Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Preview: Frankfurt Auto Show 2011

When it comes to the autoshow calendar, few rival in size and importance as Frankfurt.  The bi-annual trade show houses every single imaginable form of transportation, with exhibitors representing anything from heavy duty trucks and buses to construction equipment, along with a wide array of aftermarket solutions that feed the transportation industrial juggernaut. Cars and trucks both concept and production take centre stage and tend to get the most press coverage, but that’s only a small sum of what the show entails. The show grounds are massive (there are 13 exhibition halls in total), so some cardio is strongly recommended for first time goers before tackling this legwork intensive pilgrimage.

For me, autoshows are the epitome of hand to hand combat in the automotive world. It’s when carmakers get to show off their latest and greatest, and you can always count on rivals quietly lurking amongst the caffeinated media contingent and checking out the competition. It’s the ultimate display of peacock-ry and one-upmanship.

Picking out the best from all the chaff can be quite daunting, but I’ve narrowed the substantive debut list down to what I consider to be the most noteworthy, and some that should never have been conceived in the first place.  The list will be updated as more cars are revealed in the run-up to Frankfurt press days on the 15 and 16 September.

UPDATE: Jaguar C-X16 Concept & Subaru BRZ Concept


Jaguar C-X16 Hybrid

When Jaguar announced it was building a small roadster (then tentatively named the XE) to do battle with the Porsche Cayman / Boxster, all the automotive publications whipped themselves into a frenzy on just what that vehicle would look like. With this latest technology concept in the C-X16 Jaguar has pacified the speculation, and the result is, frankly, stunning. While the front grille borrows heavily from the C-X75 Concept, the tapered back is a nostalgic nod to the E-Type. Under the hood however is where things become interesting: A lightweight supercharged V6 coupled with an electric motor provides the oomph while offering economy during low speed runs.  The aeronautics inspired interior will probably be concept exclusive, but much of the exterior will remain intact for production (yes, possibly even the 21 inch wheels). Expect a convertible version to accompany the coupe model shortly.  

Ford Evos Concept

At first glance the Evos looks like a stylized Aston Martin with a blue oval badge on the front. Ford has made it clear that the Evos is meant only as a ‘Design Study’. It’s a natural progression of the brand’s Kinetic Design Language and many cues (save the party-piece scissor doors) will make it onto future production cars. The optimism in me was fooled into thinking this would be the next Ford GT, but not so. I could excuse it for looking like an Aston because A) Ford used to own the British Marque, and B) Who doesn’t want million dollar appeal in an economy package? This is design for the masses. Plus the social media buzz on this car was absolutely massive. +1 for Ford.

Audi A2 Concept

The original A2 is one of my favourite cars. Everything about it was revolutionary– Perhaps too revolutionary for its time. The Al2 concept that transpired into the A2 made its debut at Frankfurt back in 1997, and with this new concept things come full circle. The new car pushes the boundaries of convention again, with an all electric drive-train and Audi’s next generation LED lighting technology.  Leave it to the Germans to be so pedantic as to display brake light luminosity by how much force is applied to the brake pedal. Audi has conservatively labelled this as a ‘technical study’, but if the last-gen A2 was anything to go by expect much of the design to be realized in production. It’s unlikely the A2 will be available in North America. But Mini has proven that a small-car business model can be made profitable across the pond. Never say never...

Subaru BRZ Concept

It’s been two years since Toyota and Subaru announced their joint venture on a new rear driven sports car platform.  Toyota has shown its hand with the FT-86 and more recently, the Scion FR-S Concept in April. Now it’s Subaru’s turn to show off the fruits of their labour.  The 3-letter name is somewhat puzzling, and from what I can make out it’s either short for ‘Breeze’ (Long live Plymouth!) or the start of a whole new naming nomenclature for the Japanese brand. The Boxer-engined architecture remains, as will the sub $25k price tag when the car goes to market. A wise friend once said to me patience is procrastination without the anxiety, and the enthusiasts are getting mighty anxious. 

