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Dan Neil's Frankfurt Auto Show preview

September 11, 2009 |  4:21 pm


For those who fret about the end of the American Automotive Empire, I’d offer the following consolation. After years of skepticism, resistance and outright ridicule, European car makers are embracing an idea and evolving a technology that Americans pioneered: the electrification of the automobile.

Don’t miss the moment here. European car makers are justifiably proud of their own, homegrown technology, in fields such as high-efficiency diesels. But when Mercedes-Benz pulls the silk off the plug-in version of its new SLS AMG Gullwing, or shows off its plug-in S-class concept, those represent a concession to a better idea that Americans had first.

Here’s one takeaway for the Frankfurt show: elephants in tutus. In other words, how will European marks squeeze their gracious saloons and premium sports cars into the ever-tighter spandex of fuel efficiency? The solutions will be inspiring and sometimes absurd. Take, for instance, BMW ActiveHybrid X6 concept, powered by 4.4-liter V8 (400 hp and 450 pound-feet of torque), a seven-speed transmission, two traction motors (91 hp and 86 hp) for a total of 480 hp and 575 pound-feet of torque. Yes, the most powerful hybrid in the world, but how much does it weigh? How much does it cost?

Another meme: three-fifths scale. A whole class of cars is getting smaller without giving anything up, in comfort, convenience and panache. Consider the Lexus LF-Ch, which is a little luxo five-door thrown against the Audi A3 and BMW 1-series.

Yet another meme: The show – starring large, effortlessly beautiful, immensely fast exotic cars for the richest one-10th – must go on. Meet the Rolls-Royce Ghost, a BMW 7-series-sized Rolls with coach doors (I’m telling you now this is my early favorite pick of the show). Maserati brings the Gran Cabrio; Aston Martin, the heartbreaking Rapide; Ferrari, the utterly bewitching 458 Italia; Bentley, the presumptively large and audacious Mulsanne. Old money is still the best money.

Beyond the jump is a brief preview of next week’s turntable stars.

-- Dan Neil

Aston Martin
The Rapide weighs in rather late in a field of exquisite luxury streamliners with four doors, including the Porsche Panamera, which looks rather lumpen in comparison. The AM is due is 2010 with a 6.0-liter, 470-hp V12 under the ballistic hood. The pictures look incredible.

Audi will use home turf to reveal several niche-y variants, including the A5 and S5 Sportbacks (four doors, rakish rear glass hatch). The headliner will be the R8 Spyder with the 5.2-liter RSI V10 mounted midships. The biggest feat here, of course, is cramming that monster motor and a folding top (canvas, certainly) into such a small space behind the cabin. An electric concept of the R8 has been rumored. Stay tuned.

Bentley Mulsanne
I have to say – having seen this car in the flesh at Pebble Beach already – I’m not impressed. Actually, the car seems pretty uninspired in the styling department. It’s just big, and ungainly, and lacking in any kind of visual poetry aside from the haiku of big, bigger, biggest. The car goes on sale in summer 2010 and will be priced around $350,000. That’s buying it by the yard.

The Werks brings a wild, futuristic supercoupe concept to the stand, the Vision EfficientDynamics – lousy name, though. With doors that open like dragonfly wings and a composite body with LED welting as seams, the car is dazzling, if only in sheer candlepower. The doors, for example, are photochromatic polycarbonate – they lighten and darken depending on lighting conditions. The Vision ED is a demonstration platform of BMW’s current best hybrid thinking: A 1.5-liter turbodiesel (163) backed up by a 51-hp electric motor and a six-speed dual clutch transmission. All that feeds the rear wheels, while a separate high-hp electric motor drives the front wheels (if needed). Sum it up: 356 hp in a car that weighs less than 3,000 pounds. Probability of production? What’s less than zero?

Also on the BMW stand, the aesthetically challenged 5-series Grand Turismo and X1 crossover

Bugatti Bordeaux
I managed to score an invitation to the world reveal on Monday, Sept. 14, at the factory in Molsheim. Check in early that morning for bloggy newsflash and pictures. The Bordeaux –- and I’m not really confident that’s what they are going to call it –- is supposed to be a four-seat Bugatti with a version of the 1001-hp W16 quad turbo engine, turned around and stuck under a hood. Two doors or four doors? Price? As the narrator intones in “Citizen Kane,” “No man can say….”

Citroen – rather piqued that the most expressive little car in the world is British-German (the Mini Cooper) – battles back with its own little lump of charisma, the C3. Built with a variety of gas and diesel engines, the C3 will also come in a swank, upscale package, the DS3, which revived the DS moniker of old, the DS 19/23 “Goddess.”
On the “maybe” list is a Citroen version of the Mitsubishi iMiev city electric car, a version of which will also be re-badged as a Peugeot (Citroen’s sister brand).

Who wants to be a millionaire? I do, if for no other reason than the Ferrari 458 Italia. Oh… my …God. This is the best-looking Ferrari I’ve ever seen. Ever. And dig this number: 570 hp out of a 4.5-liter naturally aspirated engine. Replacing the F430, the 458 Italia goes on sale next year. Line for Lotto tickets forms here.

The new corporate overlord of Chrysler, Fiat could easily have been overlooked in past Frankfurt previews but not anymore. Consider the Fiat Punto Evo, a B-class car with a variety of diesel and gas engines, to be a preview of a next generation Dodge. Not a horrible outcome, actually. Fiat was burned in the past when it shared proprietary engine technology with suppliers, who then passed it on to competitors. Fiat’s MultiJet diesel and MultiAir gas engine systems will be much more tightly controlled this time around.

