Bertha Benz looked pretty good for a 160-year-old. She and I were cruising around the square next to the Frankfurt motor show, our transport an 1886 Benz motorised tricycle of the type she drove 180km from Mannheim to Pforzheim, and back again, in 1888.
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The Benz's single-cylinder engine chuffed every 10 yards or so as Bertha recounted the tale of the world's first long-distance car drive, undertaken without her husband Karl's knowledge to prove that his invention really worked. The only tools needed were a hatpin to unblock the carburettor and a garter to insulate a bare wire; benzine was bought at a chemist's en route.
OK, so the Benz was a replica, as was Bertha. But it was a fine advertisement for the world's oldest carmaker at its home show, contrasting nicely with the Mercedes-Benz F700, a concept car neatly encapsulating much of what has happened in the 121 years since Benz's tricycle.
The F700 is a large luxury saloon, a kind of future S-class, but powered by a four-cylinder engine of just 1.8 litres. It's a Diesotto engine, which runs on petrol but, under light loads, causes the petrol to self-ignite under pressure, as diesel fuel does. Add a two-stage turbocharger and a hybrid electric-drive system, and you have a spectacularly clean, economical saloon with the pace of an S350 or an S320 CDI. It also has Pre-Scan suspension, which uses laser scanners to analyse the road ahead. In theory, this should provide the perfect ride.
This is almost the stuff of sci-fi. There was more such optimistic futurism to be found among the "plug-in", mains-rechargeable hybrid concept cars on show, ranging from a new version of the Toyota Prius with extra battery capacity, through the handsome, six-door Opel Flextreme to perhaps the most intriguing of all, the Volvo ReCharge. Based on the C30 hatchback, this Volvo has an electric motor within each wheel and no separate brakes – that task being performed by the motors themselves.
It has a lithium-polymer battery back tolerant of overcharging, which fits nicely with what is emerging as a significant benefit of plug-in hybrids. Power stations have to generate electricity all the time, but at night a lot of the energy goes to waste. So plug-in hybrid cars could be used as energy-storage devices that could feed electricity back in to the national grid during the day if they are not being used.
Owners could be paid for this returned electricity, which could be offset against the cost of the electricity used to power the car – one full charge of which can power the Volvo for 60 miles at 60mph without involving the 1.6-litre petrol/bioethanol engine. "We could have a car like this in production by 2015," says its engineering director, Ichiro Sugioka. " The harder part is to work out the costs and benefits with the energy suppliers and tax authorities."
You will have guessed by now that there was a very strong green theme at Frankfurt. Even BMW's imminent X6, a kind of fastback coupé version of the X5 SUV, was revealed as a hybrid, while Audi's new A4 also appeared with a hybrid version in attendance. But only Peugeot showed a near-production-ready example of what seems, to the European mind, the most obvious idea of all: a diesel hybrid.
So far, hybrids have had a strong American and Japanese flavour, markets that up to now haven't favoured diesels. But in European high-speed motorway use, a petrol/electric hybrid emits as much CO2 as a good diesel car, and its green advantage is lost. Combine a diesel engine with hybrid electric drive, however, and extraordinary efficiency is possible: Peugeot claims average CO2 emissions of just 90g/km for its 308 HybridHDI.
A very different sort of 308 was the RCZ two-seater coupé, a good-looking rival for Audi's TT and likely to reach production. Renault's coupé version of its Laguna is even closer to reality; as striking as the Laguna hatchback is underwhelming, it will be on the market within a year and all versions will have four-wheel steering. BMW showed the new coupé version of its 1-series, too.
Back to greenery, and it was a great year for small cars. Ford's Verve concept showed how next year's new Fiesta will look with a rising waistline and a visual excitement absent from the current car. Its underpinnings are similar to the new Mazda 2's, but the production car will have a higher roof than the Verve and will lack the concept car's frameless door windows.
Its arch-rival, Opel/Vauxhall, revealed a tall, curvy, new Agila, to be built in Hungary and sold also as the Suzuki Splash, and, two years on from the Countryman concept's first show appearance, Mini launched the production version, the Clubman. This Mini estate car has a narrow rear passenger door on the right-hand side only, which has angered those of us who think that a car with a British badge, a British ancestry and which is built in a British factory should be optimised for right-hand drive, not left-hand drive. But BMW, the parent company, reckons there are advantages either way – besides which, the fuel filler's position (on the left) is the immutable, deciding factor.
