With the continent’s new car sales in the doldrums, one has to question how European carmakers can afford to stomach an extravagant party, when the industry has been putting itself on an painful diet. Yet, can it justify a non-attendance? Last week’s Frankfurt Motor Show might have been well attended but I hope that the visitors did not share my pangs of disappointment. While 2013’s new car launch diary has been packed so far, the pace has slowed down somewhat and the show’s displays reflected a motor industry that, beneath the PR gloss and spin, appeared to have little left to say, at least, for the remains of this year.
Although plenty of new cars were launched, very few of them raised the pulse of jaded onlookers. The Mazda3, the SEAT Leon ST, the Lexus GS 300h, Kia’s Soul, Peugeot’s new 308, the Civic Tourer from Honda, Nissan’s X-Trail, plus Skoda’s Yeti and Rapid Spaceback all made their first European public appearances but, while they are all worthy and capable vehicles, I failed to share the enthusiasm of their PRs. Porsche’s bit-by-bit revealing of the 918 Spyder over the past few years spoiled its eventual debut for me. You can only tease a man so much, before he becomes disinterested.
Vauxhall tried to promote its motley offering as ‘epic’ but a face-lifted Insignia and a few new engines are hardly crowd-wooing. Yet, I found that its Monza coupe show car (pictured) was one of the most striking and handsome concepts of the entire show. Only Volvo’s stunning concept coupé could have rivalled it. For me, they both eclipsed the over-hyped (and somewhat obvious) announcement that Jaguar was to build an SUV. Perhaps due to patriotic pride, rather than actual merit, the British motoring press festooned its front pages with images of the clinically-named C-X17, just as it did after Bentley previewed its SUV concept car last year. While Jaguar quoted prices of £35,000, for the toned-down production reality version, I wonder how relevant is quoting a Sterling price tag. Clearly, the Asian markets are being targeted, especially as Jaguar sales have risen by three digit percentage figures in those regions last month. I only hope that is has better interior packaging than the XJ saloon, with which the C-X17 shares some styling cues.
With the dust settling over the Frankfurt Motor Show, the main safety message that I gleaned was also unsurprising, in that we are all surplus to requirements. As driver error is responsible for most incidents, technology is trying to make up for our judgement and skill inadequacies. Although some technologies that ‘take over’ from the driver have been with us for many years, such as anti-lock braking, skid control, brake assist, auto-brake and even auto-park functions, the driverless car might be imminent. Yet, the Vienna Convention, on road traffic, would have to be altered, so that ‘drivers’ could avoid prosecution for not being in full control of their vehicles, when their hands are not touching the steering wheel. Interestingly, this aspect of the European law is being reviewed later this month, meaning the arrival of self-driving cars could be with us sooner than we think.
Meanwhile, Honda has been working on improving the safety of careless pedestrians, where an approaching vehicle can send a message to the ambler’s smartphone, to warn them that an impact is imminent. This will be accompanied with on-screen warnings from within the car and, no doubt, irritating ‘bongs’ that will drive an average driver crazy. Unless, of course, the car is on ‘auto-pilot’. My primary worry is that the technology will serve to make us more reliant on nannying electronics, at the expense of driver skill, and that could pose an even bigger problem for the future. At least it created an interesting debate for visitors to a show that, overall, lacked real sparkle.