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2019-09-17 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

IAA 2019: Götterdämmerung

On the one hand, this year’s Frankfurt motor show obviously acted as a swan song. On the other, it showed first signs of action being taken, rather than just promises being made. 



Once the world’s largest car show, the Internationale Automobile Ausstellung is in its death throes - most certainly according to large parts of the mainstream press, who were keen to point out the significant number of absent brands and the decreasing significance of traditional car shows in general. 

As if to drive home the point with quite some mean-spirited vengeance, Ferrari staged their own car show just a day prior to the start of this year’s IAA. Those journalists lucky enough to be in the marque’s good books were flown into Bologna, treated to a Ferrari fair staged inside an impressive, custom-built hall next to the Fiorano track and then flown either back home - or to Frankfurt, where Il Cavallino Rampante was truly conspicuous by its absence. 

To some, this sort of ‘custom-made’ marketing event illustrates why the world does not need the IAA and its like anymore. To some though, the significant cost involved in this approach should be held against the notion that every car company should simply do ‘its own thing’. Particularly in an age when ‘flight shame’ is turning into an issue, flying hundreds of journalists around in chartered jets every other week - rather than having them all gather just a few times per year, using scheduled flights - does appear like a questionable move. 



At the Frankfurt show itself, a certain sense of efficiency on the car brand’s side made itself apparent. The show stands tended to be smaller, the catering not as lavish as a mere two years ago. Mercedes-Benz made do with occupying just half of the Festhalle (which made for a strange ambience, courtesy of the ranks of empty seats in plain sight on the unused part of the hall). BMW, rather than taking over all of Halle 11 and constructing a small indoor circuit there, shared space with Jaguar Land Rover, Hyundai, Opel and others. Alas, the organisers did not use the opportunity of having more than half of the halls unoccupied to turn IAA into a more compact show à la Geneva, but instead had visitors walk the same excessive distances as of yore to see half as much as back then. 

Thankfully, what was on show turned out to be, on the whole, rather more significant than the endless stream of autonomous concept cars that turned into a cliché over the past two years. By and large, the Frankfurt show was about concrete promises and even results, rather than some far-flung make-believe (with the exception of one grotesque example). 

Unquestionably the most important car in real-world terms was VW’s ID3. With this all-new, EV-only model, Volkswagen CEO, Herbert Diess, truly put his company’s money where his mouth is. In an age when much of automotive executives’ decision making is about changing the seating position on the fence, the boldness of Diess’ drastic actions must at least be acknowledged, even though it will take some time before we can see whether his gamble has paid off.



In stylistic terms, ID3 fails to represent this boldness in any way, shape or form. Its small MPV-like body suits the requirements of an EV architecture without the potential to polarise the way the far braver, far more avant-garde BMW i3 did and does. Even Renault’s Zoe (which has been in production for no less than seven years) possesses far more futuristic looks. Then again, ID3 thankfully lacks most of the overwrought Heidedesign 2.0 insignia that blighted a great many recent VW products - excessive creases, chrome and graphics are therefore absent. Only the hexagonal patterns employed for decorative effect can be seen as a rather clumsy attempt at lending ID3 a bit of flair (much in the same way, incidentally, as the garish stripes of late ‘80s and early ‘90s VWs failed to imbue these decidedly petit bourgeois designs with any cosmopolitan flair). ID3’s wind spinner-inspired wheel design is far more convincing in that regard. The large black plastic lid at the windscreen base, on the other hand, just appears crude. 

The ID3’s interior is a rather toned-down affair, even though its dashboard and some of the switchgear can be specified in white. Most of the cockpit is touchscreen operated, for better or worse, while a head-up display is a genuinely impressive feature for this class of automobile. This rather minimalist approach also means that the rather basic quality of the materials used becomes easily apparent. Particularly the doors - whose shiny black armrest-cum-grab handle is a case study of thoughtless design - betraying the fact that ID3’s expensive drivetrain inevitably entails cut costs elsewhere in the car. Which would not be as much of an issue, if VW had not been at the forefront of excellence in perceived quality over the past two decades and longer. Those customers who complained about the Golf V’s lack of sophisticated trim are therefore definitely bound to take offence at ID3’s more Dacia-like aspects. 

