x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Green cars electrify Frankfurt Motor Show

There are many highs, and a few lows, at this year's German car-fest, but the interesting aspect is the marked rise in manufacturers showcasing their electric power credentials.

There are many highs, and a few lows, at this year's German car-fest, but the interesting aspect is the marked rise in manufacturers showcasing their electric power credentials. Above, dancers perform during the presentation of the new e-smart by German car maker Daimler AG.
There are many highs, and a few lows, at this year's German car-fest, but the interesting aspect is the marked rise in manufacturers showcasing their electric power credentials. Above, dancers perform during the presentation of the new e-smart by German car maker Daimler AG.

Of all the motor shows around the globe, Frankfurt is the one the auto industry loves to hate. It sprawls over a corner of the busy German city, so journalists' conversations are, more often than not, about the distance they've walked and the wear on their shoes. It's doubtful that the many celebrities and VIPs in attendance, such as actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson, are making the same complaints, however.

Being Germany's home show, it's the local firms that dominate proceedings. When Smart has a hall as big as that for Fiat, Chrysler, Ferrari, Maserati and Hyundai combined, you know there's going to be some nationalistic showboating. Smart's massive space is effectively a porch for the quite extraordinary split-floor Mercedes stand behind it, which showcases the three-pointed star with over the top fervour. Audi's stand is the main subject for discussion, though. Taking over BMW's previous space, Audi's people started building it in June. With its own track, it's an astonishing space; the structure arguably as interesting as the cars.

Press day is a different entity to when the public are allowed entry, when rope barriers arrive and floor space is crammed not just with the highlights, but with more cars people might actually buy. As ever, the day starts early for us hacks. Already weary attendees wonder whether it was worth late-night shuttle hopping to criss-cross the city to visit the various pre-show unveilings and round-table dinners that provided access to the people behind this automotive circus.

Breakfast with JLR - that's Jaguar Land Rover, a name now formalised and given its own logo - sees the Indian-financed-but-ever-so-British firm in confident mood. Like so few here, sales are on the up and there are two cars sat poised, waiting to be revealed.

Lotus is first though; the 15-minute warning for its press conference booming out so loudly it could wake the other half of Frankfurt the show doesn't occupy. There are no concepts today from Lotus, and an absence of the woeful celebrity endorsement that has defined the company in recent show outings. Dany Bahar, the CEO, mentions that customers had been concerned about the company's direction, like anxious parents watching their rebellious child. He suggests there's no need to worry.

A new Exige suggests that perhaps they should as, although there's the promise of masses more power via a 3.5L V6, it comes with a significant weight penalty - the current "More Lotus then ever" strapline delivering mixed messages here. Still, those waiting for the Esprit will be heartened to know it's on schedule and, in the meantime, they can buy a 444hp Evora GTE instead. It's Lotus's most powerful road car ever and such has been the demand for it, the plan to build just 25 has been binned as orders take up the factory's capacity well into next year.

It's JLR that's the talk of the show, though, with as many gushing with praise for Jaguar's beautiful C-X16 sports car concept as there are scratching their heads over the Land Rover DC100, the concept model signalling a new direction for Land Rover's iconic Defender. Design director Gerry McGovern's speedster-styled, open-roofed take on a lifestyle Defender certainly living up to his statement saying it's "like no Land Rover we've ever seen before". Encouragingly, he promises that the DC100 will be as rugged as the Defender, with an off-road ability to rival even the most dexterous mountain goat. Expect something looking similar to the DC100 in 2015.

It's not the only new 4x4 on show either, with the unlikeliest of firms signalling its intent to get down and dirty. Actually, Maserati's Kubang has been a long time coming, with the Italian firm showing a concept back in 2003.

Ferrari itself has brought along its new 458 Italia Spyder, so its stand is as busy as ever. And not to be outdone, Lamborghini has added yet another model to the Gallardo family - the Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4 Super Trofeo Stradale, a name which hardly trips off the tongue. It's quick though, with 100kph arriving in just 3.4 seconds. That's slow compared to the 20 Sesto Elementos Lamborghini is due to build, as the production version of the concept shown in Paris last year is anticipated to reach 100kph from rest in just 2.5 seconds. It'll cost you, though, with an expected Dh10 million sticker price upping the ante in the hyper car stakes.

Small change for some, admittedly, but for the majority, it's the less expensive machinery that will be of interest. Volkswagen has finally revealed its up!, a cool sub-supermini that, always ahead of the game, The National has already driven. Audi is showing an A2 concept alongside a largely revised range and a smattering of hybrids, while BMW's i8 and i3 point to a fast-approaching greener future.

Indeed, it's difficult not to notice the electrification of the motorshow. Hybrids and plug-ins provide transport between the halls, catching many by surprise as they glide around silently. Electric cars are everywhere, with seemingly every manufacturer showing boosted range and performance by hybridisation or going the full-on plug-in route. Audi, VW and GM demonstrate their interpretation of new, urban transport in the guise of single or twin-seated electric mobility with pod-like bodies and outboard wheels. Inner city motoring just got more sci-fi, even if production isn't quite there yet.

Daimler's CEO, Dr Dieter Zetsche, is perhaps the most vocal - of sorts - of the company executives in his rallying cry for electrification. In a rousing pre-show speech, the moustached boss extols the virtue of hydrogen, proclaiming it as the only fuel of the future. Promising not to go the same way as steam train manufacturers when diesel and electric power revolutionised railways, Mercedes-Benz introduces its F125 saloon concept, which manages 1,000km on its hydrogen fuel-cell electric drivetrain.

Zetsche assures us that the company will "set higher, more ambitious targets to beat the problems of the past", and that changes in the car will "turn hydrogen into a new commodity". Bold stuff, particularly as the majority of manufacturers with electric cars swerve the question of where the energy to fill all those batteries will come from. Future power-gazing aside, it's a confident mood at Frankfurt, where everything on show is cleaner and greener than before - even the sports cars, of which the new Porsche 911 is among the most anticipated.

As ever, it's evolutionary not revolutionary, but then the formula has always proved right in the past. Everyday machines continue to add more features usually found in larger luxury cars, while budget brands like Kia and Hyundai continue their march into mainstream normality - and upmarket, high performance credibility - with Kia's rear-wheel drive GT concept. These products are easily up with the best the old-school manufacturers can offer.

But, as is always the case at any international motor show, there are a few disappointments; Honda's new Civic failing to excite, for instance, while the new, bespoke Eterniti SUV doesn't match the pre-show hype. Others do: Aston Martin's production V12 Zagato wowing, as does Alfa's repainted 4C concept and many more. Frankfurt is a busy show for an industry that, despite the outward confidence, is still a little bit lost - much like so many of the weary journalists trying to find their way around.