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Friday
Sep162011

Fun, Frolic, Frankfurt

By Christopher A. Sawyer

The Frankfurt Motor Show is an automotive nirvana, despite being located in Germany, the capital of “Fun.” Where most auto shows deal with just the automaker, Frankfurt provides space for suppliers, tuners, engineering companies, garage equipment and more. It does this by spreading the approximately 900 exhibitors out over multiple halls, including a couple, like the spectacular facility Audi inhabited, that are assembled on site, and removed once the public days are complete.

For an American, the ability to interact with vehicles we don’t get here is enticing. There’s everything from microcars to insane tuner specials, as well as the normal everyday cars Europeans interact with almost absentmindedly, but can stop a foreigner dead in his tracks. Sometimes you are glad they don’t sell a particular vehicle here. Other times, you wish you could buy one down at the local dealership.

This lack of familiarity often makes something seem more special than it is. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Yet, after a long day slogging through the halls looking at everything on display, you realize that you can’t see everything at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the two days you are there. So you make a list of interesting vehicles, find their location, and create a map that takes you to each in sequence. Sometimes you are unimpressed by what you see. Other times you are intrigued. And, if you are lucky, occasionally you are taken aback, mesmerized by the vehicle that sits before you. Here are just a few of the vehicles that caught my eye.

Volkswagen Up!

Mini/Fiat 500 in size with variants that surprise, delight and disappoint.

VW launched a new family of small cars and showed a number of concepts based on its platform. Called the up! (the exclamation point is part of the name), it replaces the Lupo as VW’s entry level car. Just 139.4-in. long, 64.6-in. wide and 58.2-in tall, the up! is only slightly smaller than the Fiat 500. However, Fiat fits a 101-hp four under the hood of the 500, while the up! offers a choice of two gasoline-powered 1.0-liter three-cylinder engines (59 hp and 74 hp) and one powered by natural gas (67 hp). Even VW admits the small front driver can handle more power (which VW claims is unnecessary in the urban environment for which the up! was designed), and showed a concept GT version with 73 hp pushing around 1,984 lb. Given the fact that a base U.S.-spec Fiat 500 has 23.4 lb/hp and the supposedly sporty GT up! has 27.2 lb/hp, it would seem that potential GT up! drivers are going to get their doors blown off by grandmas in their Cinquecentos, and cower in fear when an Abarth edition rolls up alongside. Perhaps a more powerful giddy up! version is worth investigating.

On the up! side (sorry), the 59 hp version with stop/start should return 56 mpg, and start at $13,540. At launch, VW will offer multiple trim levels, with the “high up!” topping the line. Inevitably, someone in VW’s marketing department will be looking to do tie-ins with other companies. Had the car launched two years ago, it would have been a natural for the Pixar movie of the same name. Kimberley-Clark is a natural as the car should appeal to new parents with children of potty training age, as well as to a certain maker of lemon-lime soft drinks.

VW also is planning a small up! van and four-door, and showed a number of concepts based on the up! platform in addition to the GT model. The two of most interest to Americans are the buggy up! and cross up!, as they are lifestyle centered, and would be sold here as niche vehicles.

The buggy up! is a modern interpretation of the Meyers Manx dune buggy of the 1960s that was built on the platform of the original Beetle. Like that vehicle, it has no doors, but also features open sills and a removable roof panel that let the air in. It sits on enormous 205/45-18 tires, and is longer, lower and wider than the production three-door up!. The junior dune buggy has a trunk lid split in two; the top section goes up while the lower piece forms a tailgate. It’s not hard to imagine the buggy up! with a clip-on convertible top, Jeep-like removable doors and covers for the open sills in production. Nor is it hard to imagine it selling like hotcakes to those in the South and West of America, with fewer, but still vibrant, sales in the rest of the U.S.

The cross up! shows how the four-door up! will look, and opens the door for a small crossover model. It sits measly 0.59-in. higher than a normal up!, and had 185 section tires on 16-in. alloy wheels. A large honeycomb grille, bigger bumpers and contrasting color wheel arch extensions complete the look. It wouldn’t be too difficult to use the electrical architecture created for the e-up! electric car to drive an electric motor located between the rear wheels. This would give upper-level versions of the cross up! part-time all-wheel-drive, and the ability to run short distances on electric power alone. That would not only help VW meet tighter emission and fuel economy standards, but provide an interesting, and potentially less expensive, alternative to vehicles like the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman.