Most counterproductive to ID3’s initial reception is VW’s marketing of the car as a ‘new icon’ though. While the Beetle and original Golf were designs that left such an imprint, they could easily be drawn by children, the ID3 wilfully aims for an ‘automotive white goods’ flair that is more in keeping with Toyotas from an era when that company devised wilfully bland concoctions than the sophisticated product design approach that characterised the (superficially similar) VW Up. In terms of expectation management, VW did themselves a major disservice here. 



At the same time, the Volkswagen brand’s update unveiled to coincide with the unveiling of ID3, can be described as a success. Small, but perceivable changes to the logo and typography modernise its appearance and make it seem less mighty than before. The stand at the Frankfurt show also lacked the clinical vastness it possessed two years ago, featuring warm, bright colours - and staff wearing silly hipster attire (found almost anywhere else at the show too). On the whole though, the attempt at signifying a move away from the Winterkorn/Dieselgate era through visual means was worth the effort. 

Not quite as critical to its maker as ID3 is to Volkswagen is the Honda E. Finally on show in production guise, the Japanese EV also happened to fall prey to bungled expectation management: The first concept car had set a standard the second iteration, featuring two more doors and less attitude, could not reach. Thankfully, there has been no deduction this time around, with the production car remaining very faithful to the second concept. 

This means even the less practical, if show car worthy features made the transition, such as the hidden door handles and rear-view cameras. More importantly, the product design aesthetic remains intact, even though the car’s stance is unquestionably weaker than the original concept’s. Most surprisingly though, the Honda’s interior exhibits a delightfully quirky Japanese aesthetic, down to the grey fabric of the seats, the (fake) wood on the dashboard and the rather excessive number of screens. None of which would be necessary for a mainstream EV such as the Volkswagen - but in the more expensive, more idiosyncratic Honda, they add exactly the kind of charisma required.



Regardless of where one stands with regards to the Honda E’s transition from concept into production car - next to the clean, consistent appearance of the E, the overwrought-yet-blunt style of the CR-V, Civic and NSX is put into the sharpest of reliefs. It is as though the E has been devised by an altogether different company, rather than just a different department. A different company with infinitely higher aesthetic standards. 

Unlike Honda, Porsche is not undergoing a design crisis at present. To the contrary, as the Swabian brand has waved the flag of traditional German design excellence for some time. In the case of Porsche’s first-ever EV, the Taycan saloon, this trend remains unbroken. Lower and more lithe in its appearance than the ICE-powered Panamera saloon, the Taycan is the stylistically most convincing four-door Porsche yet. While its sophisticated surfacing and detailing are a given, the details chosen to mark the Taycan’s unusual (EV) nature - eight square, rather than two round headlights and optional part-body coloured wheels - lend it sufficient sense of occasion, without appearing wilfully odd, to ensure that this Porsche sets itself apart without appearing too challengingly unusual. 

In terms of perceived quality, the Taycan’s cabin reaches a high standard too. Regrettably - albeit hardly surprisingly - Porsche also chose a (touch)screen-heavy approach for the car’s UX systems. Despite being an industry norm these days, it is ever so slightly disappointing that even Porsche did not see fit to go for more nuanced approach, given the particular importance of muscle memory and tactile distinction in the context of driving a sports car. 



Despite this slight reservation, the Taycan is an immensely credible product - not just in contrast to the stylistically inept Audi e-tron GT, which proves that the (shared) platform’s excellent proportions do not automatically entail a pleasing design. Entirely on its own terms, the Porsche Taycan reinforces that Michael Mauer and his team currently act as the German car design high watermark. 