Meanwhile, a slew of cool Fiat/Alfa/Lancia products have implications for the U.S. market. I’ll report on them from the stand.

The Blue Oval is doing better these days but waiting for the company to homologate great products from Europe is like waiting for Christmas. The C-Max – a lovely space wagon based on the Iosis concept – will debut in Frankfurt. This is the C-chassis that will underpin the next-gen Ford Focus. Both cars won’t get to the U.S. until mid- to late 2010. What could be taking so long? The engine headline is the 1.6-liter four-cylinder direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost engine. The C-Max will also be available with tons of up-level safety and convenience technology features, part of a policy Ford calls the “democratization of technology.” And I thought that meant $100 laptops.

Kia will roll out two new models, the Venga and the Cee’d – both awful names for cars. The company really needs help in the branding department. These cars will rock no worlds but they will come with start/stop technology using a “weak” hybrid architecture, using the alternator as a starter to bring the engine back to life when the driver steps on the gas.

The Raging Bull will show off the Reventon Roadster. Not much to report here except that the cubistic Reventon concept car has had its top sawed off. When Lambo finally gets serious about a production version, then we’ll take notice. But right now, Lambo product development is likely being slow-walked by VW brass.

Toyota’s luxury division is making waves in Europe in a big way. One advantage there is that the Lexus brand isn’t quite so hidebound with a prestige image as it is in the U.S., thereby allowing Lexus to offer a “baby” model. Consider the LF-Ch hybrid concept/near production car, a hybrid to go up against the Audi A3 and BMW 1-series.

The Heathel, England-based company will unveil the Elise Club Racer, a stripped down fender-banger for weekend warriors, for about $45,000.

This should be pleasant. Modena, Italy-based Maserati has delicately excised the hardtop off its beautiful Quattroporte to create the company’s first four-seat cabriolet. Under the hood is a gently evolving version of the 4.7-liter V8, now putting out 433 hp.

The panting at the Mercedes stand will be all over the SLS AMG, the gull-winged replacement for the SLR McLaren. But considering what a miss the SLR was, I’m going to reserve judgment, except on one point: The SLS AMG is not the heir to the 300 SL Gullwing of the 1950s. No way. That car was one of the most perfect sculptures in history. The Gorden Wagener-designed SLS AMG, as yet, just looks like a car, though one with an uncommonly long nose.

Mercedes-Benz will also show an electric version of the SLS AMG and a plug-in version of its S-class sedan, called the S500 Hybrid, with promised fuel economy of 74 mpg.

MB will also unveil the new E-class wagon; as for the E-wagon coming to the U.S., I’ll ask.

Looking like a slightly crushed John Cooper Works-edition Mini, the Mini Coupe sports a low aluminum roof and a swept back windshield, as compared with the stock JCW. If this is the answer, what was the question? Mini will also unveil a roadster concept, presumably with the same underpinnings. Can’t wait to see it.

Big doings are afoot for the French brand, the sister to Citroen. The company will unveil the RCZ, a front-engine, 2+2 sport coupe that might be thought of as an Audi TT with a taste for escargot. This hot-looking little Frenchie will come as hybrid, as well, the RCZ Hybrid4, a diesel-electric. Note that Peugeot’s Le Mans racing program calls for a diesel hybrid car to battle at La Sarthe in the near future, so the race and road car divisions seem to be cross-pollinating.

A variety of 911 variants will be rolled out, including the GT3 Cup and RS, the new Turbo, and an interesting, retro-themed Carrera S model called the “Sport Classic,” with a vintage whale-tail and other details pleasing to the connoisseur. Not available in the U.S., alas.

The 2011 Rolls-Royce Ghost – a great old name, aptly revived – looks mega. With a 6.6-liter, 563-hp twin-turbo V12 and eight-speed ZF transmission handling the motivating, the “baby” Rolls is a more human-scaled alternative to the Titantic-sized Phantom. The Ghost will retain the larger car’s coach door feature, which is lovely. On sale date is mid-2010 with an estimated price of $250,000. Expected acceleration: 4.7 seconds to 60 mph. Dear old Charles and Henry must be turning 3,000 rpm in their graves about now.

Whither goest Saab? The deal has been struck that the company be purchased from GM by a consortium led by Swede Christian Koenigsegg – maker of blindingly fast sports cars – but the future is anything but certain. The far-too-long delayed 9-5 should help, given that it’s built on an excellent GM Epsilon II global architecture and that the styling is attractively Saab-like (wraparound greenhouse, blacked-out roof pillars, distinctive grille and headlamp design). A choice of four turbocharged engines will be available, with output from 160 to 300 hp.

Compared with Trabant, rehabilitating AIG, Enron and Blackwater brands would be easy. But a German company has decided to relaunch the car that gave Communism a bad name as an electric city car. Should be a hoot.

The new big monkey in European car-building – having absorbed Porsche earlier this year – VW has a lot to celebrate, and a lot to prove. Among its environmental offerings at the Frankfurt show will be a new concept version of the old 1-liter car. The two-seater concept could point the direction toward a micro city car capable of more than 230 miles per diesel gallon. VW will also showcase its BlueMotion clean diesel tech on Polo, Golf and Passat models.

Photo credits: Frankfurt IAA auto show; Astin Martin; Audi; Bentley; BMW; Ferrari; Ford; Lamborghini; Lexus; Lotus; Maserati; Mercedes-Benz; Mini; Porsche; Rolls Royce; Saab; Volvo