2003 Frankfurt Show, Part II

September 9, 2003

2003 Frankfurt Auto Show Index by TCC Team (9/8/2003)

Playing a High-Stakes Golf Game

2005 Volkswagen Golf GTI

2005 Volkswagen Golf GTI

Given the honor of opening this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Volkswagen had the opportunity to introduce an all-new version of one of the world’s best-selling products. While Volkswagen has dramatically expanded its product lineup since the launch of the original Golf, a quarter century ago, the nameplate’s newest version will still play a critical role in the automaker’s line-up, according to CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder. “The Golf,” he declared, is “a symbol for Volkswagen,” but one that is going up against an increasingly crowded market in Europe, the U.S., and other world markets. More stylish and better equipped, the ’04 Golf should generate as much as 600,000 sales next year, about fifteen percent of VW’s worldwide total. But don’t be surprised if that dips a bit in the future, Pischetsrieder conceded, because Golf’s traditional market segment “is shrinking.”

Opel's Astra-Nomical Bets

2004 Opel Astra

2004 Opel Astra

General Motors is betting big on its new Opel Astra, the best-selling model in its fast-growing European lineup. There’s an all-new Astra coming this autumn, including three, four and five-door models. There’ll also be plenty of powertrain options, including five gasoline and three diesel engines covering the horsepower range from 80 to 200. The Opel will be coming up against some tough competition when it reaches dealers early next year, including an all-new Volkswagen Golf, the class sales leader. Opel’s strategy is to emphasize Astra’s more aggressive exterior styling, larger, upgraded interior, and technology, such as bi-xenon headlamps that follow the road’s curves, and the IDS-plus intelligent suspension system. That technology is similar to what’s now in use in the U.S. on vehicles such as the Corvette and Cadillac STS. At “full-tilt,” the Astra, along with platform variants like the Zafira microvan, should account for 15 percent of the segment, predicted Mike Burns, President of GM Europe. Astra alone is expected to rack up sales “pushing 400,000 to 500,000 annually.” The nameplate is just one in a wide range of new products coming from GM’s struggling Opel subsidiary, added Burns, but it will play a “critical” role.

Mercedes’ Vision of the Four-Door Future

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLS concept

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLS concept

It comes in the form of the Vision CLS, what Mercedes-Benz is billing as a new type of four-door coupe. “We are one coupe generation ahead with the Vision CLS,” says Member of the DaimlerChrysler AG board responsible for the Mercedes Car Group, Professor Juergen Hubbert. The idea of the Vision CLS is to combine the driving excitement of a coupe with the practicality of four-seater space. To achieve it, Mercedes engineers have come up with a 265-hp six-cylinder diesel engine that takes the car from zero to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds and reaches the standard German limited top speed of 155 mph. What the automaker calls an “expressively-styled” show car is actually a thinly disguised production vehicle that will soon rise to the top of Mercedes’ C-Class segment. “It’s a vision for now,” Paul Halata, CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S., told TheCarConnection. But he quickly confided that it should hit showrooms in “two to three years.” Insiders suggest a gasoline engine would most likely make it into the car before it hits the States, but Mercedes is seriously considering the possibilities of reclaiming the American diesel market – if it can be revived. At one point, Halata recalled, the high-mileage powertrain was shipped in up to 70 percent of the cars Mercedes sold in the U.S. The company will test the waters when it launches a diesel E-Class version in April 2004. “Ask me personally, and I think there’s an opportunity” to grow diesel sales, though never again to the levels Mercedes achieved in the ’80s, Halata added.

More Doors, More Style at Jag

2003 Jaguar RD6 concept

2003 Jaguar RD6 concept

The Frankfurt show has often provided a background for breakthrough design statements, and this year is no exception. Like Mercedes, Jaguar is exploring the idea of offering coupe-like styling with the convenience of four doors. For now, the RD6 is simply a design study, though the show car’s features are “something we are seriously thinking about,” said Managing Director Mike Wright, “for the future of Jaguar.” He told TCC that the curvaceous prototype is based on a shortened version of the new XJ, and like that sedan, it boasts an aluminum monocoque body. One of the subtle visual elements is the horse-collar-style grille of the mid-range S-Type, which “could be” the new face of Jaguar in years to come. Wright revealed Jaguar intends to closer monitor reaction among both media and consumers and in the months to come, “we have some important decisions to make” about whether to work some of the RD6’s features into future production models. The concept, Wright added, “could very well help us determine the future for Jaguar.”

Actually, there are plenty of questions being asked about the future at Jaguar. For one thing, should the next generation of the mid-range S-Type adopt the aluminum construction of the larger but notably lighter XJ? “We know that the lightest route is the right one for us,” said Jaguar’s global boss. But he declined to confirm speculation on the next S-Type, hinting there are a variety of other ways to shed weight.

Wagons West?

2004 Jaguar X-Type Estate

2004 Jaguar X-Type Estate

Not if that means the U.S. Several global manufacturers pulled the wraps off wagons in Frankfurt that they said will be pointedly eliminated from the American market. That includes the Jaguar X-Type Estate, which is targeting a favorite niche among young, European luxury buyers. It’s the first time the British marque has ever built this sort of body style, which in the U.K. is often known as a shooting brake. Whatever you call it, the Estate style now accounts for as much as 40 percent of the European market in the segment the X-Type competes in. Unfortunately, Americans seem less than infatuated, and barring a sudden surge in demand for other manufacturers’ luxury wagons, the X-Type Estate won’t make it across the Atlantic.

Chrysler Goes Touring with the 300C

2003 Chrysler 300C Touring conceptt

2003 Chrysler 300C Touring conceptt

Don’t expect to see a U.S. version of the 300C Touring, either. Yet another way of saying “wagon,” it’s designed primarily for the European market. The Touring shares its basic, tall body and virtually all its underlying components with the 300C sedan, one of the next generation of Chrysler mid-size products. The prototype unveiled in Detroit last January, and reintroduced in Frankfurt, boasts a 300-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Other powertrains will be added after introduction, and that will likely include a diesel for fuel-conscious European motorists. The Touring should reach the continent by the second half of 2004, said Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche. “We think this is a vehicle that will cause many European buyers to take a second look at Chrysler products,” Zetsche told his Frankfurt audience.

Chrysler Not on the Ropes

Dieter Zetsche Frankfurt 2003

Dieter Zetsche Frankfurt 2003

Reports of Chrysler’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, or so was the message delivered by the automaker’s CEO, Dieter Zetsche, during his tour of the Frankfurt Motor Show. In a speech, and later during a conversation with TheCarConnection, Zetsche insisted there are plenty of signs the U.S. automaker’s turnaround is in full swing. There’s improving quality, along with the fact that “by 2007,” he insisted, “we’ll have closed the gap with the productivity leaders.” Zetsche forcefully dismissed recent reports of impending white-collar layoffs at the DaimlerChrysler unit’s Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters, insisting reporters “should do their homework.” But he also refused to rule out the possibility of such cuts later on, something not likely to help improve already dampened morale. Is there light at the end of the tunnel for the besieged firm, which posted an unexpected, second-quarter loss of over $1 billion? “We have gone through the lowest point,” he suggested. The challenges are many, though, ranging from big incentives to lopsided exchange rates, according to Zetsche. And while the company has been aggressively and effectively cutting costs, he acknowledged it “fell short of revenue targets.” Sluggish sales resulted in a psychological bruising last month, when Toyota’s various brands outsold the Chrysler Group in August. “I congratulate Toyota,” said Zetsche, though he stressed that one month’s numbers are anything but conclusive. And he predicted Chrysler’s volumes will rise as a range of new vehicles, such as the 300C, finally reaches showrooms in the months to come. “Now we are starting to harvest the results of the seeds we planted over the last three years,” he concluded.

Chrysler Wants to Build Euro Demand

Chrysler’s on-again/off-again approach to globalization has gained little traction. At the moment, Chrysler holds just a 0.7 percent share of the global automotive market. CEO Dieter Zetsche would like to pump that up to at least an even one percent over the next five years. And to get there, it is preparing a product blitz that includes nine new or markedly refreshed models. That will include not only the 300C Touring, but at the other extreme, a Euro version of that classic American muscle machine, the Viper. “We’re serious about reinforcing the positive things people think about American vehicles and addressing the shortcomings,” Zetsche declared. That is likely to mean even more products geared specifically to Europe and other foreign markets, whether all-new vehicles, or simply diesel-powered and right-hand-drive variations. Despite the introduction of the Touring, Zetsche also cautioned that he has not decided either way whether or not to bring the Dodge brand to Europe. “We will make the decision this year,” he said.

