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2011 Frankfurt Auto Show

Every year just before Oktoberfest, Germany harvests a bumper crop of new cars at the International Automobile Exposition (also known as the Frankfurt Auto Show). Audis, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Volkwagens galore soak up several kilowatts worth of spotlight on their home turf. It's the kickoff week for a national festival of engineering innovations, automotive masterpieces, and beer.

At this year's Frankfurt show, however, an American stole the show when Ford unveiled the Evos, a concept car with butterfly doors. Although the fancy doors are only for show and won't be seen at Ford dealerships in the near future, the car's overall shape is likely an indication of things to come. Much of the underlying technology could make it to market soon as well. The Evos is a plug-in hybrid, which suggests that Ford executives noticed Toyota displaying a sales-ready plug-in Prius PHEV (which debuted as a concept in Frankfurt just two years ago) in its booth. A plug-in similar to the Evos could make its way to market in a similar time frame.

Click for the Ford Evos image gallery

Click for the Ford Evos image gallery

Ford’s current product line benefits mostly from turbocharging. For instance, cars like the new Focus ST (which we may see in the U.S.) and Fiesta ST (which we may not, given that the three-door version of Ford’s subcompact isn’t sold stateside) use turbos. Alongside these hot hatches was a new version of the venerable Formula Ford racing car. The open-wheel racer’s powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, much like the engine in the Fiesta. Ford also pulled the wraps off a 1-liter turbo three-cylinder Fiesta that gets 45 mpg. If this engine comes to the U.S. — as Ford has previously suggested — expect it to replace the Fiesta’s naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter and possibly also appear in the Focus.

European Highlights

Leaping upmarket, Jaguar rolled out a stunner penned by Ian Callum. The C-X16 (which will likely be called the XE when it comes to production) combines a supercharged V-6 with a hybrid designed to improve power. At the touch of a button, this Jag's electric motor supplies a 94-horsepower boost for ten seconds; sort of like a nitrous bottle that never requires refilling. Far from gimmickry, hybrids are indeed coming to sports cars. Set to slot in below the XK in Jaguar’s sporting lineup, the XE’s designed to take on the BMW Z4 and Porsche’s
Boxster/ Cayman twins. The XE will likely keep the hybrid, if only to justify the "E" in its name.

This wouldn't be Frankfurt without heavy helpings of German cars. Porsche, Stuttgart’s sports-car überhaus, is developing a hybrid 911, which should arrive by 2016. In the interim, the company’s big news from Frankfurt was the latest 911 (known to Porsche enthusiasts as the 991). Bigger (a hybrid has to fit somewhere) and lighter than the outgoing car, the new 911 will be available with either Porsche’s PDK automated manual transmission or seven-speed manual.

Click for the Lamborghini image gallery

Click for the Lamborghini image gallery

Other high-dollar sports-car makers hewed to the formula of a decade ago, when power and performance were the sole kings of the realm. Ferrari unveiled the convertible version of its mid-engined 458, while Lamborghini continued to wring sales out of the aging Gallardo with another special edition.

Lamborghini Gallardo Special Edition

The Gallardo’s introduction in 2003 proved a watershed moment in the company’s history, as well as that of parent Volkswagen. Once known for elegant touring cars that gave way to alien exotics typified by the outrageous Countach, Lamborghini announced it was playing for keeps in the supercar market with the fast-yet-dependable V-10 Gallardo.

Stunning as it is, the model is now growing a bit long in the sharpened tooth, with a new version not due for a few years. Ergo, enter a hot rodded version of the car this year in Frankfurt: dubbed the Super Trofeo Stradale, it boasts a race-worthy carbon fiber wing, lightened interior brimming with carbon and Alcantara and the same fire-breathing 565 hp found in the company’s ferocious Superleggera.

Lambo’s tweaking is familiar to anyone following the marketing moves of Aston Martin, Porsche and most notably Ferrari, whose Challenge Stradale vehicles are street-going iterations of machines made available for the company’s gentleman-racer series. Ditto the Trofeo Stradale, which offers Richy Rich-drivers the chance to chase each other around famous circuits in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo racing series. Or, you can just drive to the local mall and freak out the locals with the flick of a toe.

The LP 570-4 Super Trofeo Stradale starts at over $200,000, and goes 199 mph. The company will sell all 150 copies. More interestingly, the Sant’Agata Bolognese supercar factory announced that it’s building 20 copies of the Sesto Elemento, a super-lightweight machine powered by the Gallardo’s V-10 rather than the traditional range-topping V-12. Though pricing was not announced, it’s certainly in the millions; figures bandied about range from $1.2 to $2.7 million. What’s interesting about the Sesto Elemento isn’t the rarity, price, or performance; it’s the emphasis on materials and light weight. We’re huge proponents of taking weight out of vehicles. It’s the one place we can reconcile our enthusiasm for performance with our desire for green credentials. Lighter cars require less power for equal performance, need smaller brakes, wheels and tires, all of which lead to more nimble handling, better road feel and naturally, lower fuel consumption. 

Small is big

Lamborghini’s Volkswagen Group stablemates have taken lessons in lightness to heart in the opposite direction. Audi unveiled the Urban Concept and Urban Concept Spyder, while Volkswagen pulled the wraps of the NILS concept, which has nothing to do with E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. Rather, the three concepts invoke Messerschmitt’s Kabinenroller “bubble cars” of the 1950s and '60s, constructed when the aircraft company was forbidden from building planes. With only 10 horsepower, the Messerschmitt KR200 was capable of 56 mph, owing to simplicity and minimal mass. The VW Group products are simple in concept, but markedly more complex in execution than the postwar Messerschmitts. The cycle-fendered NILS is a single-seat electric vehicle designed for urban commutes. With a range of 40 miles, it bests the KR200’s top speed by 25 mph, making it suitable for very short drives on the autobahn, if necessary.

The boys at Audi, over in Ingolstadt, took a similar approach to their Wolfsburg brethren — though being Audis, the Urban Concepts offer up a little more luxury — namely, space for a passenger. Top speed is actually lower than the VW’s, at 62 mph, and the range is slightly less, at 35 miles. On the other hand, the Spyder version offers the promise of speedster-esque open-air motoring. More pertinently — and more realistically — Audi also debuted the electric A2 concept. Constructed of aluminum and carbon fiber, the A2’s battery pack is sandwiched between the passenger-compartment floor and underbody. With a 124-mile range, the A2 is capable of 93 mph and can be fully recharged from a 240-volt connection in just four hours.

Audi also unveiled the S6, S7 and S8 performance four-doors, all of which are now powered by a 4-liter twin-turbo V-8 cribbed from Bentley. Given that BMW’s M cars and the majority of AMG-badged Benzes all feature turbocharged small-displacement eights, this is hardly a shock. The S6 and S7 receive a 420-horsepower version of the engine, while the bulkier S8 flagship gets 100 additional ponies. The new S engines also feature the ability to deactivate half the cylinders under light loads, as well as a stop-start feature to eke better mileage out of halt-and-creep commuting. We’ll see them on our shores in a year.

Audi Urban Concept

Looking like a cross between a child’s toy and a cartoonish open-wheeled racer, Audi’s new Urban Concept is yet another salvo in the alt-fuel war.

Click for the Audi Urban image gallery

Click for the Audi Urban image gallery

The pint-sized show car - dubbed a 1+1 since the passenger gets squeezed just right and aft of the driver - gets its mojo from a 20-hp electric motor mounted at the rear wheels. Ultra-lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum contribute to both a 1,100-lb curb weight and the car’s estimated 40-mile range; not much by American commuting standards but plenty for anyone running errands in a mid-sized and maze-line European city.

Two versions of the design exercise were made - coupe and race-like spyder - but Audi officials insist the Urban Concept won’t get built. Rather, just as the Avus concept led to the company’s aluminum spaceframe, this tiny car’s feathery tech is likely to influence Ingolstadt’s mainstream models in the near future.

Ferrari 458 Spider

If there was any doubt that Ferrari brass wanted to make sure buyers knew that the drop-top version of the scalpel-like 458 Italia was no mere boulevardier (here’s looking at you, Ferrari California), the marketing folks hammered the point home by unveiling a new video on the marque’s website. In it, F1 hot shoe Fernando Alonso tears up the twisties outside Maranello in a yellow 458 Spider, wind ruffling his long hair.

Autoviva | Flickr

Autoviva | Flickr

The new car’s unveiling at Frankfurt this week is in tune with Ferrari’s tradition of keeping a new coupe on the market for some time before providing convertible fanatics with their candy. But this debut stands apart: it’s the first time a mid-engined, race-minded Prancing Horse will boast a retractable aluminum hardtop, a trick first seen in the front-engined California. To ensure no harm comes to the 458’s unimpeachable sporting feel, structural enhancements keep the car rigid while aural tweaks to the potent 570-hp V-8 make it plenty audible despite a snug new engine compartment that also stores the folding top. Crazy speed, mind-boggling grip and sunshine 14 seconds after pressing a button? Ferrari magic still lives.

Peugeot may have pulled out of the American market back in the ‘80s, but that doesn’t mean the French automaker’s Frankfurt show-stopper isn’t worth a look. The HX1 features the company’s Hybrid4 technology, consisting of an electric motor driving the rear wheels while a small, efficient diesel powers the fronts. Designed, like the Ford Evos, to showcase the company’s forthcoming design language, it also posits what the next Peugeot executive sedan could look like — which isn’t very sedan-like at all. Resembling a choptop version of competitor Renault’s late, lamented Avantime, the HX1 is a striking piece of gee-whiz that makes us wish French style and flat-out weirdness still graced our roads. Peugeot also announced the 508 RXH, a large family car which also features the Hybrid4 powertrain — delivering 67.2 mpg on the combined European cycle — and will go on sale next year.

Mercedes F125 concept

Back on the other side of the erstwhile Maginot Line, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the F125 concept. It’s think piece; a meditation on what the S-Class might look like in 2025, and it features gargantuan gullwing doors. Swiss madman Franco Sbarro did this to the 6.9L version of the S-Class back in the late ‘70s to truly bizarre effect; Mercedes’ own take is a bit less strange. The old 6.9, with its big-block engine, weighed about 4,200 lbs. The current S400 hybrid weighs around 4,500. The F125? 3750 lbs. That’s an S-Class-sized car that weighs about the same as Audi’s last RS 4. Where the F125 gets really interesting is its method of power generation and delivery. The future luxury barge features an electric wheel at each motor, drawing power from a lithium-sulfur battery twice as efficient as current lithium-ion units. The battery stays charged courtesy of a hydrogen fuel cell that holds the gas in a metal-organic framework material, eliminating the need for cryogenic refrigeration or super-high-pressure tanks.

Mercedes parent Daimler’s microcar brand, Smart, displayed the Forvision concept — basically a lightened version of the electric Smart ED tweaked to eke maximum efficiency from the diminutive runabout’s battery. Hop-ups include carbon fiber doors and body cage, production-ready plastic wheels(!) and a photovoltaic array in the roof to power the climate control system. Exterior paint and interior materials were selected to keep occupants cool on warm days and warm on cool days with a minimum of energy expenditure. All exterior lighting is now LED and the interior illumination comes courtesy of OLEDs embedded in the roof.

While the reveal of the new 1-series and 3-series mainline cars is of the most immediate concern to BMW’s bottom line, the i3 concept is a window into the Munich-based concern’s future. The electric city car is built on BMW’s new LifeDrive architecture, and as the awkward compound name suggests, it’s constructed of two distinct pieces. The “Life” portion features a carbon fiber and thermoplastic passenger cell, while the “Drive” component is an aluminum chassis built specifically to house a battery and electric motor. In the case of the i3, it’s sandwiched in the flat floor, a la Audi’s aforementioned A2 concept.

While the i3 is a wholly-electric vehicle and will appear as such when it launches in a few years, it also features a provision for a two-cylinder range-extender most likely derived from one of BMW’s motorcycle powerplants. Without it, the i3’s limited to a par-for-the-course 80-to-100-mile range. With the gasoline motor installed, it should be good for about 190 miles, at the expense of the already-minimal cargo space.

Click for the Maserati Kubang image gallery

Click for the Maserati Kubang image gallery

The clunker of the show? The Maserati Kubang concept. The long-rumored Maserati SUV appropriates the styling of the still-gorgeous GranTurismo and awkwardly stretches it over an M-Class/Grand Cherokee platform. While it’ll likely sound fantastic, if you want a goofy-looking Italian-American SUV, build yourself a replica of the Jerrari.

The BMW i8 straddles Frankfurt’s divide between performance and efficiency. A follow-on to the Vision EfficientDynamics concept from the 2009 show, the i8 concept presages a production model due to arrive in 2014. Like the i3, it features an aluminum chassis and a carbon-fiber-and-plastic passenger compartment.

Unlike the i3, it’s designed as a plug-in hybrid — rather than as an electric car with a range extender — capable of 20 miles in all-electric mode before the gasoline engine kicks in. Like the Peugeot HX1, the internal-combusion engine powers one set of wheels, while the electric motor powers the other. In keeping with the car’s sporting mission, the electric motor drives the front wheels, while the gasoline engine takes care of the rear — the opposite of Peugeot’s approach.

Reading from Ford’s playbook, BMW’s developed a three-cylinder turbo motor for the i8 — but it’s much more than the i3’s minimalist range extender. Or, for that matter, the 118-hp engine destined for duty in the Fiesta. The little 1.5-liter engine develops an impressive 220 hp. The combined powertrain’s 349 hp urges the i8 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds while delivering real-world combined economy of 40 mpg. While pricing has not been announced — and if the old 8 Series grand tourer is any indication, it won’t be cheap — the i8 will deliver the performance of a 1990s supercar with the fuel efficiency of today’s most thrifty subcompacts.

Now that, friends, is progress.