Beetle R

Crushing the New Beetle’s flower vase with its bare hands.

VW showed two other concepts at Frankfurt, neither of which had an exclamation point in its name. The first is the Beetle R, which takes the powertrain and suspension from the Golf R, and places it under the Beetle body. That means 4Motion all-wheel-drive, a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine with approximately 250 hp, and a standard six-speed manual transmission. It’s a slam-dunk for production, and moves the Beetle further away from the “chick car” tag  that stuck to the New Beetle.

VW Nils

Fuel efficiency taken to extremes, with a hint of fun.

Next up is something Europeans can look forward to seeing more of: an electric single-seat commuter car. Called Nils, it features gullwing doors, an aluminum spaceframe, and wheels set out at each corner, covered only by cycle fenders. It’s not hard to imagine a tandem-seat version on a stretched wheelbase. Even more intriguing would be an adaptation of this concept powered by a turbocharged up! engine driving the rear wheels and wearing VW’s R badge. But no, the politicians wouldn’t like that. It’d be too… individualistic. With a length of 120 inches and weighing less than 1,000 lb, the Nils promises to provide its single passenger a bit of fun while covering its 40-mile range.

Audi Urban Concept

Part Soapbox Derby racer, part bubble car, driven by electricity and political power.

As if to prove the point made by the Nils, Audi showed its own city car, the Urban Concept. Looking like one of the gravity racers from the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the open-wheel Audi places its passengers side-by-side in offset fixed seats, and allows entry through a canopy that slides back. It can be left open, if desired, but Audi also showed a Spyder version with a cut-down windscreen and no top.

The exterior panels are made from carbon fiber, while the passenger compartment is a mix of aluminum extrusions and carbon fiber. The aluminum/carbon fiber combination is also used for the suspension A-arms. Twin electric motors drive  the rear wheels through a single-speed gearbox, and the battery pack is mounted transversely behind the seats. Audi claims a 45-mile range for the 1,058-lb Urban Concept, a vehicle that, like the VW Nils, is reminiscent of the bubble cars that puttered around Europe’s roads as the continent slowly recovered from the devastation of World War II.  This time, however, they are a response to an environmental regime every bit as totalitarian as the one that brought Europe to its knees more than 70 years ago.

Volvo You Concept

Reworking the new design language for a Beijing-ready flagship.

Now that Volvo is owned by the Chinese, you can expect that market to have more say it what gets built. Take, for example, the Concept You. The latest take on what a large Volvo would look like, it borrows the basic design language of the Concept Universe first shown at the Auto Shanghai show, and repackages it in a sleeker form.

The most interesting aspect is the touch pad-inspired interior. It includes a touch screen in the upper console and one between the two rear seats. The former stays in sleep mode until the driver, whose eyes are tracked by an infrared camera, looks at it. A second sensor follows hand movements to trigger the infotainment system’s control unit. Even more amazing, the devices can tell who is actuating them by their position in the vehicle, allowing the passengers to surf the web, alter the navigation and download information on the move.

The exterior is less imposing and sleeker than the Concept Universe’s, but retains that car’s front end design. From dead-on it looks like a modern interpretation of the grill, fenders and hood of the humpback PV 444/544 that was produced from 1943-1966. It may not be take the title of “Best Looking Volvo Ever,” but Volvo Design chief Peter Horbury has done a nice job of mating this ungainly nose with the roof and fender lines of Audi’s A7. Throw in suicide doors which, like the separate rear seats and an interior that fades from dark in the front to light in the rear, are unlikely to make it into production, and you have a unique style for what promises to be the largest, most luxurious Volvo to ever roll down the streets of Beijing.

Ford Focus ST

Finally, a hot Focus for everyone, except for the wagon. Only the Europeans get that.

The One Ford strategy, where global cars built on global platforms replace unique designs, makes cars like the Focus ST profitable. Powered by a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder, the Focus ST comes in a global five-door model and a unique ST wagon built only for Europe. Output is 247 hp/266 lb-ft of torque, and flows to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox. A sound pipe brings an enhanced engine note into the cabin at higher revs to give the ST a unique sound, while the exhaust exits through center-mount tailpipes.