Another significant IAA production car launch is somewhat different from the VW, Honda and Porsche in nature. In the bigger scheme of things, the Land Rover Defender obviously does not embody change at all. For its maker, however, the Defender marks as dramatic a break from the past as those vehicles do.

This new Defender could not have come at more dramatic a point in time for (Jaguar) Land Rover. With the company facing challenges threatening its survival - some of its own doing, some not - and a fan base (of the original car) only waiting to put the knife in what so obviously must be an ‘unauthentic’ product, the Defender needs all the metaphorical and literal uphill driving capabilities it can muster. 



Ignoring the philosophical debate as to whether the world needs a car like this (it does not), the new Defender ought to be considered a considerable - and unexpected - success. For unlike the new Mercedes G-Modell, it does not pretend to be an old car. Its retro design quotes the past, rather than trying to emulate it. For this reason, it is rather more palatable than the Mercedes, which claims not to be an homage, but the real thing. The Land Rover is far more honest about its nature and character. 

The new Defender was always bound to be a lifestyle device, rather than a blunt tool for farmers and UN troops - for better or worse. For that reason, its styling demands considerable sophistication, which Gerry McGovern and his team applied surprisingly diligently - after all, the fear that yet another Land Rover would become a bit too slick and sporty for its own good was self-evident, given the brand’s recent track record. This time around, however, McGovern et al struck just the right balance between style and utility, even if details like the (plastic and hence useless) wing tops next to the bonnet threaten to turn over the balance. 

To put the Defender into perspective, it can be compared with the R50-generation of the BMW-built Mini. It is very little to do with the original car, apart from a certain spirit and particular traits, and caters to a rather different clientele. Like that first New Mini, the New Defender’s design betrays superior craftsmanship, that in itself is rather rare in car design right now - Land Rover choosing to show the car mostly in matte colours, which could potentially betray any flaw in the car’s surfacing, speaks volumes. The designers involved obviously knew what they were doing. 

So from a purely stylistic point of view, the new Defender is simply excellent. And that includes its exterior, which - again - is not trying to emulate Range Rover-like glitz, but strikes a fine balance - also again - between hose-down flair and the kind of sophistication that is plainly required at the Defender’s price point.



If the Land Rover’s brand of retro design is exquisitely executed, yet hardly original, Hyundai proved that even within the realm of nostalgia, there is room for innovation. For the Hyundai 45 is among the first (concept) car designs that does not reference a cute/romantic design of the ‘50s or ‘60s, but the hard-edged aesthetics of the subsequent two decades, which were highly influenced by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s folded paper style. Conveniently, Il maestro had created one such design with the Hyundai Pony Coupé in 1974, which was good enough an excuse for the Korean brand’s designers to create a (very appealing) mash up that above all else resembles the Asso di Picche & Quadra concept cars, as well as the original Lancia Delta. The end result is a far better tribute to one of car design’s greats than anything his own (now VAG-owned) studio, Italdesign, have presented over the past decade. In conjunction with the charming pixel-themed light units front and rear, the Hyundai 45 caters to the nostalgia of the Stranger Things generation, who find the aesthetics of primitive digital imagery and strict geometries just as heart-warming as their parents did the round ‘eyes’ of a VW Beetle or Mini. The Hyundai 45 stands for the future of nostalgia.  

It is just a bit of a shame that Hyundai chose to not follow through with this theme, when it came to the interior. This is pleasant enough, but quite unrelated to the car’s exterior - a bit of a missed opportunity.



Apart from the Volkswagen brand’s electrification, a seemingly disproportionate amount of VAG’s efforts (and funding) seems to be going in the direction of Spain, where the Seat brand and its performance offspring, Cupra, are receiving much attention these days. In that context, the Cupra Tavascan concept car deserves a bit of attention, even though it is yet another take on the oxymoronic and already quite tired ‘performance SUV’ concept. 

