Small is Beautiful in Frankfurt

September 13, 2007

When it comes to this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, UP! is down. Downsized that is, in the form of Volkswagen’s pint-sized prototype car. Dubbed the UP!, it makes the automaker’s original Beetle look positively huge. For the moment, the UP! is little more than a concept vehicle, but you likely won’t have to wait very long to see it – or one of several variants the German maker will reveal later this year – go into production.


The same is true for a trio of minicar concepts revealed by General Motors, during its time in the Frankfurt spotlight. The American giant hopes to gauge reaction at this and several other major world auto shows to see if there’s enough demand to justify production.


Dubbed the “triplets,” but more formally known as the Groove, Beat and Trax, the three are even smaller than the new Agila being introduced by GM’s European Opel division during the Frankfurt show. But anyone who wanders through the nearly dozen different display halls at the Frankfurt Messe will likely come away convinced that in an era of record-high fuel costs and mounting worries about global warming, small is the big theme for automakers around the world.


Of course, small cars aren’t all that new. The Beetle has been an on-and-off best-seller for more than half a century, and Fiat models, like the Cinquecento, helped build the brand. But there’s a big difference in today’s small cars. The MINI Cooper, now in its second incarnation under the guidance of the British brand’s German owner, BMW, has demonstrated that today’s buyers will spend large sums of money for the right package of features, performance, and, of course, efficiency.


That’s what has drawn normally high-line makers like BMW – with the newly-updated 1-Series on display in Frankfurt – and Mercedes-Benz, which recently introduced a second-generation of its ultra-compact smart fortwo. Even with models like the UP! that are being positioned as basic transportation – a production version would likely start at around $13,000 – look for a range of creatures features not traditionally seen in yesteryear’s econoboxes, like CD audio systems, with steering wheel-mounted controls, and safety packages once the exclusive property of the luxury market, such as side-impact airbags and electronic stability control.


What’s behind the big move to small products? There is, of course, the need for “affordable mobility,” especially in emerging markets, notes VWAG Chairman Martin Winterkorn. But even in affluent Europe, congested streets and tight parking are big motivators. So are concerns are fuel costs and global warming.


Size matters, of course. It’s hard to obviate the basic laws of physics, so the more mass you move, the more fuel you burn. And that’s driving the move to smaller and lighter products. Even makers not normally known for their fuel efficiency are rethinking strategies. Early next year, revealed Bentley CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen, the luxury maker will complete a study that could shift its future product development strategy from big, heavy cars, with massive engines, to something a bit lighter and more efficient. “If customers don’t accept the (traditional) approach,” he acknowledged, “we’re in big trouble.”


Don’t expect to see Bentley leading the charge into alternative fuels and powertrains, but some luxury makers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz are moving aggressively into these worlds, as they are demonstrating at the Frankfurt show. The latter automaker’s futuristic F700 concept combines a dizzying array of advanced features, including a system it dubs DiesOtto. Also known as Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition, it combines advantages of both diesel and gasoline engines in one powertrain. The turbocharged, 1.8-liter package pumps out a surprising 238 horsepower. It’s mated to a hybrid-electric system that kicks in another 20 hp.


Hybrid systems are all the rage, at least with manufacturers who hope to catch up with Toyota, with its popular Prius gasoline-electric hatchback. GM CEO Rick Wagoner noted that his company will have eight different hybrids on sale in the U.S. market this year, and European motorists can expect to see some here, as well. GM’s offerings will include the first of a new generation, dubbed Two-Mode hybrids. Where early hybrid such as the Prius work best in stop-and-go city traffic, Two-Mode technology – jointly developed by GM, Daimler, Chrysler and BMW -- promises to boost fuel economy on the open highway, as well.


But the real breakthrough could come in the form of plug-in hybrids, suggested Carl-Peter Forster, president of GM Europe, as he unveiled the Opel Flextreme concept. With its oversized lithium-ion battery pack, the prototype could go 30 miles on electric power alone, charging up either from a wall outlet or by running its small diesel motor as a generator. Similar to the Chevrolet Volt, shown at last January’s Detroit auto show, a version of Flextreme could hit showrooms early in the next decade.


Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, ethanol flex-fuel cars, virtually every alternative possible is on display in Frankfurt, reflecting a growing industry consensus summarized by GM’s Wagoner. “Sustained growth and profitability,” is going to depend on the recognition that it is “neither feasible nor optimal for our industry to rely only on oil.”

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2007 Frankfurt Auto Show Coverage by TCC Team (9/10/2007)

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