Frankfurt Auto Show: a stunt, a surge, a stumble

Jaguar’s F-Pace SUV looped the loop, Porsche surged ahead in the electric-car race, but China was flagged as a tougher challenge in a gloomy economy

Frankfurt Auto Show managed a loop-the-loop, a surge and then a stumble. Which is appropriate, for that’s much like the story of the current motor industry.

Jaguar pulled off an impressive stunt on the eve of show with a record-breaking loop- the-loop to introduce its new F-Pace SUV. The model, which arrives in Ireland next spring, is certainly not the sort of vehicle one might expect to be doing a loop, but it needed something to stand out from the overcrowded SUV car park these days. Job done.

The surge came in the form of news that Porsche, the VW-owned make, has created a concept car with a claimed electric range of 500km – and the ability to recharge to 80 per cent of capacity in just 15 minutes. If this comes to production it will radically alter the practicality of the electric car.

We’re right to be a little cynical, given the number of false starts on electric cars we’ve encountered over the years. If anyone can deliver it, however, it will probably be one of the big-three car giants, with their multibillion research budgets to back up the electric dreams.

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The stumble was perhaps the most unfortunate part of the show. BMW's chief executive, Harald Krueger, seemingly fainted seconds into the firm's press conference. Coincidentally, it was the first of the day. In the true spirit of the motor industry, the show went on, and we later learned that Krueger was well and recovering, with nothing serious to report.

Perhaps a reason for all executives to stumble a little is the continuing gloomy news from China. General Motors' chief executive, Mary Barra, sought to put some perspective on the sales slide by highlighting the fact that China remains a market of 24 million new cars – and that even conservative projections suggest 35 million will be hit in the near future.

Yet challenges clearly lie ahead for global brands such as GM, which have taken a large slice of their recent turnover from China.

Introducing Astra

Barra, whom

Fortune

magazine recently named the most powerful women in the business world (ahead of several high-profile tech executives), was in Frankfurt for the first time in her role as boss of

General Motors

to introduce the new Astra. The sporty-looking hatchback and estate may not have the allure of some of the new sports concepts or supercars on display, but it’s probably the most important new car unveiled at the show.

Her part in the unveiling also underlines that Opel is back in the GM plan after several tough years when talk was of a potential sale. "Opel's link to GM has never been stronger," said Barra. It was a message the Germans were glad to hear.

Barra was less receptive to attempts by Fiat-Chrysler to join the two firms. Its boss, Sergio Marchionne, has sought a merger, but Barra was adamant that GM has run the rule over Fiat-Chrysler's offer, and has no intention of taking it up.

In terms of new metal on display, the other significant launch was of the new Volkswagen Tiguan, which goes on sale early next year in petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid forms, as well as multiple wheelbases and sizes for discerning global markets. This is a hugely important car for VW – a cornerstone of a new push on SUVs and crossovers to try to make good a dismal performance in the US car market.

Speaking of SUVs, if you want to buy a new Bentley Bentayga, you'll have to get in line. Apparently the first full year of production for the 600hp W12-engined behemoth is already sold out, even at its elevated list price of €340,000. Bentley will add more model lines to its first 4x4, including V8 turbo, plug-in hybrid and, yes, a diesel.

Things were equally interesting across the hall at Mercedes. The carmaker showcased a concept that is a pretty clear look at the styling and shape, both inside and out, of the next-generation CLS. (The interior will also be seen in next year’s new E-Class.)

SUV attack

Much sooner on Irish forecourts comes a major SUV product offensive, complete with a promise that Mercedes has learned a lesson from the market and that entry grades in new models will be seriously upgraded. No longer will you have to spend so long on the options list.

For all the good news across the stands, most industry eyes are looking warily east. The respected analysis firm Bernstein & Associates predicted this week that, following the stock-market meltdown in Beijing last month, at least one major German carmaker will have to issue a profit warning on the back of falling Chinese car sales.

True, sales are still up overall this year in China, but they are only up by 2.6 per cent, and the past three months have seen year-on-year falls. Some makers, of course, are still posting robust figures – Mercedes' sales are up a whopping 53 per cent in China so far this year, while Jaguar Land Rover announced that it's sitting on record sales of 500,000 units worldwide, even before the F-Pace gets its feet under the table.

Even so, China has for so long been the great hope of the global car industry. But now, with Chinese buyers staying away or, worse, embracing home-grown brands, what’s to come after Frankfurt’s party mood? More shock? More stumble?