Even without the shackles of having to use an existing Seat model as basis, the Cupra brand’s raison d’être remains rather nebulous, if the Tavascan is anything to go by. It is not unattractive in itself, but tribal tattoo-like logo apart, Cupra so far fails to offer anything truly novel to the automotive market. That being said, at least the Tavascan’s organic surfaces and balanced graphics (front excepted) do set this Cupra apart from the rest of the VAG mass market brands, whose design has been too similar for comfort lately. 

Of the Chinese brands attending the show, Byton stood out not only by its sophisticated corporate identity and show stand, but also the kind of product that - heritage apart - does not need to stand in the shadow of the establishment, certainly in design terms. The merits of the gigantic dashboard mounted screen are arguably limited to Autopilot driven commuting at slow speeds though - otherwise, the potential to distract from what lies ahead of the driver seems potentially troublesome. 

Wey, on the other hand, stood out not so much for its marketing’s willingness to exploit the brand name for a pun, but the slight clumsiness of the cars’ design. At least for the time being, it would appear, there is still some Wey to go…



Hongqi, China’s traditional luxury marque (established at the behest of Chairman Mao himself), made quite an entrance by way of one of the show’s most pompous show stands. Potentially to add a sense of mystery and intrigue on top of the loud grandeur, Honqui’s representatives remained almost absurdly tight-lipped when asked to share any additional information on the two cars on show. These vehicles, presented on bright red displays-used-as-flooring, were not overwhelmed by all that visual noise though, as both the E115 SUV and S9 supercar are decidedly flamboyant in their appearance. The E115 looks like a rebodied Lincoln Navigator that received a particularly glitzy, oriental style makeover. The S9, while being the complete opposite in terms of basic proportions, features an equally ornate form language. 

If a Rolls-Royce resembles the old world luxury of Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel, the Hongqis’ take is more in keeping with Macau’s rather ostentatious Grand Lisboa.



What surprises most about Hongqi’s bluntly oriental style is that the brand hired then-Rolls-Royce chief designer, Giles Taylor, a year ago, in order to have him set up a new studio in Munich. If the aim behind this move was to create cars whose excessively ornate design is destined to limit their appeal to Asian (and maybe certain Arabian) markets, Hongqi management can be applauded. If a wider global appeal was the motivation, their wisdom may well be put into question. 



At Opel, the first fruit of the takeover by PSA can be seen, in the shape of the new Corsa. This model, developed over an unusually short period of time and based on the Peugeot 208’s architecture, is stylistically quite in keeping with the previous models, still created under GM ownership. Its butch stance is the most obvious similarity to the 208, otherwise this Opel continues the brand’s recent trend of relatively subdued styling (fussy c-pilar apart), which makes the Corsa a competent, if not particularly outstanding offering.

Using a similar description for any recent BMW design would be rather charitable - as proven again at the Frankfurt show, where the intentionally nasty looking new X6 (which arrives just in time for a massive SUV backlash in its German home market), the overwrought-yet-anonymous new 1 series (deeply flawed in terms of its stance, surfacing and detailing - the kind of design that highlights the Opel Corsa’s competence) were surrounded by a few concept cars of variably unsatisfying quality. 



The oldest of the bunch, the BMW iNext originally unveiled more than a year ago, is the only one of these concept cars that can be described as truly professionally executed. Its surfacing lacks the kind of glaring flaws found elsewhere, just as there is a consistency to its graphics that is absent on the other BMW Studienfahrzeuge. The interior features an appealing colour palette and one of the more inviting takes on car interiors catering to autonomous driving capabilities. Unfortunately, iNext fails encapsulate the BMW brand in its traditional form at all, what with it being an SUV without obvious sporting pretensions - aggressive (and ill-proportioned) front graphics apart. Even the concept car’s relation to the BMW i sub-brand is tentative at best - rear light graphics excepted, none of the flowing, futuristic forms of the i3 and i8 models appear to be incorporated into the upcoming EV BMWs. Clearly, iNext’s form is intentionally far more blunt than its predecessors’, with a considerably harder-edged, heavier, more aggressive appearance as a consequence. 