Because it puts a lot of power through the front wheels, the Focus ST is equipped with brake-activated torque vectoring that applies braking to the inside front wheel in order to quell understeer. In addition, the electronic power steering has a variable ratio rack and torque compensation. The latter detects torque steer, and signals the power steering system to compensate.

Focus STs are also fitted with a three-level stability control system. The first level is full-on, while the second turns off the traction control and intervenes only when necessary. The third level turns the system off for track use. How the engineers slipped that one past the lawyers is beyond me.

Ford Fiesta ST

With luck, a sporty Fiesta with all the personality missing from the standard car.

To call the Fiesta ST a concept is to ignore all of the test cars running around Dearborn with this powertrain and suspension underneath. Now that Fiesta is global, every market in which it is sold can get an ST of its own, powered by a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine with 177 hp/177 lb-ft of torque mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. Ford says the Fiesta ST should run form 0-60 mph in less than seven seconds and top out at 136 mph. It also features revised suspension geometry, 17-in. wheels and a unique body kit. The Fiesta ST hits the market in 2012.

Formula Ford

It’s amazing what you can do when motor sports has a global focus.

Ford also showed a 2012-spec. Formula Ford powered by a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine with 165 hp/162 lb-ft of torque. The car meets the latest FIA rules, and features front and rear carbon fiber crash structures, side intrusion panels, wheel tethers, and FIA-spec. head restraints and removable seat. Thus it is capable of running in any Formula Ford championship series starting next year.

Most interesting, however, is the PowerShift nomenclature on the car’s flanks. Ford says the Formula Ford uses a sequential six-speed manual with a mechanical gear mechanism. However, it is hoping to convince the FIA and national sporting bodies to allow use of the dual-clutch PowerShift gearbox found in the Fiesta and Focus. Let’s face it, the single seater crown goes to the shiftless.

Ford Evos

Mondeo? Mustang? Capri? Yes… and no.

European journalists say this is the new Capri. Some American journalists claim it is the 2015 Mustang. Ford says it’s a non-denominational look at its post-Kinetic design language. All are right… and wrong.

One of the biggest changes in Ford’s design vocabulary is the grille placement. In the past, the trapezoidal opening has been located below the bumper. With the Evos, it is above the bumper where it gives the car a distinct face framed by slim, scowling “eyes” in the form of compact headlight units that do not extend far along the fender line. In addition, exterior ornamentation has been toned down, and the number of character lines reduced. Taillights flow with the form rather than stand out from it as they do on the five-door Focus.

The flowing coupe-like roofline (Evos is a four-door) will be seen again, but on a Mustang. However, that car will still carry the hallmarks of the original with a vestigial side scoop, strong sill graphic and triple-segment rear lamps. It also will modify the Evos’ trapezoidal grille opening so that it will blend in more with the Mustang family. Unlike the current car, the 2015 Mustang will come standard with an independent rear suspension, and offer an EcoBoost four-cylinder alongside a direct-injection version of the 5.0-liter V8 and modified V6.

This look also may show up on a Focus-sized sports coupe to be sold globally. It could be called Capri. Though some engineers would like this car to be a true competitor to vehicles like Subaru’s WRX, that’s unlikely. The Fiesta is Ford’s rally weapon. However, there is room in the lineup for a smaller, smoother, sleeker, more fuel-efficient four-passenger coupe. It may even spawn a 2+2 variant with a folding steel roof.

Ford will show a concept of the next Fusion/Mondeo at the Detroit show, and it will morph the Evos look over a more standard four-door design vocabulary. The roof won’t be quite as low, plus there will be a discernable trunk lid and conventional  doors. Stretch it again over a larger volume, and you have the next-generation Taurus.

Ducati Diavel AMG Special Edition

At least they didn’t tie up with Paris Hilton or JLo.

Start with the Ducati Diavel Carbon. Mix in AMG-style forged wheels, aluminum air deflectors for the side-mount radiators, a special sport exhaust, a perforated Alcantara seat with horizontal cross stitching, and finish the frame, tank and seat cover in the same diamond white as the CLS63 AMG. The rest cover in matte carbon fiber. Stir it all together and you get an exclusive Ducati model that’ll look good next to the CLS 63 AMG in your driveway.