Land Rover Rolls Out New Freelander

2004 Land Rover Freelander

2004 Land Rover Freelander

SUV buyers may notice some significant changes when the 2004 Freelander hits showrooms. The British automaker’s smallest ute will undergo a number of changes front and back, including new “pocket lamp” headlights, and a cleaner, more stylish tail. The interior gets a bit more ergonomic and refined. And the compact Freelander’s suspension is being lowered and firmed up, making it a better package for on as well as off-road, according to Managing Director Matthew Taylor. “It’s a true crossover vehicle,” he said during the Freelander’s Frankfurt roll-out, “ideally suited to the urban lifestyle.” The automaker, meanwhile, quick and subtle hint of new products to come starting next year when an all-new, dedicated Land Rover platform goes into production on a new production line. The simple line drawing hinted of an edgy body shape, more in line with new crossovers, such as the Nissan Murano, than the conventional, boxy Land Rover.

Kusabi Gives Wedgie to Frankfurt

2003 Mazda Kusabi concept

2003 Mazda Kusabi concept

Mazda’s edgy concept vehicle was originally going to be dubbed the “flat top,” according to designer Moray Callum. Instead, it was named “wedge,” in Japanese, and one only has to take a quick look to see why. “We wanted to send a very strong signal,” said Callum, that small cars can be fun again…and have buckets full of character,” like they did in the ’50s and ’60s. Think of the Kusabi as a “pocket rocket version” of the new RX-8, added a Japanese colleague. But there’s more to the prototype, including the unusual doors that glow when they’re opened. To make it especially easy for back-seat passengers, the front seats lean forward and then tilt in. The rear hitch can open in a conventional manner – but each half of the hatch can also be opened independently, gullwing style. Based on the tiny Mazda2 platform, there’s some speculation the Kusabi is testing market interest for a true Mazda sports car. The rotary-powered RX-7 went out of production last year and was recently replaced by the unusual RX-8. But even with its new Renesis rotary, the RX-8 is not considered a true sports car. For the moment, the official company line is that there’s no plan to revive the RX-7. For now, anyway.

Delphi In Gear

While it’s still short of its goal of generating 50 percent of sales from customers other than former parent General Motors, Delphi is fast making headway. During a Frankfurt news briefing, the supplier revealed that non-GM business was up around 38 percent during the first half of this year. Meanwhile, it booked $24 billion in new global contracts through July, up from $11 billion during the first seven months of 2002, revealed Volker Barth, President of European, Mideast and African operations. That included $5 billion in new business in Europe, where Delphi is taking advantage of what might be described as an industry technology war. Manufacturers are racing to gain some sort of edge over their competition, and safety, performance and infotainment systems are high on the list. By 2006, Delphi expects to see its new E-Steer electric steering system show up on seven European platforms, while it expects a new, high-performance “Maximum Torque” brake system to begin generating sales as early as 2006. Suppliers and automakers are embraced in a curious dance, competition forcing more content onto new vehicles, while competitive pressures also require suppliers to trim costs fairly aggressively. Legislation also plays a role, according to Barth. He notes that Delphi’s new piezoelectric fuel injectors are “double to triple” the cost of conventional injectors, but for some products may be the only way to meet increasingly stringent emissions standards.

Automakers Going Inside Out

There’s little you can do to compensate for a “butt ugly car,” says Mark Fields, head of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group. But customers in all segments of the market, from entry to ultra-luxury, he says are coming to expect ergonomic, attractive and “enriching” interiors.  It takes little more than a quick tour of Frankfurt to see what that means. Automakers are using better materials and more sophisticated production methods to eliminate gaps and the sharp-edged “parting lines” long found on plastic components. Switches are easier to find and operate, providing a more satisfying sound and tactile feel. The intriguing Ice Aqua center console offered on Volvo’s new S40 features a semi-transparent material that lets passengers see the inner workings of climate, audio and other control systems. The switch to electronic, rather than mechanical controls has a distinct advantage, notes Fields, allowing designers and engineers “more freedom” in the layout of an interior. Automakers speak of the influence of high-line furniture manufacturers, as well as stylish audio systems, such as Bang & Olufson. “I don’t think the interior itself will be the cause of a person to buy a car,” says GM “car czar” Bob Lutz, “but you can lose a sale” if the passenger compartment is shabby, or gain a customer if your interior is better than an otherwise equal competitor’s. That’s why GM hired Martin Smith a few years ago, luring him away from Audi, where he was considered one of the industry’s best interior designers. Upgrading interiors is “a major, major push,” Lutz asserts, with the goal of pushing GM “to the head of the class.” That goes for Europe, as well as the U.S., he says. Most experts insist that the Big Three U.S. automakers seriously lag behind both their European and Japanese competitors. If GM can catch up, ads Lutz, “We will take away the last excuse (many) people have for buying an import.”