The Clubman is very big for a "small" car, and not very mini at all. The real mini-cars were the concepts shown by VW and Toyota: the up! and the iQ. The first of these is the car the Smart ForFour should have been, a square-tailed, snub-nosed, deeply appealing four-seater with a rear-mounted three-cylinder engine and a boot space in the right-hand half of the nose. It's more than a flight of fancy; production is a strong possibility, and your correspondent spent quite a lot of time answering market research questions when cornered on the stand.
Toyota's iQ is an even shorter car, under three metres long and nominally a two-seater, although an extra adult and child could be squeezed in. Designed in France, on the principles of "vibrant clarity" and " perfect imbalance", the iQ is a cute idea. But out of the two, my money's on the up! (no humour intended).
At motoring's opposite end, Jaguar's shapely new XFs drew the most crowds of any Frankfurt show stand while nearby, Aston Martin's DBS – all 510bhp of it – split opinion as to whether it looked fabulously racy or merely a DB9 with an excess of bodykit. Its visual extravagance couldn't compete with that of the Lamborghini Reventon, though, a ¿1m reinterpretation of the V12 Murciélago of which all 20 examples have been sold. Its artfully creased carbonfibre body, finished in satin-finish sparkly grey, is said to be inspired by an F16 fighter.
One final note on inspiration. The Chinese company Shuanghuan showed an SUV called CEO and a smaller one called UFO, inspired respectively by the BMW X5 and Toyota RAV4. So great was the inspiration that they were near-perfect copies – and on BMW's home turf, too. The lawyers are limbering up right now.
62nd International Motor Show, Frankfurt, until Sunday; www.iaa.de
Motoring editor Carl Reader introduces our three-page report from the Frankfurt show
'Any colour you want, as long as it's black", that was Henry Ford's mantra as the motor car emerged from its cocoon. But a glance around Frankfurt's massive show complex would confirm that any new idea that blossoms must now enter the world dressed in the purest white.
Manufacturers were falling over themselves to put on the stands a " colour" that brings out all the environmentalist elements of their creations – from Ford's Kuga, Fiat's 500, Renault's striking Laguna Coupé concept to Saab's entire "Superman's fortress of solitude" stand.
Even if the car wasn't in white, the German über-babes preening next to them invariably were – taken to an extreme by Fiat's presentation of the new 500. Looming over one side of a massive hall is a 500 that could possibly have been conceived by the Goodies. In and out of this tunnel of love run the little 500s on a fairground track, with passengers guided in by mini-skirted Barbarella babes. Having glided inside to see some film clips, you emerge at the back of the giant 500 to have your picture taken and in leaps another glamourpuss to share the moment that Fiat then uploads to its website so that your wife can see what a hellish time you're having at the show.
Pretty it might be, but the overwhelming whiteness is not just a skin-deep thing. The manufacturers have a bewildering array of engines out there – hybrid petrol, hybrid diesel, hydrogen, electric and on and on – but clearly, some are not going to last the course. While it's going to be some time before the crowd clears, there are other ways of making life greener.
Gilles Vidal at Citroë* came up with a striking response in the form of the C-Cactus which, along with the sleek, purposeful Airspace, turned more than few heads. The C-Cactus looks as if it has been battered by an ice-cream scoop, great gouges taken out of its sides, door handles and wheels. Panels used on the front are replicated on the back and the rear lights are completely transparent.
Inside, the dashboard has gone, with all of its previous furniture neatly arranged on the fixed hub of the steering wheel. The door panels have been cut away, and even the seats have been hacked at and hollowed out. The result is a lightweight, low-consumption vehicle on almost every level. Weighing in at 1,180kg, with a hybrid HDi drivetrain C-Cactus consumes 2.9litres per 100km for CO2 emissions of 78g/km. With a significant number of parts recycled or recycleable, this could all come for the price of a C4.
Vidal, who has 12 years under his belt at Citroë*'s design studios, said: "You have to look at the whole process of producing a car. We used 200 fewer parts in the cab – the doors are just two panels – and that means less time in the factory, less energy used.
