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.

Car-nival day

At the beginning of May, I had the extreme good fortune to attend the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Test Day at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. Here are my – somewhat belated – thoughts on the day.

With over 100 cars available to drive on a variety of circuits – city, Alpine hill, high speed bowl and off-road – the SMMT Test Day is rather like having a birthday and Christmas all at once for those of an automotive persuasion. Having read about previous test days, I’d always thought this event was the preserve of proper motoring writers, and so was stunned to receive an invite (thank you, Major!).

This was as close as I got - Jaguar F-Type (Picture source: author's photograph).

This was as close as I got – Jaguar F-Type (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Perusing the list of cars on offer, I’d already resigned myself to not even getting close to current automotive darling de nos jours, the new Jaguar F-Type, though the potential prospect of driving a McLaren 12C (!) was something to really look forward to. There would be more to the day than the driving too, with the chance to catch up with other motoring twitterati in between drives to compare notes and chew the automotive fat; great stuff!

The number of attendees and cars available to drive meant that drives were necessarily brief. Here are some fleeting impressions of the cars I drove on the day.

Renault Zoe Dynamic Intens

A smooth start to the day - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph).

A smooth start to the day – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph).

In my capacity as treehugging petrolhead, I suppose that I had to make this my first drive of the day. Having driven electric cars before, I had an idea of what to expect, but the Zoe seemingly surpassed memory. An innate serenity is a given with EVs, yet still somehow seems odd from a small car (or maybe my old Punto is getting on a bit). It felt so tactile, with nicely weighted steering and a wheel which I thought was a lovely thing to hold. Watching the battery range fall going uphill and rise again going downhill on the Alpine course was amusing and, knowing how breathless little hatchbacks can be once they reach the tops of hills, the Zoe’s linear power delivery was a positive boon. Like the Nissan Leaf, the Zoe has been designed from the ground up to be an electric car and it shows; indeed, I thought it made some of the internal combustion-engined cars on offer seem old fashioned.

Toyota GT86

Toyota GT86 (Picture source: author's photograph).

A hybrid version would be nice – Toyota GT86 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I must admit that I didn’t really do the GT86 justice. My abiding memory of driving it was of the gearchange, which was very short in a ‘snicky’ kind of way that precluded any particular tactility, and had a much narrower gate than I’m used to (inadvertently changing from 2nd to 5th more than once wasn’t brilliant). It was a great car to drive around the Alpine course when I did get it right, but I think I definitely need to spend more time with one. I wonder if there are any plans for a hybrid version – it could be a real low-carbon ‘halo’ car.

Fiat Panda Trekking

Hot on the city course - Fiat Panda Trekking (Picture source: author's photograph).

Hot on the city course – Fiat Panda Trekking (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I’m a huge fan of the previous model Panda and so was quite looking forward to driving this. Despite having read much about the TwinAir engine, I still couldn’t help but think its distinctive thrum was redolent of my Punto when it was poorly. All at sea on the Alpine course (a corollary of the raised suspension on the Trekking model?), it nonetheless excelled on the city course. The Panda Trekking is a very comfortable ‘little’ car, but I think I’d like to try a regular Panda before I decide how much of an improvement the new model is over the previous, frankly brilliant, one.

Porsche 911

Iconic and all you need - Porsche 911 (Picture source: authors photograph).

Iconic and all you need – Porsche 911 (Picture source: authors photograph).

The most powerful and expensive car I’ve ever driven, the 911 was the only car I took on the high speed bowl where it was predictably unflappable at the maximum 100mph we were permitted there. On the Alpine course, its acceleration was intoxicating to one more used to 1/6th of the power, and the handling was inevitably surefooted. A lovely, easy car to drive and yet still very much possessed of its own ‘essence’, this basic, manual, no frills 911 would do very nicely, thank you.

Porsche Cayman

Causing a flap - Porsche Cayman (Picture source: author's photograph).

Causing a flap – Porsche Cayman (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I only managed to take this around the Alpine course and, after the 911, it felt … I don’t know … maybe it was the PDK gearbox, but it didn’t feel as connected or as ‘special’; it certainly lacked an intangible ‘something’ of the 911. I’m sure it would work better in the hands of someone more used to it and not as overawed at the prospect of driving such an expensive bit of ‘new’ technology without any previous acquaintance (I’ve never used ‘flappy’ paddles before). Like the Toyota GT86, I think I need another go in one.

Skoda Citigo Sport

Little car, big fun - Skoda Citigo (Picture source: author's photograph).

Little car, big fun – Skoda Citigo (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After my cotton-wool approach to driving the brace of Porsches, I thought the way I then climbed into the Citigo and proceeded to throw it fearlessly around the Alpine track was striking – have I become conditioned to cars like this? A hoot to drive, I found it to be simple, unpretentious (stripes notwithstanding) fun; I absolutely loved it and, on this showing, I think I might prefer one of the VW group’s upmiicitigo siblings to the new Panda.

