW painted in ultra-black and put in a dark, mirrored room with an included light show so you could perceive that you couldn't see the surfaces of the car. Why?—RC

HIT: BMW Concept 4
Everyone is going to talk about the grille, but can we please get over that and look at the rest of the car? This is, I think, one of the prettiest concepts at the show. What's amazing to me is how much it looks like the 8 Series, and yet how much it also looks like every BMW 3 or 4 Series coupe from the last quarter-century. Plus there are a bunch of three-dimensional details that don't really show up in the photographs. I understand the grille anxiety; we're all a bit traumatized by Lexus. Take heart in the fact that whatever BMW fits to the face of its cars, it'll have to accommodate those wide European license plates. For now, though, get over the grille and enjoy the rest of the car. —AG

MISS: BMW Concept 4
No thanks. That grille is truly offensive.—EJ

MISS: Mini Cooper SE
Don't get me wrong—I love everything about the new electric Mini, including the role it will play in normalizing electric cars. But the name—SE? It sounds like a Dodge Stratus with the Gold Package and a vinyl roof. Yours for no money down and just $299 a month*!—AG

* On approved credit. Stock #2931A. One available at this price. Restrictions apply. Prices exclude taxes, title, and fees. See dealer for details.

Revelation: Wey-X
The marque called Wey is part of Great Wall Motor and aspires to the luxury market. The Wey display (see, they rhyme) featured the VV7, VV7-GT, and GT-Pro of varying dimensions. But the star was the Wey-X, a midsize crossover. Design executive Emanoel Derta, a Romanian who's worked for Fiat and Porsche, kept stressing the X was "an exercise in engineering" for efficient Level 5 autonomy. Front and rear of the otherwise unremarkable vehicle have active aero elements, but the big revelation was the large front LCD display panel in place of a grille. Hard-boiled reporters stood in line like fairgoers to photograph the succession of messages with warnings to pedestrians, presumably Frankfurters on their way to pick up a six-pack of the local Binding beer. "Welcome," the display said. "Autonomous driving. Be careful. Please go ahead." There's a smaller rear panel in the liftgate, and it bids, "Good-bye." The big revelation is that Europe's future could be this insipid.—RA

HIT: Andy Wallace
We met the intrepid Andy Wallace, who was unwilted after last month's run of 304.773 mph in a specially modified long-tail Bugatti Chiron. Wallace told of the car getting some air—he whipped out his phone and calculated speed in the 270-mph range—over a minuscule ridge in the pavement. "But it landed square," he said. The remarkable achievement occurred before the August 25 death (natural causes) of Ferdinand Piëch, who put Volkswagen Group together. Audi board chairman Bram Schot paid Piëch a tribute during the brand's presentation, saying the company owes "a lot of gratitude. "—RA

MISS: The Big Blue Oval
The warm springs of southern Germany bubble with bad news about Ford's European operations. In June, the company announced a 22-percent workforce reduction and closing or selling six of 24 plants. Meanwhile, there's the lame effort to pose as new mobility leaders. How uninspired was the display outside Hall 8 with five electrified cars caged up in shipping containers? At least there was enough blue Rust-Oleum to finish the paint job. Indoors, Ford's stand was just as blah. The overall lack of product freshness and technical innovation disappoints. It wouldn't be surprising if Ford were run out of town.—RA

MISS: Hyundai 45 EV Concept
The 45 EV Concept celebrates 45 years of heritage by harking back to Hyundai's 1974 Pony Concept. But is this something they really ought to celebrate? Americans were spared the misery of the Pony, but Canadians can tell you what a rolling turd it was. Refined as a garden tractor and reliable as a $10 psychic, Ponys are a rare sight now as most disintegrated into piles of rust within weeks of leaving the showroom. To be fair, the Pony Concept was a nifty piece of 1970s design and the 45 EV has that same funky vibe—in fact it was one of my favorite concepts at the show. Still, what's the message here? "We're going back to our roots: Shitbox cars!"—AG

HIT: Hyundai i10
Call this one irrelevant, as superminis like the i10 will never make it to America—in fact they're even becoming endangered species in Europe. But the i10 is a triumph of design, a truly handsome vehicle in a class where tight dimensions and tight budgets (cars have to be designed cheap to sell cheap) put serious constraints on stylists. The i10 is cute and cuddly and features a handsome interior unlike anything that graces the cabin of Hyundai's U.S. models. If less-small Hyundais like the Accent, Ionic, Venue, and Kona picked up more of the i10's styling cues, I think buyers would come running. —AG

HIT: Honda E
I loved the concept when it premiered at this year's Geneva show, and the production version is just as good, if not better. The car is an homage to the 1970s-era Civic, which is reflected in more than just the styling: The dash has a full-width bank of video screens, just the sort of technology-unleashed attitude with which the Japanese dazzled us back in the day. Plus it's cute and cuddly, and the four-doors-masquerading-as-two profile looks great. I thought I was done being jealous of European Hondas once we started getting the Civic Type R. Guess I was wrong. —AG