"There are other ways of saving money. White paint is the cheapest, for instance, so the car is white. If you don't paint the doors it's even cheaper and looks graphically interesting . We wanted to go as far as we could. The design is maybe 50 per cent led by imposed conditions, but we didn't feel compromised. This is more than a styling exercise."
The Korean maker is keeping up the pace with style and practicality, says Sean O'Grady
Talk to people at Kia and you'll soon find out what their "problem" is. It's getting people to take the brand seriously, even though they've made a good deal of progress on that front in recent years. People who get behind the wheel of a Kia usually like it, or at least don't treat it with the same disdain they would have done without that hands-on, open-minded experience. If they could get a few more punters through the doors of the showrooms and on to their show stands, then they'd see how far Kia has come.
Well, now Kia has a design director, Peter Schreyer, with long experience at Audi and a mission to build into future Kia products something of that marque's traditional solidity and style. He's been given a new design centre in Frankfurt to play with as well. The Kee coupé concept car, unveiled at the Frankfurt show, let's us have a little glimpse into Kia's future.
From the front, it resembles a smaller version of the Opel/Vauxhall GTC concept shown at Geneva in the spring. From the sides and rear it's a sort of toned-down supercar, a baby Audi R8, if you will. It all hangs together well, and is another statement that the company is breaking the mould and leaving behind for ever, we hope, those gargoyle faced curiosities that used to find their way to our shores. (Actually, the gargoyle-faced monstrosities often offered comfort and outstanding value for money, but there were usually few takers. SsangYong is the new ugly face of Korean motoring, should you still be interested in making children cry as you drive past.)
A decade ago the company, then South Korea's third-largest car manufacturer, was bust. Indeed, its failure in July 1997 was a key factor in the unfolding Asian financial crisis, a precursor of the present credit crunch. Hyundai took over in 1998, but wisely kept the brand's identity separate, a strategy that has probably allowed the enlarged group to enjoy combined sales greater than if Kia had simply been slowly allowed to wither away. Kia was allowed to set about rebuilding itself, and it continues to do so.
The Sedona people carrier always did respectable business, as did the little Picanto, promoted by a clever ad campaign featuring little animated folk. However, the breakthrough, as far as European customers are concerned, is the move to build and design cars in Europe, with a new factory in Slovakia. The curiously named Kia cee'd hatch was first evidence of that progress. The name refers to its roots in the European Union ("CE" being the French abbreviation of European Community, the older name for our happy band of nation states), and is meant to suggest that it will indeed be the " seed" of future success.
It is a good car; it feels lighter than its well established European rivals such as the Golf and Focus, and has an old fashioned (in a good sense) air of liveliness about it. It is, in short, very good to drive in petrol or diesel forms, and the evidence of European sourcing of interior trim is all around you in the tasteful cabin.
The five door hatch launched last year has been joined by an estate with the slightly jarring badge of "Sporty Wagon". Not as odd a moniker as that carried by the Chinese "Jac Binjoy" I encountered recently, but embarrassing enough.
Slightly better for pub talk is the "pro_cee'd", the official name of the three-door hatch launched at Frankfurt last week. Whether the underscore makes it on to your DVLA registration document will be interesting to see. Like the Vauxhall Astra and the Citroë* C4, with the cee'd Kia has decided to give its three-door variant a more rakish, sexy look, distinct from its more sober-sided five-door sibling.
It' s lost some of the nicer touches seen on the earlier pro_cee'd concept car, such as the wild alloy wheels and delicately crafted pull-out door handles – presumably as production realities supervened. Nonetheless, and without the benefit of driving it yet, it seems an outstanding effort. It should earn critical acclaim.
The brutal truth, however, is that while in any normal year the cee'd might be a realistic contender for the European Car of the Year award, this year it looks like a shoo-in for the Fiat 500, with the Jaguar XF as a side bet. The Fiat is just a revamped Panda with a fat price tag, and the Jag is a rebodied S-Type. The cee'd is arguably the more significant and novel car, but the Panda melts your heart and the Jag still has a gorgeous interior.
Kia needs Herr Schreyer to build Kia something that combines these qualities – and has a seven-year warranty thrown in. The rate it's going, it will be done.
62nd International Motor Show, Frankfurt, until Sunday; www.iaa.de