Vauxhall 30-98

The original sports car - Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author's photograph).

The original sports car – Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Brought by Vauxhall to celebrate the 100th birthday of the 30-98 model, I didn’t actually drive this 1920’s-built example – instead, I was taken for a five-mile spin around the Bedfordshire countryside in it. Being driven in such an old, open car is quite an experience, especially on such a glorious day – the sounds, the smells, the sunshine – and passing some of the older cottages en route in a vintage sports-tourer felt particularly evocative. Cars have come quite a way in the last 100 years or so, and the 30-98 clearly requires some effort to drive, but it’s great fun to be driven in.

Vroom with a view - Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Vroom with a view – Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Mazda MX5 2.0i RC

Delicate, tactile and great fun - Mazda MX5 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Delicate, tactile and great fun – Mazda MX5 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Very much a chance drive as someone else hadn’t turned up for their slot, it was also a brief drive in case they eventually did! As such, I only managed one circuit of the Alpine course but I was instantly struck by a delicacy in the way it handled; this was the first MX5 I’ve driven, and it seems the hype is true. So tactile and easy to drive, the MX5 was possibly my favourite drive of the day, prompting a perusal of a certain used-car website when I got home!

Thoroughly pleasant - Mazda 2 (Picture source: author's (blurred) photograph).

Thoroughly pleasant – Mazda 2 (Picture source: author’s (blurred) photograph).

Mazda 2 1.3

An affiliated understudy for the Fiesta EcoBoost that was never around when I visited the Ford stand (neither, unsurprisingly, was the ST180), I found this to be a thoroughly pleasant little car. Being accustomed to all of 60bhp from my own car, every car at Millbrook inevitably had great performance but I also really liked the 2’s ride and handling. It was such an easy car to drive smoothly; the air-conditioning was very welcome too!

BMW Z4 sDrive35i

A sound of music - BMW Z4 (Picture source: author's photograph).

A sound of music – BMW Z4 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

From the pleasant to the potentially sublime, the Z4 was a stark contrast after the Mazda 2. Not being obsessed by powwwwerrrr, I was actually a little disappointed that the promised newly-introduced 2-litre sDrive18i model had been substituted for a 3-litre model with all of 306bhp – overkill, surely? It may have been a tad conspicuous for my taste, and lacked the delicacy of the MX5, but it did make a lovely noise while blatting up and down the Alpine course; I’m not sure that the lesser sDrive18i would have sounded quite the same.

Vauxhall Firenza Droopsnoot

Suits me...? - Vauxhall Firenza (Picture source: author's photograph).

Suits me…? – Vauxhall Firenza (Picture source: author’s photograph).

My final drive of the day was in this almost mythical (only around 200 were made) 1970s icon. Sporting shades, boot-cut jeans and an ‘appropriate’ haircut (think Milky Bar hippy), I must admit I had a bit of a Spencer Haze moment as I opened the driver’s door – indeed, someone shouted “It suits you!” as I got in. The simplicity, the weight of the steering and the quality of the gearchange served to highlight how much cars have changed in the last 40 years or so; it was certainly an intensive driving experience. A fabulously contemporaneous car, though I think I’d prefer a Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

So there we have it – ten all-too-brief drives and one countryside spin, in cars spanning almost a century. Many thanks must go to the SMMT for organising a brilliant day, which was blessed with equally brilliant weather. And, no, I didn’t get to drive the McLaren.

Some other time, perhaps... - McLaren 12C (Picture source: author's photograph).

Some other time, perhaps – McLaren 12C (Picture source: author’s photograph).

RIP EV?

Reports of the death of the electric car have surfaced yet again. Why is this, and has the demise of the electric car been greatly exaggerated?

In my last post, UK unplugged as EU leads the charge, I mused upon how the Coalition Government’s attitude to a low carbon mobility infrastructure seemed to contradict that of an EU which had decided to take the ‘chicken-and-egg’ infrastructure conundrum by the scruff of the neck and actually make a decision to facilitate the roll-out of alternatively fuelled vehicles, be they electric or hydrogen (H2). One projection within the EU’s Low Emission Fuels Strategy was that of 1.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) on UK roads by 2020, figures which, judging by the Coalition Government’s attitude to joined-up low carbon automobility, would seem ambitious to say the least.

However, while the Coalition Government has made no comment regarding the 1.5 million EVs posited by the EU, it has this week seen fit to announce the results of a study by a government-industry body called UKH2Mobility, which plans to have 1.6 million hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) on UK roads by 2030. In what appears to be a ‘bad news’ week for EVs, the UKH2Mobility announcement – together with their own experiences – prompted Autocar to suggest that the end is nigh for battery-powered EVs although some, such as former motor industry executive Bob Lutz, disagree. Other reports have also declared the demise of the electric car, including this widely-quoted one on the Reuters website, which denounced EVs as a ‘dead end’, citing high purchase price, limited range and poor infrastructure leading to a lack of sales – hoary old chestnuts all but, at the same time, very real issues for potential EV buyers.

