Spieshecker

I

AA Frankfurt is the premier European show for cars, held on consecutive years with Paris, and in the last quarter of the year to chime with October Fest (beer bitte!) as well as to avoid the annual spring show in Geneva. It is the only car show to combine a huge Tier 1 display, where technology in development as well as the technology recently launched on vehicles is on display. Want to know the intricacies of CMOS camera technology? How about Li-Ion battery chemistry? Need to know which panels are made by whom, and from what? Then IAA Frankfurt was, and crucially, still is the place to be once every two years.

On the morning of the first media day I was told by two people who were not at the show it was a ‘wash out’ and a ‘non-event’. Three days later the president of the organisers, VDA, resigned. Yes, there are 11 halls on the show ground, some with several floors – yet the 2019 IAA took up 6 halls. Three shows ago in 2011, all 11 halls were occupied, including most floors.

The stars

There were three clear stars at the show. Volkswagen showed the ID.3, which formally introduced the MEB platform to the world. Indeed, Volkswagen had not one vehicle on the stand with an internal combustion engine. Meanwhile JLR showed the all-new Defender, and the other major star was the all-electric next generation Mercedes-Benz S class preview.

Volkswagen Group: From the mighty pure electric drive Porsche Taycan to the run out of the ‘up!’ / Citigo / Mii as a pure electric drive only product, electricity with a side order of electricity was the main idea. Audi showed five concepts, from future A8 and R8 through to a genuine off-road vehicle – which all featured a metal highlight line passing through the side glazing. 

Volkswagen: ID.3 featured a surprisingly conventional upper structure, with a plastic tailgate. The interior had a next generation HUD, where information was supplied in near vision and obstacles were presented in real time / real distance, including directions. HUD details were sketchy, but it relies on integration of multiple data streams to achieve this performance. Otherwise MEB platform is initially available with three different battery capacities – 45, 58 and  77kWh – with an eight-year / 160 000 km warranty and, for the moment, rear wheel drive where the power controller, charger and drive all sit inside the rear subframe. Indeed, MEB’s main feature is location of the powertrain between the rear wheels, whilst the battery is under the main floor, and the battery controller as well as services are located between the front wheels. Addition of four-wheel drive will not be a surprise, since MEB will appear under many different body shapes across Audi, Seat, Skoda and Volkswagen brands. Finally, The Seat El-Born concept shown in Geneva six months ago really was the first time MEB was seen, confirmed as it appeared alongside ID.3. 

FRANKFURT 3

Mercedes-Benz: A whole gaggle of PHEVs was shown, including possibly the last co-operation with Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance – the A250e and B250e use an Alliance engine and PHEV driveline. Meanwhile the straight six diesel engine was given a boost with a mighty 31.2 kWh PHEV package to create the E350de and GLE 350de, which allows for pure electric motoring for up to 100km or up to 160 km/h. The biggest news for the company was, however, the next generation S class preview. The interior had an uninterrupted belt of wood which circled around the four individual seats and compact touch screen displays – the concept made the current S class look old overnight. We have another year or so to wait for the production car.

Land Rover: The new Defender lives! Based on the Discovery 5, which is built in the same Eastern European plant, the bodyshell is made mostly from aluminium alloy and does not have a chassis. Further, the designers made the tail of the vehicle ‘standard’ but the engineered did not deliver this. Subsequently the first two models (90-inch and 110-inch wheel base) have quite different bodies aft of the B pillar. The ‘90’ has a single rear quarter glass with an optional painted ‘pad’, whilst the ‘110’ has a complex standard ‘pad’ which covers the location point for the optional roof rack. That roof rack has a ladder on one side (the first step is more than 1m off the ground!) and a pannier on the other side. Oh – aluminium checker plate for the bonnet? Why yes, made from plastic. New Defender (L661) is a million miles from the original. Think of it more like a super-sized first-generation Freelander. And yes, the rear screen if fixed so there will not be any sudden failures at high speed. 

So, what was the matter?

Footfall. And cost. It was evident vehicle manufacturers have lost the appetite for spending big cash to build palaces for just a 1.5-weeks of international show, when the primary PR impact is achieved on the first day. Hall 11 for example used to be devoted to BMW Group, complete with racetrack. This year it housed BMW Group, Hyundai, Opel, Ford and JLR. Now we get to the heart of the issue. The people who actually buy vehicles have become disconnected from the engineering glory of the automotive sector, so that much of the communication is devoted to an ever-narrowing audience. 

Lessons learnt

The automotive industry right now has multiple problems, ranging from poor return on investment, through ever increasing development costs to very powerful lobbying. The latter element is growing like weeds in a field, since the automotive industry – which does try really hard to communicate – effectively is talking to itself. The greater public only ‘get’ vehicles which inspire, like the Land Rover Defender. Yes, there were more significant and better engineered new vehicles on show, let alone to buy – yet we have to re-learn connection with the public. That might mean the end of big static shows.

By Andrew Marsh

FRANKFURT 1