HIT: Volkswagen ID 3
Three years after it got left holding the bag for the sins of an industry, Volkswagen has delivered the electric car it promised and it's perfect. Imagine a Golf designed without regard for an internal-combustion engine, and you have the ID.3. It's futuristic but not polarizing, and the perfect size for European families. We won't get it in the U.S.—Volkswagen has finally given up on the pipe dream of selling Golfs here, and that extends to the ID 3—but it's the right car for Europe, and it shows that Volkswagen is serious about selling real-world electric cars. Well done, VW, even if this wasn't all your fault. —AG

MISS: Volkswagen ID 3
This is a thoroughly modern EV from its battery-sandwich chassis up, and it wants to be autonomous someday. Adornment is thoroughly pop, with vivid colors and dramatic lighting. The wheels have a frisky cosmic pattern. Undoubtedly, the ID.3 would be great for arriving at Bonnaroo. And like the Golf it will be good at daily tasks and easy to park in trendy neighborhoods. So why did we feel disheartened? Europeans might like it, but few Americans will identify. The ID 3 is a miss that makes us say, "I be gone. "—RA

BLAH: Volkswagen ID-series cars
Not good enough to be Hits, not bad enough to count as Misses. They shouldn't have cheated on diesels, necessitating a massive fleet of cars for which there are not now, and won't be any time soon, enough charging stations.—RC

REVELATION: Green factories are a thing… everywhere else
Several manufacturers cited the green credentials of their factories—zero carbon emissions, zero waste-to-landfill, and the use of renewable energy (wind, hydro, etc.) to power the machinery. And yet all of the factories I heard mentioned were in Europe. It's a sharp contrast to the United States, where the current administration seems hell-bent not only on slamming the brakes on the EPA, but shifting it into reverse. It's time for us to stop and think: Do we really want to risk our children and grandchildren's health in the name of "enhancing shareholder value"?—AG

HIT: Volkswagen Type 2 Pressetaxi
An old VW Microbus painted with Teutonic precision in false-hippie decor struggling along with up to six passengers emitted familiar sounds and masses of polluted exhaust. Its trailer was parked at the end of one of the empty pavilions, equally inauthentically decorated in German imagining of California Dreaming.—RC

REVELATION: Hall 4 Heritage Display
Hall 4 had great old Porsches, Benzes, and Bugattis, and they smelled like gas and oil. It got kooky, though. Two Swiss brothers, Merlin and Oliver Ouboter, were promoting the Microlino Micro, an EV that looks like the old BMW Isetta bubble car. Merlin, marketing chief and test driver, vouched for a top speed of 55 mph. Another revelation was the 1956 Spatz microcar. Few of these oddly graceful roadsters were made. Rumored plans (perhaps apocryphal) to save the company involved adding features to the base model for a Spatz LE, but engineer Hans Ledwinka found it cornered like a wet noodle.—RA

MISS: Continental Autonomous Shuttle
"Take a ride on our autonomous shuttle!" blared the signs, and yes, the big electric box-on-wheels drove itself (and me) from one side of Hall 8 to the other, albeit on a mostly-closed-off route. That evening I saw why: The city of Frankfurt had one running on a closed-to-traffic street, and the pedestrians were having great fun, waving their arms and jumping in front of it in several (universally successful) attempts to slow or impede its progress. And when it did move, it did so at a bystander-friendly brisk walk. Oh, and did I mention that it was driving itself down the wrong side of the road? I imagine that's why Continental kept theirs isolated: With the throngs of people at the show, it would never move an inch. Perhaps we need not worry about the autonomous future, because from what I saw, it's a slow, ridiculous, and ultimately futile mode of transportation. —AG

MISS: Frankfurt Motor Show
Here in the States, we've seen shrinkage at the major auto shows (Detroit, L.A., New York, and Chicago), but nothing like Frankfurt. At the last Frankfurt show in 2017, new cars filled seven of the eleven halls at the massive Messe. This year they only occupied four. Among the missing brands: Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Citroën, Kia, Volvo (though Polestar was in attendance), Renault, Suzuki, General Motors, and Fiat (along with Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Chrysler/Jeep), not to mention Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Lotus, Ferrari, and Aston-Martin. Mercedes/AMG/Smart had a smaller display and BMW shrunk its to about a quarter of its 2017 size. Frankfurt is supposedly Europe's leading car show. What's happening here?—AG

No Fiats, Chryslers, Peugeots, Citroëns, Ferraris, Volvos, Chevrolets, Cadillacs. Above all, no Corvette C8, which would have been a hit in Frankfurt.—RC

MISS: Frankfurt Messe
The Messe (literally Trade Fair, but the English meaning is appropriate) is massive, and rather than consolidate the automakers who did show up, the show is as spread out as ever. It's a looong walk from the entrance to Halle 11, site of BMW, Mercedes, and Land Rover, among others. Oh, and there are simultaneous press conferences at opposite ends of the grounds. Yes, there are shuttles and moving sidewalks, but not enough of either. If you detect a note of cynicism in everyone's Frankfurt coverage, well, now you know why. We suspect a secret partnership between the Frankfurt Messe and the folks who make ibuprofen. —AG

Still one kilometer from Mercedes to BMW, rolling carpets not continuous between them, paucity of shuttles for journalists. But at least the Germans were able to arrange perfect weather for the press preview.—RC