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity - car of the future? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The hydrogen-powered Honda FCX Clarity of 2010 – car of the future. Possibly. (Picture source: author’s photograph)

But is it that people just don’t want EVs? Vehicle trials – and my early research – suggest that people who have tried EVs like them, and there are surely reasons why EVs haven’t been a rip-roaring sales success. For example, the state of the economy has meant that this is not a great time to launch an emergent technology, especially in a ‘big-ticket’ item like a car. Not only that but, as mentioned above, the EU has only recently taken steps to standardise and facilitate the roll-out of a recharging infrastructure and, as far as the battery range is concerned, technology belatedly continues apace. I say belatedly, as the Reuters article cited above leads perhaps disingenuously with the suggestion that the electric car still doesn’t pass muster “… after more than 100 years of development…” when surely battery technology as a means to power vehicles has only been pursued with any real vigour more recently, after almost 100 years ‘locked’ into internal-combustion-engine (ICE) technology. I often wonder where battery technology would actually have been ‘after more than 100 years of development’, had it been developed at the same pace as the internal combustion engine.

Another problem that has faced EVs is the way that they’ve been promoted. Mechanically different to ICEs, they offer a different driving experience and, as such, offer a different way of performing automobility. For example, the torque characteristics of their electric motors result in performance that is instantaneous, smooth, more usable and more efficient more of the time; driving an EV can be fun, especially at lower speeds. Battery capacity can diminish over time, true, but how many motorists realise that the power and efficiency of conventional ICEs decreases over time too? Add an inherent lack of noise, and the nature of the driving experience means that there’s more to EVs than hair-shirts and planet-saving, but you’d never guess it from the way they’ve been promoted.

So with cost, range, convenience and image problems, and with UK Government impetus seemingly behind the ‘new’ FCEV kid in town, it would appear – as many are suggesting – that it’s game over EVs. Or is it?

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Are EVs like the Renault Fluence conceptually rooted in the 19th century? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Reducing emissions from transport will require a suite of technologies, and both EVs and FCEVs have their part to play. However, because EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence appear to afford a compromised way of pursuing an established mode or regime of automobility, I’m not sure that the future of EVs lies in ‘conventional’ cars such as those. Instead, it could be that the future of EVs lies in more urban-focussed vehicles offering a new mode of automobility.

On an edition of the BBC’s technology news magazine programme ‘Click’ in 2010, Sir Clive Sinclair noted how the practice of employing battery technology within a conventional automotive architecture was all very 19th century, a mindset redolent of the horseless carriages of the early days of motoring, and suggested that electric vehicles should instead represent an opportunity for revolutionary design and engineering.

Vehicles like the Renault Twizy – and concepts such as the Opel RAKe – are different propositions to more conventional cars. If promoted as vehicles which are different and fun, they’d surely be a more desirable proposition for early EV adopters and younger consumers alike and, while not costing the earth, would perhaps have more than mere utility factored into their purchase price by consumers. In addition, as urban-focussed vehicles, they would be ideally placed to make use of an existing recharging infrastructure which, in turn, may be easier to expand if limited to more urban settings rather than electric ‘superhighways’. After all, how many miles do many ‘second cars’ travel?

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 - a better battery EV? (Picture source: author's photograph)

The Opel RAKe concept from 2011 – a better battery EV? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Because of both their size and the role that they are intended to fulfil, cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Fluence would perhaps be more suited to hydrogen fuel cell technology than their current (badum tish!) battery technology, at least until battery and/or materials technology improves. However, in the midst of the hydrogen hype, let’s not forget that the challenges facing a hydrogen-powered automobility are similar to those faced by a nascent electrically-powered automobility. As is the case with contemporary EVs, FCEVs will be expensive to buy compared to conventional ICE cars, especially at first. There is no hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in place as yet and, as is the case with recharging EV batteries, the hydrogen used by FCEVs will only be as ‘green’ as the mode of electricity generation that produces it. And, all the while, the efficiency of ICEs has massively improved in the last decade or so, and will no doubt continue to do so.

Despite these caveats, I get the feeling that the Coalition Government appears more than upbeat about FCEVs, as if the many technical hurdles of hydrogen propulsion in cars have been addressed, and are content to speculate as to the number of vehicles and the size of infrastructure. Nevertheless, the announcement of the pursuit of FCEVs at least smacks of certainty, which is more than can be said of other recent Coalition Government announcements regarding low carbon technologies pertaining not only to transport, but energy too, and this can only aid investment.

Adopting battery-electrically powered urban vehicles in tandem with hydrogen fuel cell powered larger vehicles is one of several ways we can pursue a low carbon automobility in the future. Although FCEVs have been ‘five years away’ for some time now, this time they really may only be ‘five years away’. Possibly. Conversely, EV technology and infrastructure is here now and can be developed yet further though, admittedly, it needs to be. However, one thing that is clear is that the electric car, in one form or another, is key to future automobility.

The EV is dead. Long live the EV.