At every big auto show the spectacle of car company bosses being chased by hundreds if not thousands of hungry journos is the backdrop for a raft of new model and concept car introductions. It's all high drama mixed with slapstick comedy. Entertaining stuff.
And so it was this year at the biennial 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, a massive affair that sprawls over 11 different halls.
As Daimler was rolling out its new B-Class compact, we also heard talk of a Daimler tie-up with Nissan to share a small-car platform for the Infiniti brand. Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche and Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn have already inked an alliance, so this one makes some sense as a next step. Small-car economics are making for strange bedfellows in the car business.
Or what about suggestions that Volvo is thinking about building a new plant in North America? Ontario? Not a chance.
But Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby did hint at having a having "a North American industrial footprint," reported Bloomberg, even as the Chinese-owned Swedish car company is building a new plant in China. Yes, you need a scorecard to keep track of who owns what in this industry.
Same for the concept cars and Volvo had an interesting one. The Concept You hints at what Volvo officials mean when they say Volvo is moving up-market. The car has seatbacks tailored like grey flannel suits – very business-like – and is loaded with new technological ideas. For instance, the touch-sensitive central control panel in the cockpit stays in "sleep" mode until a driver stares at it. Infrared cameras that pick up visual cues, thus waking up the control panel.
Audi? The Volkswagen Group's money-printing premium brand rolled out some 10 new models at this show while also touting an increase in its worldwide sales forecast for 2011 to 1.3 million vehicles. That means Audi could pass Mercedes-Benz to become the world's No. 2 premium brand by sales, just behind BMW. Mercedes is expecting its global sales to come in at 1.25 million while BMW is shooting for 1.4 million.
The most interesting Audi unveiling? The A2 concept. Small and ideal for congested roads, the A2 is equipped with what Audi calls Semi-Autonomous Drive, which will inch the car ahead for you in stop-and-go traffic. There is little doubt Audi has an A2 in the works. But given the compact-sized A2 shown here lacks actual doors, a production-ready A2 seems a far off into the future.
Tata Motors' Jaguar Land Rover unit had two Land Rover Defender models on display, along with a Jaguar hybrid concept. Yet the new-model buzz was muted by speculation over why Carl-Peter Forster, the Tata Motors CEO, had just quit due to "unavoidable personal circumstances."
Jaguar's global sales have declined for six straight months just as JLR is planning to invest $2.4-billion annually in new models and new facilities in Asia, especially China, making Forster's departure a big, big deal.
Forster is the key architect of that plan to grow JLR's products and global footprint and he's now gone. In an industry where bosses are often outsized personalities, what does Forster's skedaddle mean for JLR? Perhaps a lot.
That said, Jaguar's C-X16 hybrid concept is a stunner: low, sleek, sexy and fast, this two-seater has a top speed of 299 km/h and suggests Jag has plans for a smaller sports car. High time, too.
Meanwhile, there is a new Defender coming in 2015 and hints of what that will look like are in the Land Rover DC100 concept. Don't rule out the next Defender coming to Canada, either. Now all JLR needs is a boss.
Volkswagen? The show floor was swirling with talk about Suzuki wanting a divorce from VW. Europe's largest car company has a 19.9 per cent stake in the Japanese maker, however Suzuki has reportedly offered to buy back that stake. But not so fast.
"Suzuki has not stuck to the agreement. We have pointed this out to them and now it is up to Suzuki to react. The contract did not say that you communicate via the press that you don't want to continue the partnership," Volkswagen CFO Hans-Dieter Poetsch told Reuters.
VW, of course, wants to become the world's best-selling auto maker by 2018 and has put together a sweeping collection of brands to get there. But even while VW was showing off its new family of small cars called Up, talk in Frankfurt was about the end of the partnership with Suzuki and trouble with VW's Porsche merger, too. VW said it won't complete its merger with Porsche in 2011 as planned.
Bloomberg reports that ongoing lawsuits and investigations against Porsche over accusations the car maker misled investors during a failed attempt to buy VW have VW looking at the tax implications of exercising an option to buy the 50.1 per cent stake in Porsche's automotive unit that it doesn't already own. That was the backdrop to Porsche unveiling the next-generation 911 here in Frankfurt.
Fiat? Any red-blooded male going to an auto show must head straight to the Fiat stand. Most auto makers have turned their displays into bland and wholesome visions of political correctness. Not Fiat. The Italian auto maker, which controls Detroit's Chrysler Group, is not afraid to sex up the show with scores of young female models – eye candy of the sort you'd find in all the auto shows a few decades ago.
Here, they were all around the high-performance Fiat Abarth 695 Competizione, which company officials say is coming to North America probably in 2012. Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne suggested to journalists that the car would likely be built in Mexico.
For pure chutzpah, it was hard to out-do Fisker Automotive, the nascent electric car company. During the show's press days, Fisker ran full-page colour ads in the pricey Financial Times, handing out copies on its stand even though the company has not sold a car, yet.
Meanwhile, CEO and chief designer Henrik Fisker unveiled the Surf wagon – another model to join the Karma in the company's lineup. Fisker is going into production thanks to a U.S. government loan of more than $500-million which has been matched, says Fisker, by another $600-million in private capital.
It takes guts to start a car company from scratch and then actually deliver. But that appears to be the case here.
The Karma, a four-seat battery-powered car with an on-board gas motor to extend the range much like the Chevrolet Volt, is going on sale in weeks for around $100,000. The Surf would have an electric-only range of 50 miles and an additional 250 miles when the gas engine is engaged.