This trait is shared with BMW M Next concept car, yet another retro take on the ‘70s M1 sports car. Rather unexpectedly, the M Next shares the basic theme - paying homage to Giugiaro’s folded paper design language - with the Hyundai 45, although obviously applied to an entirely different architecture and set of proportions. Even more unexpectedly, the Korean car is the far more sophisticated take on this theme. For despite its truly glaring neon orange colour accents and yet another ill-proportioned kidney grille graphic, the BMW cannot disguise its either rushed or simply sloppy execution. Where the Hyundai delights with crisp forms and expertly judged volumes, the BMW baffles with poor surfacing and graphics that could do with some more refinement. In the unofficial contest between this year’s Giugiaro homages, the M Next hence ranks a distant second place. In contrast to its predecessor-of-sorts, the i8 (a car that has been in production for five years already), M Next fails to convincingly constitute ‘the next step’ - it is the older, series production car’s aesthetic that appears fresher, more original, more sophisticated and daring in 2019. 



In what appears to be an internal race to the bottom contest at BMW design, it is the BMW Concept 4 that ends up the current champion. Presented in the shape of a rather crude, interiorless full-size model, this preview of the upcoming 4 series coupé proves that it is not just the overload of creases and lines that blights BMW’s current lineup stylistically. Concept 4 does without these, bearing significant similarity to the 8 series concept car of two years ago, just in somewhat cruder an execution - except for the frontal aspect, which takes the ‘Home Alone furnace’ kidney grille design BMW introduced recently onto another level. For not only is this grille even more absurdly proportioned than on the gargantuan X7 SUV, the overly complex mesh used is also utterly at odds with the grille’s outline (in the X7’s case, the graphics are at least consistent) - worst of all though, Concept 4’s front bears next to no relation to the rest of the car. 

While its sides and rear, as suggested by the Concept 8 overtones, bear the hallmarks of the tenure of former BMW brand chief designer, Karim Habib, the front appears like a more aggressive, more crass variant on the themes developed under the current incumbent, Domagoj Đukec. If this is indeed the case,  and the design received a facelift prior to its unveiling, then Vision 4 truly serves as an indication of what is to come under Đukec’s stylistic leadership. The design crisis at BMW is far from over.  



Unfortunately, the BMW Vision 4 did not mark the design nadir of this year’s Frankfurt motor show though. That questionable honour fell to Audi’s AI:Trail concept car, which is not merely aesthetically unsatisfying, but a bonafide affront to intelligence. 

As if using an off-road vehicle as a demonstrator for the possibilities of autonomous driving was not silly enough in itself, the Audi bears absolutely all the evidence of an overly eager, yet intellectually and creatively average student of automotive design trying to explore the concept in the form of a college thesis. Hence the (almost amusingly) clumsy amalgamation of large, production-unfeasible windows, utterly overwrought, yet unmemorable graphics and overstyled wheels on the outside. The interior, where straps and belts are supposed to convey outdoorsy adventure (and possibly distract from the complete absence of grab handles, which tend to be handy during off-roading), is no more satisfying, unfortunately. 



Even the graphics and branding on AI:Trail (including different typography for the Audi name, which could barely be less in keeping with the brand’s history and traditional design values) suggest a lack of deliberation that simply astounds. It is almost as though either Bavarian car maker is hellbent on destroying its respective design legacy - after all, what has been hard earned over decades can be all too easily destroyed over just a few years. 

Not too long ago, it would have been beyond imagination to expect a Mercedes concept car to be of greater merit than any effort from Ingolstadt. In 2019, however, the Mercedes EQS turns out to be the most intriguing of concept cars on show at Frankfurt- not so much for what it represents, but for the questions it poses. 



