Frankfurt motor show: Big debuts but low-key feel

For all the new metal on show there is a sense of uncertainty about the motor industry’s future direction

When the bosses of Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen start name-checking major political events in their motor show speeches, you know you are at a different sort of show. For the past couple of years, Europe's major motor shows have been extremely bullish. With the continent emerging from recession, there was time for car markers to flex their engineering and styling muscles once again, confident that buyers could be found for their new creations. Geneva, Paris and Frankfurt 2013 and 2014 all seemed collectively to say "we're back."

Frankfurt 2015 feels a little different. It feels rather more as if the message is "we're back but we're not quite sure where we're heading." As the CEOs pointedly mentioned the ever-growing refugee crisis breaking upon Germany's borders mere miles away from the Frankfurt show halls, and as the Chinese car market, once the almighty saviour of the western car makers' profit and loss sheets, stutters and staggers, everything just felt a little uncertain. When a 660hp Ferrari with no roof is unveiled to a chorus of 'meh' you just know you are in uncharted territory.

Thank the electric gods (no, not Rick Wakeman) then for Porsche, which late on Monday evening, before the show had officially opened, pulled a plugin rabbit out of its hat in the (slinky, very sexy) shape of the Mission E electric saloon concept. We've given a full list of its technical attributes elsewhere, but suffice to say that if HAL 9000 were to design himself an electric saloon, this is probably what he'd come up with. If Porsche has found the future of car design and engineering, then there is at least some good news for us all.

Electrification was, unsurprisingly, a strong theme across the show’s vast, unending halls. Toyota’s fourth-generation Prius made its European debut, and while its carry-over hybrid drivetrain didn’t break any new ground, it will doubtless continue Toyota’s hybrid success story, which is now 8-million-customers-strong around the world, and continuing to grow. As a first step on the electric car ladder, it remains the most painless one to take for the vast majority of buyers.


It also seems as if the spectre of range anxiety has finally been beaten, if not for today's cars then certainly for tomorrow's. Nissan showed off an updated Leaf that now comes with a claimed 250km one-charge range, a significant increase from the 160km range it boasted when first launched, and a number that could just be big enough to tip a lot more people into electric car ownership.

Beyond that, Audi and Porsche were speaking of 500km once-charge ranges for their concept cars, which seems a realistic prospect for cars coming down the pipe in the next two to three years. At that point, petrol and diesel cars may well become technically obsolete, but the price being asked for such range will doubtless remain exclusively high for some time to come. Audi's Q6 electric SUV, which will be born from the e-Tron quattro concept, will cost at least €100,000 when it arrives here. The less said about Taiwanese Thunder Power's 650km range Sedan is probably best – it's not fair to mock the afflicted.

Aside from electrification, there was no getting away from the continuing SUV boom. Jaguar's F-Pace made a dramatic entrance on Monday night, setting a world record loop-the-loop outside the show halls, but everyone it seemed was on a massive SUV binge. Seat almost, but not quite, showed its first SUV too – the Leon Cross Sport, while Toyota confirmed that its Auris Cross, based on the styling of the rather pretty C-HR concept, will arrive at the Geneva motor show next march. Opel, busy launching the new Astra hatchback and estate, was also making noises about a range-topping SUV while Lexus brought the new RX hybrid over for its European debut. And Nissan (again) looked to mix and match is combined 4x4 and sports car heritage. The Gripz concept may have a risible name, but it's a deadly serious attempt to combine the next-generation Juke platform with the legenedary Z sports car badge, which seems to have a great deal of un-realised profit potential for Nissan. Purists will sniff, but the stubby, chunky little 4x4 concept seemed to me to have a great deal of appeal.

Citroen tried to get in on the SUV act with both a concept and a production car. The Cactus M convertible (with surfboards for its removable roof) looked cute and Dinky-toy-like but isn't heading for production. The tall-riding, luxurious DS 4 Crossback most certainly is, along with a revised and updated standard DS 4 that is expected to eventually become the DS brand's best-seller, but to be honest, not many were fooled by a front-drive hatch with taller springs.

Peugeot's Fractal concept was rather tucked away in a corner of its stand, but if its sharp-nosed styling comes to fruition on the next-generation 3008 crossover (as seems likely) then it will be a remarkable transformation for the 3008 from ugly duckling to swan. Thankfully, Peugeot hasn't forgotten that not everyone wants an SUV – its 270hp 308 GTI looks like a worthy foil to the Golf GTI and Ford Focus ST, while the mental 308 R Hybrid, with its 500hp powertrain, is apparently going to be signed off for production any day now.

Meanwhile, Mazda had a neat, rather sexy crossover concept on its stand, called the Koeru. It's about the same size as a current CX-5, but lower and sleeker, which led some to wonder if it would become a production CX-4. Mazda has since said no, and it is apparently not sure what to do with the concept as it doesn't want to cannibalise successful sales of the CX-5 and smaller CX-3.

What was heartening at the Frankfurt show though was the quality of the production vehicles. Normally, it's the glitzy concept cars that get all the attention, but the new Renault Megane (which looks as if it might be the machine to return Renault to making plush, interesting mainstream vehicles as opposed to cheap-feeling economy cars), new Opel Astra, Jaguar's F-Pace, Lexus' RX, Mini Clubman and Volkswagen Tiguan all looked good enough to make you want to drive any or all of them from Frankfurt back to Dublin.

Actually, out of all the car makers present, it was Opel that looked to be the most quietly confident – its new Astra was looking good and attracting lots of positive attention, while GM CEO Mary Barra was on hand to reiterate The General's commitment to its oft-troubled German outpost and to confirm that the company is expected to start turning profits again in 2016, with 29 new models due to come between now and 2020.

Most disappointing car of the show probably has to go to the much-hyped Bentley Bentayga SUV. Yes, it has a wonderful 600hp W12 engine and it's the fastest production SUV of all time with a 301kmh top speed, but it just looks dreadfully lumpy and bland. If the EXP-9F concept car that preceded it was awfully ugly, then this appears to be the watered down response. Bentley seems to have missed an open opportunity to do what Land Rover did with the original 1970 Range Rover and redefine what an SUV could be and could look like, but it's missed the mark by miles on this evidence.

Car of the show? It would be so easy, and probably only appropriate to give it to the Porsche Mission E – we weren’t expecting it, it has remarkable technology and it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. But I hate to do the obvious thing, so I’m going to give my gong (with a special production car mention for that handsome Renault Megane) to the Mercedes IAA. Yes, it was an obvious bit of kiss-assing to name its concept after the Frankfurt show’s official IAA name, but the Innovative Aerodynamic Automobile really appeals to me.

Its teardrop shape is strikingly lovely, with or without its adjustable aerodynamic panels extended, and that countersunk nose with its bold Mercedes grille and half-hidden LED lights is really lovely – and apparently eventually bound for production. And its overall shape is expected to become the production silhouette of the next-generation CLS, which would give Audi’s A7 a serious run for its money. And I like too the fact that it’s not pie-int-the-sky. Its plugin hybrid powertrain, with 42g/km of Co2 and 191mpg, is production based and much of the cabin architecture and electronic systems will appear, on sale, in next year’s new E-Class. For me, it caught the mood of the Frankfurt show 2015 just perfectly – frugal, forward-looking, clever but cautious.