Audi Urban Concept

Audi clearly took a page from Daniel Simon’s design philosophy and brought the future of personal transport to the present. It’s an example of a clean-sheet design where imagination is allowed to roam unrestricted and when fantastical creations are indulged, even in the face of a languishing economy. The outboard mounted wheels appeal to those boyhood Hot Wheels aspirations, and the sleek wraparound glass adorning the spyder version just screams ‘Speed Racer’.  Sadly in the modern world of crash test compliance and cost-benefit optimization there’s zero chance this will ever see a production floor. But anything that looks like it was driven straight out of Tron and onto the show floor is fine by me, and I am comforted living in a world where something like this exists, even if it's just in concept form.

Fiat Panda

The Dodge Caliber which sits on an aging Mitsubishi platform is on the outs, giving Dodge the perfect chance to slot a compact crossover in its line-up. This new Panda might just be up to the task. The new generation is bigger, chunkier, and will definitely appeal to the crossover sensibilities of the Caliber demographic (Plus it’s got squared wheel arches that I like). Just add cup holders and it’ll be good to go. Fiat is trying to capitalize on its union with Chrysler, and it wants trucking expertise in exchange for small cars that Chrysler can use to boost its CAFE numbers. Quid Pro Quo.

Porsche 911 GT3 R

You’d be forgiven for not realizing the ‘New’ Porsche 911 (991) is, in fact, completely new. It looks just about the same as the outgoing 996. But it’s slightly wider, slightly lower, and the engine is still mounted in the wrong end. While the attention will be on the mass-market Carrera models (the de facto choice for midlife crises everywhere), my fixation is with the new GT3 version. As the #1 bestselling touring racer in the world, the new incarnation has a big reputation to live up to. The evergreen 3.6 Litre Flat Six receives a horsepower bump and now puts out 500hp, along with a number of transmission and braking upgrades. An upgrade kit is also available for those who wish to update their 996 models to the new specifications.  A hybrid version is in the works and should make its debut next year on the endurance racing circuit.

Land Rover DC100 Concept

The original Defender made its debut in 1983, but the underpinnings have barely changed since the 40s. While its longevity speaks to the robust design, modern crash test standards and fuel economy legislation have made it obsolete.  The DC-100 is the replacement that Land Rover desperately needs to keep up with the times. Initial impressions are promising (Armadillo wheels are just for show) and the oversized honeycomb partition is a nice touch. While I will reserve full judgement on its off-road abilities it behoves Land Rover to make absolute certain that this replacement will be just as capable going off the beaten path as its predecessor.


Citroen Tubik Concept

In the press material Citroen states the Tubik concept is supposed to be a ‘lounge-style cocoon’ designed to make traveling fun again. Apparently aesthetics aren’t valued in Citroen’s idea of fun. You’d have to be pretty thick-skinned to be seen driving this pig-nosed van, despite the clever flat-pack interior.  It’s hard to fathom this modern day airstream interpretation as a home away from home, and instead closer to something you’d want to hurl at in Angry Birds. It’s a shame then because Citroen is perfectly capable of crafting beautiful cars. This design exercise feels like wasted talent. Best to leave the microbuses of the world to those who do it best.

Smart ForVision Concept

Looks like Smart consulted with Fisher-Price on this latest conceptual creation. Despite the design elements on the ForVision there’s no escape from the classic Smart ForTwo greenhouse. High profile tires and a copper paint job can’t save it from looking like a Doctor Who villain.  Then there are those tail-lights, which are reminiscent of my tired out eyeballs after too many cups of coffee and way too many wakeful hours.  Smart has seen its market share erode away in recent years, and is fast becoming an unsustainable money pit unless Daimler does something to reinvigorate the fledgling brand.  This simply won't suffice.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Summer Reading: Bob Lutz - Car Guys vs. Bean Counters

A wise friend of mine once told this scribe, ‘envy is a useless emotion.’ That friend had never met Bob Lutz.

There is much to envy about ‘Maximum Bob’, as he is known in auto enthusiast circles. A quick look at his resume reveals his decorated career spanning over 40 years, traversing between industry juggernauts like General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and BMW. Driven by passion for all things automotive, the prolific businessman had a hand in overseeing development of some of the most influential and sought-after vehicles. These include the lust-worthy Dodge Viper (one of the first V10 powered production cars in the world) and the BMW 3-Series, the modern day benchmark in the lucrative premium saloon segment.

Now, Lutz adds ‘New York Times Bestselling Author’ to his list of accolades. His latest book ‘Car Guys vs. Bean Counters’ is a revelatory tell-all about his time as Vice Chairman of Product Development at GM. What Lutz envisioned as a 3-year corporate makeover for the stagnant company turned into a glacial decade-long tenure; with Lutz wading through the overbearing bureaucracy and undoing years of over-intellectualized thinking that had paralyzed the once proud American powerhouse.

There was plenty of blame to go around for GM’s misgivings, and Lutz made sure all were held accountable, starting with Vehicle Line Executives (VLEs). These MBA-backed, finance driven types were the ones who saw through every aspect of a vehicle from initial design to final production.  The problem laid in their goal-oriented approach towards the product development process:  Every minute detail was micro-analysed through hideously complex mathematical equations and tedious PowerPoint presentations, all aimed at achieving abstract, internal goals and conforming to a pre-defined set of ‘brand characteristics.’  

Originally conceived with the noble intention of reinforcing brand identity, these characteristics did little except  impede the imagination. Under this bean-counting reign the vehicle designer was completely marginalized as overall quality and aesthetics became an afterthought. So while many of the resulting products achieved all the objectives as outlined by these executives, they failed to ignite consumer lust and realize the sales figures the maths had originally predicted. This ‘Formula to Mediocrity’ was what Lutz fought so hard to abolish, and runs completely opposite to the designer-centric ethos that GM embodied in the 50s and 60s.

There were exceptions, however. The VLEs responsible for GM’s Trucks Division and the Chevrolet Corvette escaped Lutz’s scathing assessment, as both programs were run by people with an unbridled passion for their work, with sales and critical acclaim to match.

Lutz also had a bone to pick with much of GM’s senior management.  Many came from the consumer goods sector, and brought with them a self-contained, mass market business philosophy. While test batches might be financially feasible in the world of toothpaste and alternatively flavoured sodas, a vehicle is a complicated assembly of varying parts and components, all of which must work seamlessly with each other.  It’s a far more invested effort requiring years in planning and execution, so success is all the more important to the bottom line. Sadly, few cared about GM as an automotive manufacturer. To these executives GM was merely a vessel for them to fulfill their matrix of abstractions. Responsibilities to the welfare of shareholders and being good corporate citizens are good aspirations to have, but when the foundation of ‘making cars and trucks that people want to buy’ takes a backseat that’s when things go horribly awry.

Lutz went on to point out that GM’s fatal flaw lied not in its lack of engineering or leadership – There was plenty of both – But its objective-oriented approach to product development instead of a consumer-oriented one. The company was overrun with number crunchers so entrenched with technical metrics and sub-optimization that they neglected the most important number of all – Sales figures. Consumer acceptance was simply taken for granted, and when sales numbers failed to meet expectations the obvious conclusion was ignored – That GM was making products the buying public didn’t want.

Other tales of want and woe were interspersed in the book, including how the much maligned Pontiac Aztek came to being, and how Lutz’s vision for the future of electric mobility became GM’s rebirth in the Chevrolet Volt. He also shared his distaste for GM’s acquisition of Saab, seeing the move as a liability but stops short of calling it ‘short-sighted’.

Still, despite the ‘Extreme Lutz Makeover’, GM succumbed to bankruptcy on 1 June 2009. Lutz was frank in admitting it was an inevitable outcome no matter what he did; the perfect storm of a sub-prime mortgage crisis coupled with rising gas prices crippled the automaker. The company had to ask the federal government for an emergency bailout totalling $49.5 billion in order to stay afloat, granting it the unceremoniously unflattering title of ‘Government Motors’.

GM has since learned its lesson, and now with a much leaner portfolio has refocused its mission: “To Design, Build and Sell the world’s best cars and trucks.” Lutz remains involved with GM in an advisory capacity, and was hopeful in concluding that GM will continue on the path to excellence he forged a decade ago.  A mandatory read for those who are fascinated with the inner workings of the automotive industry, and proof that Lutz is equally adept at putting thought to paper as he is overhauling an American industrial icon.