From Frankfurt's Motor Show: Electric Cars and Luxury SUVs

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 16, 2015

FRANKFURT—The Audi e-tron quattro concept  is Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg’s baby. This Audi AG board of management member has thrown his considerable clout behind a high-performance electric SUV with killer range—something approaching 300, due on the U.S. market in 2018.

 Headed for production in 2018. Sparkles not included. (Jim Motavalli photo)Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, made an informal wager at a dinner here—he said the company’s electric SUV will outsell the Model X in their first head-to-head year together, probably three years hence. I don’t doubt that they’re going to build something great, as long as they keep the range up and the price down, and they also realize that Elon Musk, one of the most competitive people on the planet, is a moving target. The Model X will have its own Ludicrous mode by then.

Inside the Audi e-tron concept. Think of all the change you'll be able to lose in this console. (Jim Motavalli photo) Said Hackenberg at the show, “Our first battery-electric SUV for the top segment is the pinnacle of future mobility. The Audi e-tron quattro concept offers everything our customers expect from their Audi.” In an interview afterwards, he said all Audis will eventually have "some level of electrification," beginning with the next-generation A8 (which will offer hybrid or electric drive on all models). He gave Tesla credit for proving that there's a market of "people who are open to new technology," and like attractive cars that make a social statement. But Audi's entry, he said, can't be like a second or third car--it "has to be like an Audi."
What’s not to like, right? Audi is promising a zero to 62 mph time of 4.6 seconds and 30-minute charge times. The whole Volkswagen Group, once fixated on diesels, is betting the farm on electric cars—around the same time Porsche will have a four-door battery car now coded as the Mission E, with similar range and (judging by the prototype) eye-popping good looks.

Porsche's Mission E aims to ditch the tailpipe, keep the performance. (Jim Motavalli photo)VW itself, which already has the e-Golf, will also get heavily into batteries, and plans a plug-in hybrid GTE version of the Tiguan SUV. Everywhere I looked on the VW stand were hybrid and electric versions of high-volume brands, many boasting low carbon dioxide emissions—a must for the European market, which tightly regulates CO2.
There was plenty for the EV lover in Frankfurt. Nissan said it would achieve 250 kilometers (155 miles) of range on the new Leaf, though it will be less on the U.S. testing cycle (actually 107 miles). The battery pack jumps from 24 to 30 kilowatt-hours.
BMW’s new head, Harald Krueger, started out well but collapsed in the middle of his speech (he’s OK; it was a fainting spell). The press conference was cancelled, but he would have announced a new 4.4-liter, 600-horsepower and 189-mph competition version of the M6. Just 120 will be built, 100 slated for the U.S. The asking price is $164,900, which may well trigger fainting spells in potential customers.

The Mini Clubman wagon harkens back to a classic 60s woody. (Jim Motavalli photo)The new Mini Clubman estate (we’d consider it a station wagon) was cute, with double back doors like the original in the 1960s. The execs said stuff about it “embodying the pace of change,” but it’s more retro-modern gradual iterations of the car that was reintroduced in 2001. It’s a winning formula, and Mini’s BMW parents aren’t going to mess with it.

 The Rolls-Royce Dawn is still the marque for conspicuous consumption, complete with over-the-top wood tonneau. (Jim Motavalli photo)The same could be said of BMW’s Rolls-Royce Dawn drophead (convertible, to us), which may evoke the handcrafted Dawn of the late 40s and early 50s, but is another over-the-top luxury car that will have heavy appeal to Big Spenders (particularly in the Middle East). I couldn’t get over the inches-thick leather and the lovely wood on the tonneau deck. It boasts the “quietest convertible top on the market.” Power comes from a 563-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 6.6-liter V-12.

 Bentley's Bentayga, pictured with muse. (Jim Motavalli photo)Rolls-Royce had a 5,000-car year in 2014, a lot in that pricey league, so the marque must be doing something right. Maserati is heading down market, but Rolls is still targeting the top one percent. Bentley is issuing an SUV, the Bentyaga, that debuted here.

 The Mercedes-Benz Concept IAA, signaling a new design language. (Jim Motavalli photo)I was mightily impressed with Mercedes’ new Concept IAA, whose title (in addition to “Intelligent Aerodynamic Automobile”) refers to the parentage of the Frankfurt show. It’s a big, beautiful sedan that indeed has amazing aerodynamics. A host of clever features, which switch on at 50 mph, give it best-in-class airflow of 0.19 (way better even than a Prius) from 0.25 at rest.
But it’s the imposing size and lovely shape of the IAA, with see-through glass roof and a total absence of door handles, that sticks in the mind. “Wild!” I wrote in my notebook. The IAA is going to influence MB’s future design language, including the upcoming E-Class sedan.

It's so nice to see that the 1% have so many options. Here's Benz' S-Class Cabriolet. (Jim Motavalli photo) Benz also showed an S-Class Cabriolet that would give that Rolls a run for its money, and on the other end of the spectrum a new Smart Cabrio. Smart is a huge player in Europe, and many variations dominated the front part of Mercedes’ hall. You could even take one through an obstacle course.

 Brighter than the sun: Bugatti's Vision Gran Turismo. (Jim Motavalli photo)Did I mention the Bugatti Vision Gran Turismo? You need to be wearing shades to look at it, with more angles than a protractor. Also on the high end was Jaguar’s new F-Pace, a first SUV for the brand. Chief designer Ian Callum admits that the boxy thing goes against the low, long and sleek profile of Jaguars past, but no luxury car maker can be without a sport utility these days. Just ask Porsche.

 The Toyota CH-R is all angles, but it's giving the company a new crossover entry. (Jim Motavalli photo)Speaking of wildness, Toyota will put its dramatic CH-R concept into production in five-door form, including a hybrid model. It was also the European debut of the new Prius, but I’ve already written about that. The Frankfurt audience seemed appreciative of the car, which could achieve 55 mpg (and better than that in a new Eco model). Compared to the CH-R, the Prius looked conservative.
On the Toyota stand was a Yaris Hybrid, one of several gas-electric models that didn’t make it our side of the pond (the Auris is another). I liked the look of the Yaris, which has stellar green stats (but it’s no road rocket—11.8 seconds to 62 mph). I say, let Americans have the Yaris, and the Honda Fit hybrids. If they’re good enough for Japan and Europe, they’re good enough for us.
Oh and what’s with the name thing? The Fit is called the Jazz in Europe, and in Malaysia, too. We invented jazz, but we don’t get the Jazz?

 The Chinese-made Thunder Power, in all its glory. (Jim Motavalli photo)Finally, my write-up wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Thunder Power, a Tesla challenger from China. This is verbatim from the company, “The Thunder Power sedan will exceed the demands of the  contemporary driver, offering unequalled range and an exhilarating performance.”

Inside the Thunder Power. No dirty shoes were allowed to sully the carpet. (Jim Motavalli photo) The eye-popping Thunder Power specs include 450 horsepower, 125-kilowatt-hour battery, zero to 62 in under five seconds (the 320-kilowatt version) and 650 kilometers (more than 400 miles) range. A spokesman told me it will be on the market in Europe by 2017, but the show car was a fairly crude prototype that looked nowhere near ready. Look out Tesla! I know you want a closer look at the Thunder Power, so here it is on video:


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