Europe’s biggest motor show looks ahead to an electric future

Frankfurt Motor Show: Car makers know the future’s electric, but the present has to stick with petrol and diesel

Frankfurt is the chance for the big German car makers to strut their stuff in front of thousands in the Exhibition grounds on Ludwig-Erhard-Anlage, and the millions around the world reading stories such as this and watching the live-streamed videos. Japanese, British, Italian, Korean and, increasingly, Chinese car makers come too to show off their newest wares, but this is a home town show and the vast, literally towering stands taken by Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, and Opel ever reinforce that fact.

This year, there seems to be a little more bullishness in the air than was the case in 2015. Laid low  by the diesel scandal which broke as the show opened its doors, the German car industry, and the vast VW Group, have played a softly-softly game since then. No longer, though — the huge stands held tantalising clues to an electric future, and it speaks volumes that the launch of a 730hp Lamborghini Aventador convertible was one of the less notable events.

Volkswagen kicked things off the night before the show, and if its evening preview event wasn't perhaps as fully populated as once might have been the case (is Dieselgate biting into development funds?) then there was much to see. All-electric crossover concepts from VW, Skoda, and Audi and all of them due to be on sale within 36-months. Futurism from Audi too, in the shape of its artificially-intelligent, entirely-autonomous Aicon concept which posits a driving future where the car takes the strain and you and your passenger sit back in reclining-chair comfort. Driving fun? Not so much, but a tempting prospect when heavy rain brings the M50 to a standstill once again…

BMW too showed a futuristic electric car concept, its dramatically-styled i5 preview showing us what  the third string to the all-electric i-range will look like when it goes on sale in 2021, while Honda showed us the cute-as-a-button Urban EV concept that you'd just love to snuggle in your arms and bring home with you. Renault went so far as to create an entire house, brought to the motor show stage, to show how its Symbioz electric concept car can be charged from, or provide charge to, and be fully integrated into your living space.

However, amid talk of an electric future, there was equal talk of a diesel and petrol present. While Mercedes rolled out plans to offer electric versions of all of its model range by 2022, and VW guaranteed a similar plan for 2030, there were equal defences of internal combustion engines going on all over. BMW spent much time pointing out that diesel still has a future, no matter what people may think, while VW’s chairman, Matthias Müller said that a great many more petrol and diesel cars will have to be sold in order to pay for the future of electric motoring. Mercedes also pointed out that, initially at least, electric cars will have much narrower profit margins, so car makers will have to start making cutbacks as we enter the 2020s in order to account for this.

The electric car future is, of course, being driven by legislation. The UK and France have already announced that all vehicles sold by 2040 must have some electric drive component, while Scotland has gone its own way and announced similar legislation for 2030. China is known to be mulling over something similar, and if that goes ahead then all internal combustion bets are off.

China remains something of an elephant in the Frankfurt room, not just in legislative or purchasing power terms, but in its indigenous vehicle makers. One of those, Chery Automotive, came to Frankfurt with a very smart looking SUV, engineered in part by European giants Bosch and Continental, which looks as if it could easily rival an Audi Q5 or BMW X3.

Meanwhile, Land Rover confirmed that it will launch a plugin hybrid Range Rover before the end of this year (having announced last week that all of its and Jaguar's products will be available in electric or hybrid form from 2019 onwards) and also showed a one-make racing version of next year's i-Pace electric SUV, which will act as a support series to the expanding Formula E electric racing series.

Even the lofty star of the show, thus far, uses hybrid power. The Mercedes-AMG Project One, based around the engine and powertrain of the car which has won the F1 World Championship for the past three seasons running, uses a 1.6-litre turbo V6 F1 engine, backed up by three electric motors, batteries, and even a system that turns waste heat into energy. 1,000hp seems almost tame these days, but Mercedes claims that this will be one of the fastest accelerating cars of all time. Potentially, it will be even faster than the Bugatti Chiron, which just before the show set a new record by accelerating from standstill to 400kmh and braking back to standstill (in the hands of former Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya) in just 42secs.

Those seeking performance at a more sane level could choose from the 280hp Renault Sport Megane RS which will mix it up with the likes of the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type-R later this year. Or there was the 450hp turbo V6 Audi RS4 Avant performance estate. Or indeed the revised Ford Mustang with a new 450hp V8 engine. Land Rover got in on the act by showing a 525hp Discovery with a supercharged V8 engine, while Toyota confirmed that its hot Yaris GMRN will boast 212hp from a 1.8-litre supercharged engine. If internal combustion really is dying, it's going out in some style…

Of the more realistic options so far, Seat's new Arona small crossover looks smart, as does Hyundai's surprisingly handsome fastback i30 not-quite-coupe. The Kia Stonic crossover also looks neat, although the slinky Proceed concept sports estate was rather more eye-grabbing. Hope that makes it to production as unchanged as possible. The Dacia Duster is heavily updated rather than all-new but looks sufficiently smart now as to be desirable for more than merely a low price tag.

There is one thing missing from all of this Frankfurt show hoopla though. No, not brands such as Volvo, Peugeot, Fiat, Jeep and others which stayed away from the show. No, what's missing are actual real electric cars which can be driven now. There are many, many electric concepts and show cars, and much talk of multi-billion Euro investments in electric tech, charging points, and more. But of cars which you will actually be able to drive in the next 12 months with battery power, there was precious little. Hot air traditionally comes from internal combustion engines, but here it was mostly talking about their demise, rather than announcing anything concrete.

Possibly the most significant, in immediate terms, car of the show was the Honda CR-V Hybrid. Labelled a concept, but due to go on sale next year all but unchanged, the updated, uprated CR-V marks a major sea-change in the current car market. Why? Because it joins a select club, made up mostly of Toyotas, Lexus, and a solitary Tesla, of SUVs that won’t come with a diesel option. Only 1.5 petrol turbo and hybrid versions will be offered. For all the talk of the electric revolution, that is possibly the most revolutionary thing in Frankfurt.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring