2005 Frankfurt Auto Show, Part VI

September 13, 2005

2005 Frankfurt Auto Show Index by TCC Team (9/5/2005)

 

 

 

 

 

Lutz Lets Loose in Frankfurt

 

GM’s vice chairman set out to set the record straight on a variety of issues following the Opel reveal on Tuesday. For one thing, he told reporters, the automaker’s new rear-drive Zeta platform “is not dead or cancelled.” Well, not exactly. The original version was, indeed, scrapped a few months back because “we did a lot of not-smart things…that didn’t make business sense. We accepted the delay.” As originally planned, GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, will play the lead in developing the revised Zeta platform. But it is less and less likely that it will be able to export cars based on Zeta, at least to the United States. The Australian dollar’s gain on the U.S. dollar “pretty much cancels your profits margin,” Lutz lamented, so “exports to the U.S. don’t look real promising at this point.” But there will still be opportunities for Holden to ship product to other markets, such as the Middle East.

 

Lutz was more inclined to agree with recent reports in TheCarConnection.com suggesting that the auto industry – and GM in particular – will suffer a period of “payback” as the result of the recent employee-pricing incentive programs. “It’s logical to assume some payback,” he said, noting the sharp 13-percent downturn in GM’s August sales. Complicating matters, GM dealers are emerging from the sales campaign with emptied lots. At the end of September, said Lutz, he expects GM’s U.S.retailers to have just 860,000 vehicles in inventory, compared with 1.3 million at the end of September 2004. Add to that the impact of Hurricane Katrina and soaring oil prices and, admitted Lutz, “I would be foolish not to be worried.”

 

Even so, he cautioned against making any rash decisions to revise corporate product plans. If fuel prices settle back to $2.20 to $2.50 a gallon, Lutz said he would not expect significant changes in consumer buying habits. There’s little doubt that the giant automaker is increasing its work on hybrid products. What’s less certain is what role diesels will play in GM’s long-term U.S. strategy. With extremely tough new emissions

2006 Cadillac BLS

2006 Cadillac BLS

standards coming, Lutz cautioned, there’s no assurance manufacturers will be able to come up with cost-effective, customer-friendly solutions. A solution, he asserted, “doesn’t exist now and anyone who tells you it does is being disingenuous.”

 

General Motors' various divisions rolled out a slew of new products for the European market on Tuesday, “a clear expression of a less analytical and more emotion-driven company,” declared GM’s European chief executive, Fritz Henderson. The debuts included a new Saab 9-5 wagon and the affordable new Chevrolet Aveo. The U.S.-based Cadillac division brought the production of its BLS sedan to the Frankfurt show. The BLS is the smallest product in the Caddy line-up and, at least for now, exchange rates will keep it from making the jump to the U.S.market. Sharing its platform with other front-drive models, including the Saab 9-3, the front-drive BLS will be offered with a range of gasoline engines, as well as a new Cadillac diesel. BLS will go up against European luxury models, such as the Audi A4.

 

 

Opel Vectra GTS OPC and Antara GTC

 

2005 Opel Vectra GTS OPC

2005 Opel Vectra GTS OPC

On the sporty side, GM’s German-based Opel subsidiary introduced the third model from its expanding OPC ( OpelPerformanceCenter) line. With its black mesh grille, 18-inch alloy wheels, and trapezoidal exhaust pipes, the Vectra GTS OPC will be a visual, as well as a performance stand-out. It features a turbocharged, 2.8-liter V-6 making 255 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, enough to launch from 0-100 km/h (0-62.5 mph) in less than seven seconds, and to hit a top speed of 161.5 mph, according to Opel. The automaker also retuned the OPC’s suspension to handle the additional power.

 

 

2005 Opel Antara GTC concept

2005 Opel Antara GTC concept

For family buyers, GM gave show-goers a sneak peek at what will soon become a trans-Atlantic crossover. The Opel Antara GTC concept is a good indication of what’s coming both in Europe and in the U.S., where it will serve as the replacement for the current Saturn Vue model, according to Bryan Nesbitt, executive director of GM Design Europe. In concept form, the Antara overlays a striking, coupe-like silhouette atop a more functional, two-box crossover-ute layout. Under the hood, it features a 212-hp twin-turbocharged, 1.9-liter in-line four engine. Opel estimates it could hit a top speed of 210 km/h and accelerated from zero to 100 km/h in around eight seconds. Expect the three-door show car to get another two doors in production trim. And the U.S.version will be “virtually identical” to Opel’s, Nesbitt revealed. As part of its revival plan for the struggling Saturn, GM has decided to use the division as the American outlet for Opel designs and technology.

