This was one of the most exciting and optimistic days for years in the life of the European motor industry. It wasn’t just the fact that car makers rolled out record numbers of new models and concepts on day one that made Frankfurt ’07 so special. It was also the sheer quality and relevance of the exhibits at coping with the two burning issues that challenge all car makers: making cars that people actively desire (nowadays the only true guarantee of sales success) while increasing the depth, capability and affordability of the ‘green’ models that every range now has to contain.
‘Trump Toyota’ seemed to be a persistent theme, even among German and French marques, who up to now have loudly claimed that the Number One manufacturer’s phenomenally successful petrol hybrid cars (spearheaded by the Prius), contained costly and irrelevant technology that could be beaten in the real world by well set-up turbodiesels.
This year, however, well-advanced hybrid concepts were to be found on most major manufacturers’ stands, most prominently inside Mercedes-Benz’s mammoth pavilion, which featured a varied dozen of petrol, turbodiesel and stop-start hybrids. They surrounded the company’s arresting F700 concept, a low-roof, S-class-sized saloon with a huge, elongated cabin but some more mature CLS overtones, powered by a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder ‘DiesOtto’ engine combining the best of petrol and diesel motors to pump out nearly 240bhp while producing only a miserly 126g/km of CO2. Those figures would simply be impossible using today’s technology.
Over at BMW, punters gasped as the wraps came off the firm’s startling X6 4x4 coupé concept, a car for which few of us could imagine a target customer. It was a hybrid, of course, but it had the virtue of introducing a new drive system, dreamed up and pushed through by recently departed technical chief, Burkhard Göschel, which not only splits drive torque variably from front to rear, but also from side to side at the rear, to eliminate the understeer typical of present systems on turn-in on snowy roads.
What was clear at BMW was the growing acceptability of the company’s styling. The X6 looked sleek and balanced, and the new 1-series coupé, also seen in public for the first time, looked so petite, sporty and downright desirable it was difficult to believe it was related to BMW’s banana-shaped entry-level hatchback.
Revolution was the order at Volkwagen, where the wraps came off a fantastic sub-Polo concept called ‘up!’ (sure to ditch that ropey name when it goes into production in 2010). It had a lovely, simple, utilitarian body style disguising a tiny engine (an in-line 600cc twin or a 900cc triple) mounted under the rear seat and driving the rear wheels.
Make no mistake; this is very big stuff for Volkswagen, as pioneering a design as the Golf was in the early 1970s, and the Beetle before that. It has been produced amazingly quickly, too, under the auspices of VW Group’s relatively new leader, Martin Winterkorn, the former Audi leader who only really assumed authority over the main group at the beginning of the year. The target weight of 800kg is only marginally more amazing than the target price of €6000 (£4000).
Regrettably, VW’s ordinary-looking Golf-based Tiguan SUV couldn’t match the excitement factor of its cute, brick-shaped (where have you heard that description before?) relative, and neither could the rest of a crop of junior SUVs that turned three or four debuts into a powerful offensive of European RAV4 fighters. Chuck in Renault’s nice-looking Koleos (still a concept, but soon to arrive in Europe from Korean builder Samsung) plus the recent debuts of Peugeot’s 4007 and Citroën’s C-Crosser (and a forthcoming Mercedes product next year) and you have a brand new battleground.
Ford’s snappy-looking Kuga was the best looking of them (some said it was even better looking than the concept which foreshadowed it) and the Koleos was also easy on the eye, if just as predictable mechanically. But Seat’s short-wheelbase Tribu left many puzzled; as Autocar’s former European ed Peter Robinson observed, the three-door RAV lasted only one generation in production because customers wanted five doors…
Talking Ford, the Blue Oval showed its Verve concept, intended to hint at the forthcoming three-door Fiesta (though design boss Martin Smith made it clear the hint was more a knowing wink) and its updated Focus, whose sides have been reshaped for more dynamism, as well as the regulation tweaks to nose and tail.
The extra work was led by Ford Europe’s CEO, John Fleming, whose background is a cost-averse production man, because he discovered a neat way of paying for the extra tooling, and because he wanted to steal the biggest possible march on VW’s Golf (group boss Winterkorn has delayed that car’s mid-life changes by about a year because he disliked the original proposals). The Focus’s snappier exterior, plus some strong interior changes and the debut of a new paddle-shift, twin-clutch gearbox, promise a solid sales kick for Europe’s biggest-selling Ford.
Easily Frankfurt ‘07’s most vibrant, most crowded, most youth-packed place was Hall 6, the place for Alfas, Lancias, Maseratis, Ferraris and Fiats. Supercars always draw crowds and celebrities (the preview day was predictably livened by visits from Michael Schumacher, who unveiled Ferrari’s achingly desirable 430 Scuderia, and Lewis Hamilton) but it was the amazing resuscitation and ascent into the fashion stratosphere of Fiat that really pulled in the punters.
The company’s mammoth stand features more Fiat 500s in more remarkable guises that one imagination could produce, including an extraordinary fairground-style ride that took place entirely inside a huge 500 replica, fully two storeys high. It’s amazing.
The only sour Italian note - and it wasn’t all-Italian - was struck at Audi-controlled Lamborghini, where the spectacularly ungainly Reventon (named for a famous bull who killed a matador in the 1940s) drew undiscerning crowds. The car is an ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive reskin of the already-glorious Murciélago, meant to recall the Countach. “Radically retro,” someone called it. We passed on.
In the midst of the Italian quarter’s noise and joyful mayhem stood the new Punto Abarth, a car whose bodily collection of scoops, wings, decals, cut-outs and black bits was so completely over the top that if it had come from anywhere else but Italy it would have been labelled OTT.
Actually, it looked wonderful. It stood for everything that has so far been achieved at Fiat, and showed, by its sheer desirability, how Europe can continue to succeed even against those who are more grindingly efficient at building good cars in huge numbers.
On this special day for cars in Frankfurt, optimism was everywhere. But it was the Italians, not for the first time, who were the leaders.