At face value, it is an inoffensive luxury saloon design that successfully takes into account the changes in proportions an EV platform entails - hence the lack of a long bonnet and prestige gap. Next to what Ingolstadt and Munich offer these days, its clean surfaces also appear rather pleasing. What is absent though is a strong identity - the two-tone bodywork is somewhat reminiscent of the (tainted) Maybach brand and the arched roofline, which originated from the original CLS and has since spread across the entire Mercedes range, is not quite as ‘iconic’ a feature as Mercedes like to believe. At the same time, the refusal to put the proud three-pointed star on the bonnet of what is supposed to be a top-of-the-line model remains a staggering choice, given this is the kind of ‘brand DNA’ any car brand would kill for - Mercedes needlessly threw it away. 

Instead, the EQS features the same kind of ‘virtual’ front end that was introduced with previous EQ concept cars and has since been adapted in tangible (and rather gaudy) form on the EQC production car.  Augmented on the EQS by holographic headlights, and rear lights made up of tiny three-pointed stars etched into the wings, it is quite literally the light units that turn this vehicle into a Mercedes-Benz. With the lights and projected ‘grille’ graphics switched off, the car would turn into an utterly anonymous automotive form, devoid of any specific brand insignia. Not unattractive, but completely expressionless. 

It is therefore the food for thought EQS serves that makes it such an interesting object to study: What defines a brand when the ‘hardware’ offered by all car makers is remarkably similar or even the same? The differences in automotive engineering are certainly converging, particularly when electric propulsion is employed. Similarly, there are few drastic differences these days in terms of design, even though the attention-seeking graphics, lights and other paraphernalia are an attempt to distract from this fact. EQS takes this to an extreme - its ‘Mercedes-ness’ is almost entirely a projection, turning it into a virtual brand. 

Allegedly, EQS’ interior is of a more traditional kind than its outside appearance. Unfortunately, Mercedes made it unnecessarily difficult to take a look at it during the show, owing to the Festhalle’s dim lighting and the car’s doors remaining closed for long stretches.



Even with plenty of caveats, the Frankfurt motor show suggests that the right questions are being asked right now, at least in some places - despite the execrable Audi concept car proving that the industry obviously still has too much money left to spend on frivolous nonsense. At the very least, the era of swivelling chairs and retractable steering wheels acting as supposed precursors to some far-flung future appears to be over. And if the environmental activists’ protests during the show, not to mention the very lively debate about the role of the SUV in large parts of the German media, ultimately help the industry focus on the challenges ahead, rather than indulge in its own grandiosity, it would be even better. 

The car show may be an old concept - and a rather poorly executed one at that, in the case of this year’s IAA. But there simply is no equal substitute to having large parts of the industry united for a limited period of time, to expose itself, discuss, compare and contrast. Just like the automotive industry, the car show needs to adapt - and deserves a future.  




©, all rights reserved


Christopher Butt


car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

Comment by R |

That was a scintillating read, your astute observations picking away the veneer of branding. I would like to prop up the Honda e as star pupil. Like the Fit and CRV, every ten years Honda shoves all their eggs into one basket, and commits utterly to it. Hence the mirrorless doors, integrated handle, flush-gazing -all things that would never otherwise get a look-in. These aspects reduce drag, which has the biggest impact on range, and meant Honda could adopt a smaller package. It is a pity that this 'iPod on wheels' (as it was presumably conceived) fails so earnestly in its screen and UI execution. I hope those sensible engineers have package-protected for a Byton screen when the cost dips.

I await my first encounter with the Defender, if only to confirm my suspicion that it is familiar mostly in terms of iconography. I would liked to have seen the sections have the crispness of the silhouette, for it strikes me there is a dab of Gerry's Freelander dampening its potential. A hair more Suzuki Jimny wouldn't have gone amiss.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Fair enough - the biggest mistake Honda made was to 'do a Jaguar C-XF' in the shape of the initial concept car, whose stance and some of the detailing were probably quite simply unfeasible. 

Admittedly, the (disappointing) second concept car prevented this production version from coming across like a disappointment itself. Instead, it's almost surprisingly satisfying for being so very close to that concept car, despite that design's lukewarm reception.

People, perceptions and expectations can make for a terribly convoluted state of affairs. 

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