 

2005 Opel Astra Twin Top

2005 Opel Astra Twin Top

Trading shots with Volkswagen, Opel offered up its own tin-top cabriolet, the new Twin-Top. The three-piece folding hardtop can be lowered in barely half a minute, according to executives, and when raised, the metal roof provides better protection from the elements than a canvas roof, as well as improved security. Based on a version of the popular Opel Astra, the Twin Top will be offered with a range of engines, including a 200-hp, 2.0-liter gasoline powertrain.

 

The Twin Top will be part of what GM hopes to be an expanding line-up of fold-away hardtops. The first to market was the Cadillac XLR. GM’s Pontiac division is also planning to launch a hardtop convertible version of its G6 model. There have been a number of recent reports claiming that the Pontiac cabriolet has been delayed due to design and engineering issues. But Bob Lutz, the automaker’s vice chairman, told TheCarConnection.com that and problems are old news. The launch of the G6 convertible will still come early next year, he said, insisting “there is no delay.”

 

 

Good Luck, Geely

 

2005 Geely

2005 Geely

It was hard to tell exactly what the folks from China’s largest independent automaker, Geely, are doing at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. True, with plenty of fanfare, they pulled the wraps off five small cars, including the compact CD sedan. But as far as one could make out, the company has no plans to sell any of its products in Europe – at least not yet. “It is our dream,” said chairman Shu Fu Li, following the Tuesday preview, “but we have not yet set a date.” During a conversation clouded through poor translation, it appeared that the automaker hopes to test consumer reaction at its booth, while also looking for potential European distribution partners. In China, the company’s products go for anywhere from $4000 to $10,000 noted Li, adding these are “cars common people can afford.” Geely has started to export, but primarily to third-world markets in Asia, the Mideast and Central America. This year, the company expects exports to double, but to still total a modest 10,000 units out of total production of 140,000 vehicles. Geely’s name is probably appropriate for its long-term, if still tentative, goal. In English, it translates into “good luck.”

 

 

Mercedes-Benz Bluetec Hybrid

Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car

Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car

 

European automakers have been playing a game of catch-up in the hybrid market, but if the Frankfurt show is any indication, they’re getting ready to take on their Japanese rivals. During the second of two news conferences, Mercedes-Benz officials took the wrap off a trio of green machines, starting with the striking if unusually-shaped Bionic Car. The microvan concept’s design was influenced by the shape of the  Boxfish, noted technology chief Thomas Weber. Its wind-cheating body has a drag coefficient of just 0.19, which helps boost fuel economy to well over 50 miles per gallon. With a mix of new emissions technologies, dubbed “Bluetec5,” Weber suggested a production version of the diesel-powered Bionic Car could meet even the toughest new clean air standards. “We are determined to build the world’s cleanest diesels, he suggested.”

2005 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec

2005 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec

A second Mercedes concept mated the diesel Bluetec system with a “mild” hybrid, or “mybrid” electric drive system. The E320 Bluetec, Weber said, would meet the 2008 Californiadiesel emissions standards, even while delivering 49.5 mpg – and 0-100 km/h (0-62.5 mph) times of just 7.2 seconds. An alternate approach was shown in the S350 Direct Hybrid. A prototype version of the new S-Class, it featured a 300-horsepower hybrid system mating a direct-injection gasoline engine with a hybrid electric drive system. Mercedes officials declined to say if or when they could get the Bluetec system into production, though the automaker is clearly trying to catch up on hybrids, while building demand for its popular diesel engines.

 

 

 

 

Ford Gives Itself Passing Grade

 

Admitting he “made some mistakes…being too bland,” Ford Motor Co.’s global design director told TheCarConnection.com he deserves “a B+, not an A” for his work over the last seven years. J Mays stressed that the days of timid styling, as best seen in oft-criticized Ford Five Hundred sedan, are behind, and that the automaker will push for far more distinctive and aggressive designs going forward. “You have to do great design” if you hope to be competitive, stressed Mays, who recently shifted his base of operations from Dearborn , Michigan , to London .

