Memories of Frankfurt

September 15, 2005
Covering the Frankfurt Motor Show is always a daunting challenge, and I tend to try to get in shape for at least a few weeks before the flight to Germany. It's not the jet-lag. I've gotten used to that. It's the incredible stamina one needs to run from one hall to another. From the Mercedes-Benz booth near the Frankfurt Messe entrance, to the Opel stand on the other side of the train tracks, it's nearly a full kilometer. Of course, it makes those good German dinners, with their heavy cream sauces and sausages, seem a little less sinful.

Alternating with the Paris Motor Show every other year, Frankfurt is seen as one of the most important places to track automotive trends -- in terms of cars, technology and the people at the industry's helm. This year's show was a mix of news. On the product side, there was some disappointment; far fewer breakthroughs than one would typically expect. On the other hand, it's hard to ignore the likes of the new Mercedes S-Class, Jaguar XK and Volkswagen Eos hardtop/convertible. In typical fashion, the German manufacturers dominated , even adding an extra day to the media news conference schedule, so they'd be less likely to lose journalists to those other brands from France, England and, sigh, the U.S.

In terms of technology, diesels have been the big news for several years at European auto shows, and for good reason. The market is now more than half diesel, and still growing. But with fuel prices in some continental markets now pushing past $8 a U.S. gallon motorists are demanding even more help, and so the hybrid has emerged as a potentially mainstream technology. Until now, gasoline-electric powertrains have gotten little more than lip service from European makers, only the Asian imports singing its praises. This year, though, we saw a variety of prototypes from the likes of Audi, Smart and even Mercedes, which displayed two Bluetec Hybrid-equipped sedans. One was gasoline-electric, the other a diesel, which could yield the sort of mileage in the big S-Class you today get in the compact Toyota Prius. Diesel-electric systems could prove unacceptably expensive, but considering the industry's ability to drive out cost, we'd not be surprised to hear some production announcements in time for the next Frankfurt show in 2007.

As for the names and faces in Frankfurt, there were some familiar folks in new positions. Mark Fields, the photogenic head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group was on hand, days after the announcement he will head back home to run Ford's troubled core Americas unit. If you hung around the Volkswagen stand on Monday, you'd have been forgiven thinking that Elvis had entered the building. It was actually the equally photogenic Wolfgang Bernhard, the former #2 at Chrysler and disenfranchised head of Mercedes, who resurfaced as brand boss for the also-troubled Volkswagen. Bernhard's message was a mixed one: look at all our great new product, even as we struggled to fix endemic cost problems that could crush the German manufacturer.

Oh, and there was also that other familiar German face, Chancellor Schroeder, taking a last-minute walk-through before the hotly contested election this coming weekend. Maybe he was vying for votes. But considering his poor showing in the polls, he might also have been looking for what car to buy should he return to civilian life later this year.

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