Ne’er the twain…? Environmental dissonance at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show

The biannual Frankfurt Motor Show opened its doors last week showing the latest offerings and previewing the latest concepts from car manufacturers. However, despite an apparent low carbon zeitgeist, was Frankfurt 2013 as green as it seems?

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the twittersphere, one is able to find out plenty of information about the latest models and concepts from motor shows from afar, and almost as they happen. In this respect, the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show was no exception. This year’s show seems to have embraced notions of low carbon mobility and featured many hybrid and electric concepts and launches. While this is excellent news, a seemingly Janus-like tendency to look backwards was also apparent.

Charging forward

Two cars I’m really interested in, partly because of their innovation and partly through their providing the style and status that electro-mobility and hybridity sorely needs, are the BMW i3 and i8. Possessed of a distinctive architecture and construction, the i3 perhaps redefines the possibilities of a city/small family car, and while some have critiqued its looks, to me its styling is intelligently distinctive; it might sound odd, but it just looks ‘clever’, if that makes any sense. The i3 is available as both a pure electric vehicle (EV) and a range-extender, and seems a relative bargain considering its cachet, status and, to me, semiotics (if just over £25,000 after the plug in car grant can be deemed a bargain).

As with the i3, the looks of the i8 are unconventional, futuristic and are just the job for a sub-brand that indeed looks to the future. It is powered by a 1.5 litre 3-cylinder engine and a battery pack with a range of just over 20 miles and, if nothing else, can act as a real ‘halo’ car for hybridity. Along with the i3, the i8 shows that there is more to low carbon automobility than hair-shirts and planet saving; at around £100,000, it is a tad pricey though.

Volkswagen entered the EV fray with the e-Golf and e-up! models. While they would appear to have been adapted from existing internal combustion engine (ICE) models, as opposed to the Renault/Nissan approach of dedicated EV  models such as the Zoe and the Leaf, it is reported that the up! at least was designed to adapt to EV propulsion. As much as I enjoyed the EV experience of the Leaf and the Zoe, the conventional internal combustion-engined VW up! also appeals greatly (I really enjoyed driving its Škoda Citigo sibling at the SMMT test day in May, where I also drove the Zoe for the first time) and, as a Lancashire lad, ’appen I could find myself being drawn to the e-up! on the strength of its name alone!

The various applications and technologies of hybridity, along with a concomitant reduction in emissions, suggest that the recognition of, and need to act on, climate change – what I call the environmental imperative – is being addressed by major car manufacturers across all market segments. Toyota are well known for their hybrid approach to low carbon automobility, and showed their Yaris-R hybrid concept, and while seeing such hybrid high-technology applied in a more glamorous way can only enhance the image of hybridity (as with the BMW i8), I can’t help but think that a hybrid version of their GT86 coupe would be more of an everyday hybrid halo car than a modified supermini – and reports suggest that one may not be too far off either. Other sporting hybrids on display included the Honda NSX and Porsche 918, while hybridity has also been applied to luxury cars, as illustrated by the Mercedes Benz S500 hybrid, and with remarkable effect, according to official figures at least. At a more prosaic level, an innovative approach to hybridity – Peugeot’s hybrid air system – was showcased in the Citroën C-Cactus concept and will become available in due course.

It’s not just ‘on the road’ where low carbon vehicles are increasingly making their presence felt. The crucible of motorsport has long been an arena in which automotive technology has been trialled and honed, and another electric innovation on show at Frankfurt was the Formula e racing series, in which electrically-powered single-seat racing cars will compete in a global racing series, much like Formula 1 is now. It’ll be interesting to see how Formula e takes off and to see if and how the ‘affect’ it engenders compares to more conventional motorsport.

Talking of sport, not everything that piqued an interest or raised a smile from this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show was necessarily futuristic; indeed, one of my highlights is perhaps a case of going back to the future. The Caterham Seven 160 is the newest version of the enduring British sports car and harks back to its simplistic roots in mating a small engine to a lightweight car, in this case a 660cc Suzuki engine. Small, light, simple, fun and no doubt low emission, I approve. I really want a crack at one of these.

A SUV-ocating obesity?

It wasn’t all greenness and light at Frankfurt, despite the profile of electro-mobility and hybridity being higher than usual. Take the controversial Jaguar C-X17 sports utility vehicle (SUV) concept for example, one of the highlights of the Frankfurt show.

Why controversial? Well, there has been some debate among enthusiasts as to whether a marque like Jaguar should even be considering such a car, much as there was when Bentley unveiled their EXP9F concept last year. To me, it’s not the fact that the C-X17 is a Jaguar that is an issue – as a styling exercise, it’s neatly executed and clearly a Jaguar. No, what rankles me, despite the technology behind its lightweight aluminium construction which will permeate to other Jaguars in time, is the fact that the C-X17 is yet another SUV or ‘Chelsea Tractor’ and, as such, seemingly represents yet another four-wheeled snub to both the environment and other motorists.

Jaguar weren’t the only SUV offenders; far from it. Audi presented the Nanuk concept, a 2-tonne, 2-seater 5.0 litre V10 diesel-powered 4WD sports car concept which begs the question ‘why?’. The Nanuk concept at once encapsulates profligacy and aggression – this is the environmentally challenged 21st century isn’t it? Whither ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’?

Other manufacturers positing SUV concepts at Frankfurt included Kia, Suzuki and Lexus, whose LF-NX concept was, er, certainly striking; even emergent manufacturers from China were getting in on the SUV act. The irrationality of such vehicles, especially in environmentally challenging times, illustrates how an appreciation of the car can extend beyond its mere utility, and I often wonder what a shift to SUVs and ‘Crossover’ vehicles like the Nissan Juke, for example, might say about car buyers, and why/how did they become perceived to be desirable? The answer would provide an interesting insight into how we ‘consume’ the car and what it might say about society today.

That SUVs and Crossovers have a greater environmental impact than comparable conventional cars is unequivocal, and the absolute and/or relative extra size and weight of SUVs necessitates increased energy inputs, whether embedded in their construction and/or in terms of their propulsion. Despite Land Rover offering hybrid versions of its Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models, and BMW also touting a hybrid version of its X5, the profusion of these type of vehicles would still appear to be an environmental anathema and could almost make one think ‘what environmental imperative?’ (I’d be intrigued to see if the drivers of hybrid SUVs feel any sensations of ‘greenness’).

It is heartening to see low carbon vehicles and their technologies being increasingly promoted at international motor shows (even if some of the emission and economy figures claimed by manufacturers seem to highlight the limitations of the official New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test) and it may not be too long before EV and hybrid vehicle launches outnumber those of purely ICE vehicles. However, I fear that the plethora of SUVs on show at Frankfurt suggests that all this technology will merely permit running to stand still as far as emissions are concerned which, given the potential of these technologies, would be a tragedy.

Advertisements