 

2005 Ford iosis concept

2005 Ford iosis concept

Mays said that top management, up to Chairman Bill Ford, has given its blessings to plans for more distinctive styling. The new Ford Fusion, with its distinctive three-bar grille, is a hint of what’s to come for the flagship “Blue Oval” division, Mays said. In the U.S., he added, the underlying visual theme is “Ford tough.” In Europe, Ford’s styling “is all about fun-to-drive, great driving dynamics.” But wherever your customers live, “they have got to fall in love with a product before they purchase it.”

 

Insiders say Mays has been notably less involved in day-to-day activities, relying on a cadre of long-trusted associates to oversee the work at each of Ford’s various brands. Earlier this year, he hired back Freeman Thomas, who helped develop the Volkswagen Beetle with Mays. And Ford has lured in Martin Smith. The designer credited with some of the breakthrough work at Audi in the 1990s, led the development of Ford's new Iosis concept. “Everybody who makes up my design operating committee is an old college drinking buddy of mine,” Mays said with a laugh.

 

 

 

Fairlane Lives?

 

Don’t believe reports that Ford has abandoned work on its “people mover,” the Fairlane concept vehicle introduced at this year’s North American International Auto Show, said Ford design chief J Mays. Some published reports have indicated that the alternative to a minivan has been abandoned in favor of a larger, more conventional van design. But while Mays declined to formally confirm or deny the status of the project, he hinted he is “extremely optimistic” about the concept’s chances of going into production. Ford has been a perennial also-ran in the minivan market, and many inside the company have viewed Fairlane as an opportunity for Ford to carve out its own unique, alternative niche.

 

 

Heritage Redux at Ford

 

Mustang, Mini, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and 300C, “they’re all ‘heritage-based,’ and they all work, as do many other recent products more commonly called “retro,” noted General Motors’ car czar, Bob Lutz. “You can argue against retro al you want,” he said during a conversation with TheCarConnection, “but if you look at the hits over the last few years, they’re all heritage-based.” That may be something of an exaggeration, but other industry officials admitted that retro has worked, despite the skepticism of the press, and the well-publicized failure of a few old-is-new products, like the Ford Thunderbird and Chevrolet SSR. Then there’s the personal pay-off, said Ford’s design chief, J Mays. “As much criticism as I got over (designing retro cars like Mustang and T-bird), it made me famous.” On a more serious note, Mays said Ford will continue operating its “Heritage Studio” at its Dearbornworld headquarters. There are no plans to introduce products on a regular basis, though. “We’ll spring one from right field. To work, it has got to be a surprise.” That’s apparently a hard-learned lesson following the several years that went into hyping the Thunderbird, which ultimately landed on the market with a loud thud.

 

 

Ghosn, But Not Far

 

Toshiyuki Shiga - Nissan COO

Toshiyuki Shiga - Nissan COO

Though Carlos Ghosn is no longer actively overseeing day-to-day operations, there are likely to be few changes made at Nissan, said Toshiyuki Shiga, the Japanese automaker’s chief operating officer. Shiga has effectively become the top executive at Nissan, now that Ghosn has taken on the dual roles of Nissan CEO and chief executive at its French affiliate, Renault. That shift was scheduled for three years, “so we have prepared for this,” said Shiga, during an interview with TheCarConnection. Even where Ghosn needs to make key decisions, communications system have been put in place to avoid delays, stressed Nissan’s new COO. But Shiga acknowledged he will be under the microscope in the years to come, what with Nissan setting increasingly tough goals for itself. By the end of the month, it will become apparent whether the carmaker met the sales target set in 2001, calling for a 1 million unit increase in sales by this autumn. As part of the new Nissan Value-Up plan, which runs through 2007, the company next plans to grow sales to 4.2 million, while building margins – which are already the industry’s largest – to more than eight percent. “I want to keep this very strong momentum,” said Shiga, in near-perfect English. To do that, he said Nissan will have to launch new products – 28 are planned for worldwide launch between April 2005 and March of 2008, including two debuting in Frankfurt. Slow to the hybrid segment, Nissan’s first gas-electric vehicle, a version of its mid-size Altima, debuts next year.

 

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