Audi’s Second Take on Le Mans

2004 Audi Le Mans quattro

2004 Audi Le Mans quattro

Audi raised some eyebrows with the two-seat Le Mans supercar it brought to Frankfurt. Not surprising, since it was a thinly-disguised second take on the new Lamborghini Gallardo, the $150,000 performance car that’s supposed to become the centerpiece of the Italian automaker’s lineup. Especially odd was Audi’s decision to show Le Mans with a twin-turbo package even more powerful than Gallardo’s normally aspirated V-10. That convinced many observers there’d be little future for the Le Mans. But a senior Audi official tells TheCarConnection the car will roll into showrooms in two to three years. But look for significantly less, not more, power than offered in the Gallardo. Apparently, that means a range of engines and corresponding price tags of between $80,000 and $120,000. “We want to leave some headroom” between Audi and Lambo, the executive explained, likening it to a “911 strategy,” referring to the range of options offered by Porsche’s flagship sports car.

DCX Sticks with the Smart Set

2004 Smart forfour

2004 Smart forfour

DaimlerChrysler’s Smart is “now a brand,” and not just a product, DCX’s passenger car chief tells TheCarConnection. Over the last several years, Smart has gotten an expanding line-up, including the forfour four-seater unveiled in Frankfurt. Contrary to previous expectations, the forfour will not be coming to the U.S., at least not initially. Instead, American dealers will get what Juergen Hubbert calls “a small SUV” variant based on the forfour platform. It should reach the States by 2007. “We will see if there is interest,” he added, and then consider other models, ranging from the forfour itself to perhaps even the miniscule City Coupe.

Meanwhile, Hubbert firmly countered recent rumors that DCX has scrubbed plans to import its bottom-range Mercedes-Benz A-Class to the U.S. A pair of successors to the current car will roll out in Europe in 2004, he noted, including the crossover-styled CST. It will make the trans-Atlantic journey in late 2005, possibly as an ’06 model.

DCX Considering Other Options In China

The preliminary deal announced Monday which would have Mercedes-Benz building cars in China may be just the first step, said Juergen Hubbert, director of passenger car operations for DaimlerChrysler. If a final agreement can be reached in the next few months, DCX hopes to begin building E- and C-Class cars in China 15 to 18 months later. Initial plans call for production of 25,000 vehicles annually, while the automaker intends to continue importing products such as the top-line S-Class. While the Chinese will be watching DaimlerChrysler, the automaker will also be watching to see if Chinese workers “can produce cars of Mercedes quality.” If so, that would ease the way for future ventures, possibly including a Chinese Smart car, or production of mainstream Mitsubishi vehicles, Hubbert told TheCarConnection.com.

Mercedes Aiming To Regain Quality Lead

Speaking of Mercedes quality, its U.S. and German workers haven’t done as good a job as expected lately – at least not according to recent studies by J.D. Power and Associates. No other brand saw such a sharp rise in problems after three years of service, revealed the latest Vehicle Dependability Study, putting Mercedes behind a number of less expensive brands. Fixing that is the company’s “top priority and we are working like hell to fix it,” declared passenger car chief Juergen Hubbert. He insisted the Power studies have overplayed some of the problems, since many complaints touched on such things as the size of Mercedes’ cupholders. But Hubbert also acknowledged that “seven out of ten of my problems” are related to electronic systems, such as systems controls, infotainment and communications devices. The automaker has even approached Microsoft searching for answers, and is rolling out various solutions, including software upgrades that can prevent unexpected – and often hard to diagnose – problems. Meanwhile, Mercedes will “have to make some changes in our portfolio to reflect regional preferences,” said Hubbert. That would be a significant shift away from its one-size-fits-all-markets strategy. So in the future, American buyers might find it possible to comfortably stow their two-liter Big Gulps while driving.

Striking A Balance At PAG

2004 Aston Martin DB9

2004 Aston Martin DB9

2004 Aston Martin DB9

2004 Aston Martin DB9

The key to success at Ford’s Premier Automotive Group means striking a balance between the rational and the emotional, says PAG director Mark Fields. “At the end of the day, a car is an emotional purchase,” he told TCC, after serving as master-of-ceremonies for the roll-out of four new PAG models. But increasingly, even luxury buyers want to prove they’ve made a “smart purchase,” he stressed. Among other things, that means potential customers are demanding more for less money. The new DB9, at around $130,000, will be expected to deliver the comfort, styling, convenience and most of the performance of the far more expensive Aston Martin Vanquish. So while luxury brands should still be able to deliver far more profits than mainstream cars, Fields stressed that even brands like Aston are coming under some of the pricing pressures felt by high-volume siblings such as Ford.
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