Frankfurt motor show 2011 review by Gavin Green

Published: 14 September 2011

There are almost as many themes at Frankfurt 2011 as there are square metres of floor space (and this, dear reader, is a very big show. Comparing it with, say, the Geneva Motor Show is like comparing London with Ludlow). 

We have supercars, hybrids, range extender EVs, battery EVs, diesel-electric hybrids, plus everything from a new long wheelbase Rolls-Royce to a single-seat Volkswagen. Personalities, on the first press day, ranged from Mr Bean to Sebastian Vettel.

Industry at a crossroads

The sheer variety of new product – most of it impressive, much of it imaginative – is a reflection of an industry in a state of flux, and flummoxed. While China buys up European premium cars like there’s no tomorrow, European dealers worry there may be no tomorrow. It’s a tale of Two Worlds, and the motor industry is caught betwixt the two, earning a fortune satisfying one, spending a fortune to try to satisfy the other.  

But I have never seen the motor industry in a more creative mood. That old conservatism of the 80s and 90s has been washed away. These days, you innovate or die.

Everyone is going electric. Some swear by pure battery power (Renault and Nissan), others say a reliance on pure EVs is daft. Everyone is dipping a toe in the hybrid market. But is it range-extender EVs (inefficient and wasteful, VW’s engineering boss told me) or plug-in hybrids? Most makers aren’t sure. So, with the targeting of a blunderbuss, they are previewing everything.

Highlights of the 2011 Frankfurt motor show

My highlights? The BMW i3 and Audi A2 concepts, both of which preview almost-finished production vehicles. They are handsome, intelligently conceived, commendably light (both mix aluminium and carbon) and show what’s possible if you start with a clean slate rather than petrol car prejudices.

Both – especially the BMW – optimise the many packaging advantages offered by a small electric engine, and the lack of bulky transmission, radiators, exhaust and anti-pollution plumbing.

The i3, in particular, offers major packaging advantages over same-size internal combustion cars; its strong carbon body also means dainty roof pillars can be used, improving visibility (in fact, there are no B-pillars at all, a feature design director Adrian van Hooydonk confirms will go through to production when deliveries commence in 2013).

Radical urban concepts at the Frankfurt show

I also love the bunch of single- or two-seat ‘urban’ electric vehicles on show. The new car I most wanted to get in, and drive off the show stand, was Audi’s innovative Urban Concept car. It looks like a baby 30s Auto Union racer, but with twin electric engines in the rear as opposed to a tuneful V16. Almost as impressive was Volkswagen’s NILS – a single seater that looked like a baby F1 car. Opel also previewed a tandem seat urban runabout, while Renault’s pioneering offering – the Twizy – is of course already in production.

Has the car industry finally realized that a single- or tandem-seat lightweight vehicle (Opel’s creation weighs 380kg) makes more sense for commuting in modern megacities than a five-seat petrol-powered tin-box hatch (most makers current efforts at ‘city cars’)? I hope so.

Brits at Frankfurt

Frankfurt, perhaps incongruously, also previewed new proposals for arguably the two most iconic British cars of all time: the Land Rover Defender and Jaguar E-type.

Land Rover’s DC100 is much further from the finished article yet previews a host of clever thinking – not least the practical hose-out interior and chummy three abreast front seating. Front and rear overhangs – there are virtually none – plus enough ground clearance to vault an Evoque promise excellent off-road potential, clearly a priority. Is it possible, nowadays, to engineer a vehicle that appeals, with appropriate fettling, to Californian surf dudes, Cumbrian farmers and commanders of the SAS?  Land Rover thinks so.

Meanwhile the C-X16 – virtually in production guise – has the clearly impossible task of replacing what is probably the most beautiful sports car of all time. Maybe it looks a bit Aston Martin-like, and it’s unlikely to be celebrated in 50 years, as is the E-type; but I think design director Ian Callum has done a highly impressive job. Do I fancy one? You bet.

>> Watch CAR Magazine's Gavin Green, Tim Pollard and Jesse Crosse debate the themes and trends of the Frankfurt motor show in our video below


By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience