IAA 2017 - Hopefully Not The Future (Nailing Jelly to The Wall)
This year’s Frankfurt Motor Show is mostly about celebrating the car of today (that mustn’t be the car of tomorrow) and a hollow definition of what might eventually succeed it.
There’s more than a whiff of the tail end of the Golden Twenties to the 2017 vintage Internationale Automobil Ausstellung in Frankfurt, Germany. The champagne is still flowing, the music’s still playing, but everybody appears to be quite aware that a gargantuan hangover looms.
An awful lot of answers for just as many questions will need to be asked and then answered over the coming years and decades, many of which will inevitably lead to painful consequences. That most of the questions remain somewhat opaque for the time being renders any attempt by the industry at bracing itself for what’s to come even more difficult.
The ensuing unease this entails is palpable across the (relatively sparsely occupied) halls of Messe Frankfurt. The German manufacturers’ stands are obviously still vast - sometimes almost intimidatingly so -, but the products presented there betray the fact that quite a significant share of the car industry’s provisions for the upcoming changes actually constitute little more than window dressing.
The German Big Three, who consider the IAA a home game, are obviously finding it hard to deviate from the formulae that have served them so well over past decades.
Still wading knee-deep through the morass of the Diesel scandal, the Volkswagen Group would appear to be most likely to perform anything remotely resembling a lesson in humility. What certainly is obvious is that its core brands are struggling to come up with products that constitute a paradigm shift, yet build on the strengths of each marque.
Audi has arguably been hit the hardest. It’s not just the image of CEO, Rupert Stadler, roaming the halls all by himself, incognito, without either entourage or tie, almost like an outcast leper, that signifies just how deflated the four rings have become. That the Ingolstadt brand has abandoned its giant tent structure and moved in with its siblings at hall 3 also serves as a clear sign that the years of plenty are over.
Of course, Audi design had hit difficult times well before the diesel engine had been disgraced. Under then-chief designer, Wolfgang Egger, Audi’s styling had entered a period of unparalleled indecisiveness - a fact that was recognised by management far too late, when underwhelming product, such as the current A4, TT, R8, Q7 and, in particular, Q2 had already been signed off.
With the appointment of VAG veteran designer, Marc Lichte, as Egger’s successor, the once imperturbable design leadership of Audi was supposed to be reinstated. However, based on the evidence presented at this year’s IAA, Lichte has failed at this task.
It’s not so much the very uninspiring Audi A8 saloon (a car that was developed when the Bavarians were still considered the golden goose of the VAG empire) that disappoints - although it actually is disappointing -, but the lack of vision and class betrayed by the concept cars shown alongside.
The Elaine (first unveiled at this year’s Shanghai show) is yet another semi-SUV with a fastback DLO, sporting a shield instead of a grille to signify that it’s actually, like, really advanced and totally electric (which otherwise wouldn’t be obvious in the least). Its surfacing is a marked improvement over the Egger-era cars, but still a far cry from the clean sophistication that reigned supreme when Peter Schreyer was wielding the pen at Ingolstadt.
Neither clean, nor sophisticated is Elaine’s snout, which is in fact rather messy and trying to be all things to all people: advanced (shield!), aggressive (black bordering!) and progressive (matrix lights!).
It’s this latent insecurity that lends Elaine an almost passive-aggressive character. It is the kind of car whose styling obviously caters to people to whom the current styling traits of blatant aggression and blunt might appeal. How those customers, of all people, are supposed to become converted into idealistic early adopters of a still controversial technology remains the secret of Audi’s product planners and designers.
Audi’s IAA premiere, the Aicon, superficially appears to be more advanced than Elaine, thanks to its low, sleek fastback profile and short bonnet, which actually hint at the electric propulsion underneath the sheetmetal/-composites. But it’s actually not due to the excessive matrix detailing or rather un-Audiesque surfacing that the Aicon eventually disappoints. It is the lack of a good concept behind this concept. a
Why, for example, would a fully autonomous vehicle (Aicon doesn’t even feature a steering wheel!) ever be as space-inefficient as this Audi? Its enormous 26-inch-wheels may distract from the fact that Aicon is actually longer than a long-wheelbase A8, yet only seats four. However, nothing can distract from the fact that any fully autonomous vehicle is highly unlikely to dash along the Autobahn at 250 kilometres per hour. So why would it need to be low and sleek, rather than upright and airy? Autonomous cars, if we ever get them, will be about interior comfort, whereas Aicon’s main concession to this requirement are some fancy wood panels and free-standing seats. And the missing steering wheel, of course.
Meanwhile, VW’s IAA entry could almost pass off as a badge-engineered Elaine. In fact, it's the VW I.D. Crozz’ red paint and lack of black bordering at the front that are the clearest markers of this electric fastback SUV’s USP. Apart from those signifiers, it could be just another run-of-the-mill ‘sporty’ Sports Utility Vehicle. Mind you, the Crozz’ cleaner surfaces and lack of matrix-mesh actually would help it appear more upmarket than its more upmarket Audi sibling, if only that simplicity didn’t turn into lumpenness in certain areas, particularly around the front and back.
Unlike Volkswagen, the inventors of the automobile remain unashamedly bullish at the Frankfurt show. Traditionally located inside the Festhalle, Mercedes-Benz’ IAA presence is far from humble-minded. In fact, it isn’t even content with being a mere car manufacturer’s stand, which is why a sprinkling of plant pots and ‘creative’ pods is there to add a whiff of Silicon Valley spirit.
It can similarly be deduced that Mercedes’ EQA concept is supposed to channel this high-tech nature in a product design style that’s probably seen as being both exceptionally sensual, as well as singularly pure. Translated into English, one could say that the EQA is a strikingly generic Golf-size design that almost seems to acknowledge this fact through its glossy black front end, onto which the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star and grille graphic is ‘projected’. It takes little creativity to imagine other brand’s logos and graphics being applied without causing any confusion whatsoever. An EQA with a Hyundai, Ford or (de’ Silva-era) Seat badge at the front end certainly wouldn’t cause any eyebrows to be raised.
So the most surprising element of EQA’s design is its utter unremarkableness. If it wasn’t sensual/pure NuMerc that had unveiled this supposed glimpse of the future, one could almost believe it was an exercise in self-denying humility.
The remaining Mercedes concepts are certainly a lot more boastful, but no more relevant stylistic statements. The Mercedes-Maybach 6 cabriolet could almost be described as stunning, what with its enormous size, relatively restrained (by NuMerc standards) detailing and a silhouette that’s actually a lot more elegant in the metal than in pictures. But the grotesque, clumsy front end and Dubai vodka bar interior do their utmost to immediately destroy any goodwill towards this particular land yacht.
However, compared with the Vision Tokyo (obviously not a Frankfurt premiere), a butch, side window-less van that looks like something based on a crumpled sketch that was stolen from Jean Giraud’s waste-paper basket, the Maybach 6 appears positively invigorating to the viewer. If the brief for Vision Tokyo was to make personal mobility appear unpleasant, its creators ought to be congratulated. If not, one is left wondering what exactly this car has to say about future mobility that isn’t bleak.
The Vision Van concept car represents an even greater blow to the glass industry. It may supposedly set ‘the performance standards and solutions for future van generations’, but it really looks like a kustomized Sprinter with an angry face, a huge matrix grille (what, so it’s not electrically powered?) and some of the largest, sheer flanks the world has ever seen.
Of all the futuristic concepts coming from Untertürkheim, it is the Smart Vision EQ Fortwo that turns out to be the most consistent. The Smart brand has never been about sheer driving pleasure, but about mobility solutions, which renders it the most easily adaptable to an environment that’s more interested in convenience than 0-100 kph figures. Within this context, even the much hyped autonomous driving capabilities do make some sense, as does the Smart Vision EQ’s basic package. The Smart could do with a slightly friendlier facial expression, but among the many exercises in stretching, breaking and ignoring brand values, heritage and - far too often - common sense, the Smart appears to be rather spot-on.
It would have been rather foolish to expect conceptually sound and aesthetically inspiring entries at this year’s IAA from diesel scandal-plagued Volkswagen and hyper faddish NuMerc-Mercedes. But BMW, who gave us one of the most intriguing and conceptually sound production cars of the past decade in the controversial shape of the i3 electric car, could be expected to deliver the goods. Or could they?
It certainly didn’t augur well that, well before the Frankfurt show, BMW had been hit by a design crisis of unprecedented proportions, thanks to a proper exodus of styling talent, most notably Karim Habib (who left the core BMW brand for Infiniti) and Anders Warming (who preferred the freedom of Borgward’s decades of unwritten history to Mini’s retro straightjacket).
Of all of BMW Group’s concept cars shown at the IAA - and there were many -, it was the most conventional that also happened to be the most pleasing. The 8 series gran turismo, which is also employed to help introduce the seemingly rash re-branding of the Bavarians’ luxury products under the banner of Bayerische Motorenwerke, also suffered from the highly contagious angry face pest, but, unnecessarily mean frontal aspect apart, it’s a relatively calmly surfaced, traditional GT with good proportions. Its detailing may not be the most adventurous, but on the whole, it’s a competent effort that’ll hopefully help turn the fortunes of the semi-moribund GT sector around.
Another BMW concept bravely attempts to do the same with the roadster, which has suffered even greater damage in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. But although the intention ought to be applauded, the resultant Z4 concept doesn’t. Almost NuMerc-like in its eagerness to obey and overdo current stylistic trends, this roadster combines a maniacal front end with any detailing trope that’s filed under ‘dynamic form language’ in the 2017 design almanac. Yet it simultaneously lacks any real sense of stylistic progress, particularly if one reminds oneself of the impact the original, Anders Warming-penned Z4 had in 2002. The staked headlamps, which are arguably the most daring idea incorporated into the Z4’s styling, are certainly no substitute for the original car’s avant-garde overall form language.
All of this is a bit of a shame, but hardly surprising at the same time, considering the role Karim Habib, who’d have had significant input still into the Z4 concept, played during the genesis of NuMerc’s ‘sensual purity®’ form language. His particular set of skills should, in all likelihood, be well employed at his new employer.
However, despite being such a missed opportunity, the Z4’s shortcomings are literally overshadowed by what is most likely to be the least popular concept car by any mainstream brand at this year’s IAA. For more than one reason, the BMW X7 concept beggars belief.
It’s front end exaggerates the current fad of combining excessively slim light units with excessively large grille apertures in a way that makes even the Maybach 6 cabriolet’s snout appear measured. Its gargantuan grille’s struts and clumsily placed air vents are probably intended to evoke (no pun intended) a bit of Range Rover-like stateliness. But they actually are so ham-fisted in their execution that Land Rover chief designer, Gerry McGovern, probably had milk foam coming out of his nose when he made the mistake of sipping on a caffè latte while looking at pictures of the BMW.
It is almost too easy to ridicule a car that resembles an attempt at combining the stylistic tropes of an Ultimate Driving Machine with the proportions of a GMC Yukon. So the less said about its one delicate feature - which would be the world’s slimmest B-pilar -, the better. As it stands, the BMW X7 is simply the worst BMW design of all time.
Which would usually appear to be a fitting ending for a motor show that oscillated wildly between the hubristic and the daunted. But that would ignore the biggest disappointment of the 2017 IAA, which was - by quite some margin, despite the X7 - the BMW i Vision Dynamics concept car.
To put this letdown into perspective, one needs to remember just how brave BMW have been over the past two decades. Not only was there the Chris Bangle car design revolution, which originated from Munich at the dawn of the millennium (and, lest we forget, wasn’t the product of a single man, but management, board and other talented designers, current BMW Group chief designer, Adrian van Hooydonk, among them). But there also was ‘Project i’, a bold, daring, intelligent attempt at creating electric automobiles on a truly clean sheet, at a time when most parts of the industry considered even hybrid propulsion a bit outré.
It is truly disheartening to see the company that arguably gave the right answers to the right questions, albeit a decade too early, retract. For even though the basic electric architecture obviously wasn’t abandoned, the i Vision Dynamics seems to disregard much of what the original i models propagated. There’s none of the i3’s bold deliberateness or the i8’s flair for flamboyant stylistic representation of its cutting-edge materials.
Instead, the i Vision Dynamics is obviously a rush job. A rough clay model, it features neither an interior, nor any fine detailing. Its proportions are those of a generic RWD saloon, with shutlines all over the place. The inevitable shield grille is, for some reason, shaped like a plastic-gothic interpretation of the BMW kidneys and shares more with the turgid X7’s grille than the supposedly ‘dynamic’ X7/Z4 concept cars’ in this regard. The front and rear LED slivers are, in theory, a smart adaptation of traditional BMW styling tropes (double round head lamps, L-shaped rear lamps). Unfortunately, their execution is far too unsophisticated to work as intended.
BMW obviously got their fingers burnt by the lack of success of the current i cars. But ideas whose time hasn’t come (yet) remain powerful nonetheless. Hopefully, those in charge at Petuelring will rediscover their self-confidence sooner, rather than later and pay respect to their track record.
Thankfully, they don’t have to go it alone. Jozef Kabaň, Škoda Auto’s maverick chief designer until this spring, will arrive at BMW’s FIZ in a few days. His input will hopefully help the company to regain the boldness that had made it the most forward-thinking of the German Big Three for the past two decades.
For the time being, the state of the German automobile and its design remains somewhat bipolar. The insecurity is conspicuous and evident in the stupendous conservatism of most production cars, whereas the hubristic defiance that results in ever more intimidating, overbearing appearances remains unchallenged, even in most forward-looking concept cars.
Better keep some Alka-Seltzer at the ready. The morning after will come sooner, rather than later.
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