On the way to Frankfurt, many hacks diverted to the launches of a new 200 mph McLaren and a new four-door Bugatti concept (both with the regulation efficiency stories attached) and within the Frankfurt portals they also clapped eyes for the first time on the Mercedes SLS AMG gullwing supercar, and Aston Martin’s Rapide.
All four – costing £150,000-plus – excuse themselves from the alleged economy rush by pointing to useful efficiency improvements and tiny sales volumes that won’t affect overall levels of atmospheric CO2, or make any difference to world fossil fuel levels.
Bentley versus Rolls-Royce
One unmissable big car event is the polite, once-in-a-generation confrontation between a brand new £200k Rolls saloon (the Ghost) and a new £200k Bentley (the Mulsanne). Most observers give the decision narrowly in favour of the Rolls, whose chiselled shape integrates sweetly with the full-size Phantom, but most now see that the Bentley’s design was done done no favours by a set of pre-launch photos which did not show it well.
The battle between these two will be bloody, and Bentley may find a useful advantage in selling engines which can burn alcohol-based E85 fuel as easily as petrol. However, the big point about these huge and powerful cars is that each has confident backers, convinced that rich buyers will still want them now the storm is abating.
New mainstream cars crowd Frankfurt in numbers, many of them illustrating one of the sobering truths of the modern era – that car-makers nowadays spend more time and money on engine calibration than styling.
GM’s new Astra looks competent, without stopping the traffic, and so does Ford’s new C-Max. Renault is showing a mid-sized saloon aimed at Turkey and Russia, called Fluence (a name once applied to the most beautiful of concepts), which looks positively dowdy.
The new Kia Sorento ditches the high successful original model’s sharp shape in favour of something ritzy but anonymous (though this company does redeem itself, against the trend, with a pretty MPV, about the size of a Citroen C3 Picasso, called Venga). At least Seat’s IBZ (near-production Ibiza estate proposal) and Skoda’s Superb estate both looked right, and ready for action.
The concepts and the electrics
Wild concepts are hard to find. VW’s electric Up! concept – confirmed by group boss Martin Winterkorn as production-ready – looks neat and pretty, but curiously unadventurous compared with the original, engine-under-the-seat originals.
Mercedes’ bewildering array of ‘Blue-something’ hybrids and concepts show off the company’s awe-inspiring technical grasp, but say almost nothing about how M-B will get back to making beautiful cars.
Only the French – Citroen with its ‘contemporary’ Revolte, Peugeot with its skeletal four-seat urban ‘pod’ and Renault with its quartet of electric cars – were prepared to take a risk.
Ironically, every one of Renaults improbably-futuristic electric concepts – the bulky Fluence saloon, the jaunty Kangoo van, the enticing Twizy tandem four-wheel, two-seat scooter and the far-out Zoe supermini – will be in production by the beginning of 2012, and Renault, with partners will have devised and sponsored a network of charging stations and plug-in, plug-out battery swap stations. Now you’re talking!