It’s all part of a cooperative agreement signed by Mercedes-AMG and Ducati at last year’s L.A. Auto Show. Wouldn’t be caught dead in either one of these vehicles you say? Too bad. MotoGP riders Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi would, but they’re part of the Ducati team. A team that has as its official car sponsor AMG. (Mercedes supplies the team support vehicles.)

Also on the stand was a CLS 63 AMG with an exterior carbon fiber package (front apron cross strut, door mirror shells, rear apron diffuser insert, spoiler lip), and “bichromatic” five-spoke AMG wheels.

Peugeot HX-1

An executive express as only the French would do it.

After all of the tiny city cars with electric motors, Peugeot showed the HX-1. It is a car that subscribes to the old notion of “longer, lower, wider” without being environmentally unfriendly. That’s because the six-passenger HX-1 is a plug-in diesel hybrid.

Stretching 195 inches front-to-back, 78.3-in. side-to-side and 54-in. top-to-bottom, the HX-1 is a substantial vehicle. It’s powered by a 2.2-liter diesel mated to a six-speed automatic driving the front wheels. A 70 kW (95 hp) electric motor drives the rear wheels. Total output of the drivetrain is 299 hp.

The stunning Peugeot can be front-, rear- or all-wheel-drive as needed, with the electric motor and battery pack propelling the MPV-like vehicle around town at low speeds. In slick conditions, the electric drive unit joins the diesel unit to give the greatest traction possible, and disengages when its not needed. It also can provide bursts of power under hard acceleration.

The HX-1 can be plugged in to a 240 V socket (common in Europe, not so common in the States) to charge the lithium-ion batteries for maximum EV range. The HX-1 can cover just over 18 miles on electric power alone, and has a composite fuel economy average of 88 mpg.

Inside the vehicle, you’ll notice the floor is natural oak with inlaid fiber optic lighting. The rest is highlighted by brushed metal and leather. Once the seating relationship is established, the steering wheel and seat move back and forth in tandem. When entering or exiting the HX-1, they move in opposite directions for easier access. And the steering is less sensitive when the car is in “cruise” mode for greater stability and comfort. There’s even a heads-up display so the driver doesn’t have to take his eyes off the road and look at the various touch/information screens.

A pair of individual seats fill the rear cabin, and are covered in folded and stitched leather. Each seat reclines, and infotainment controls are located in the center armrest. A minibar and coffee machine are fitted to the Carrare marble-covered center console. If needed, a pair of retractable seats, which pull out from the backrests of the front seats, can be used to increase the passenger capacity from four to six. If that isn’t enough, shoe designer Pierre Hardy created a special concept shoe to go along with the HX-1. Trés décadent.

Maserati Kubang

Mercedes can do it. Why not Maserati?

If Mercedes can make a credible luxury SUV off the same platform as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, why can’t Maserati? That’s the real question. Granted, the Mercedes M-Class is built in Germany, not alongside the Grand Cherokee in Detroit, but is that enough to condemn it outright?

The bigger problem might be that the current Kubang concept, unlike its 2003 predecessor, is a bit larger and more truck-like. Therefore it’s not exactly what you might expect form Maserati. Then again, how many howled in protest when Porsche built the Cayenne? That vehicle is now Porsche’s best selling model, and a source of significant profit for the Stuttgart automaker. Underneath, it’s a Volkswagen Touareg, and therefore something of a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

The Kubang will share the eight-speed ZF-licensed automatic Chrysler will introduce in its 2012 models. However, the engine will be unique, not a rebadged Hemi. Paolo Martinelli, who spent 30 years at Ferrari, will oversee the design and production of Maserati’s next-generation direct-injection V8. It will be built in Maranello by Ferrari and shipped to Detroit where it will be inserted into the Kubang. This vehicle also will utilize a unique suspension system and brakes, possibly Brembos, to round out the major mechanical changes. So far so good.

The biggest problem Maserati’s Kubang faces is build quality. The Grand Cherokee, and Dodge Durango, are well-built vehicles. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough in the upper end of the market. The Kubang must be built with precision and passion. Thus the central question is this: Can the workers in Detroit raise their game enough to meet customer expectations?

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