Road Cars

Don’t ask why because I’ve never been able to figure it out for myself, but every motor show I have been to has had a flavour, a pervading theme so strong you’d almost think the manufacturers had all sat down together and planned it that way. When in the May issue I reported back from the annual Geneva bash, I’d just been to a show where more brand new supercars had been unveiled than in any other I can remember. The walls were dripping with high-octane exotica, the floors heaving with goggle-eyed hacks hailing a new era of high-performance motoring. What a difference half a year makes.

While Geneva’s head soared through the clouds, Frankfurt’s feet were anchored to the ground by concrete wellies. It was not entirely devoid of machinery for those wanting something to ogle, but the essential tone of the show was businesslike and realistic. And for that I liked it more than I’d expected.

We’ll deal first with what few glamour pusses did dare show their faces in Frankfurt, not least because, for all the worthiness there was, we have to face the fact that history will remember it at the show where only the third all-new generation of Porsche 911 was unveiled and where Jaguar finally got around to showing us the new E-type (top).

And so far as these two cars are concerned, it’s sighs of relief all round. The Porsche is an excellent piece of work – sleeker and cleaner than its predecessor as well as faster, lighter and more spacious, though we’ll be waiting a couple more months to find out what it’s actually like a ‘911’ badge on the back. Though the odd limited edition has carried the moniker, it’s not been on a mainstream model since the ’70s, and its reappearance now seems almost tautological.

The Jaguar is lovely, too, Ian Callum’s best work since the DB7. As badly-kept secrets go, the fact that it will go into production next year is up there with Blair and Brown not always seeing eye to eye. The funky side-opening rear hatch won’t make it into showrooms, however, along with some of the more extreme elements of the interior, but 95 per cent of what you see is what will go on sale for between £55-70,000.

And with a specification including a 380bhp supercharged V6 coupled to a hybrid electric drive to give a 0-60mph time of little more than 4sec, but with the low emissions and fuel consumption of a hot hatch, I’d say Jaguar may just be onto something.

Over on the Italian side Ferrari showed the Spider version of the 458, one of those rare instances where a convertible actually looks better than the already gorgeous coupé upon which it’s based, while Lamborghini showed a ‘stradale’ version of its Super Trofeo race car.

But I found at least as much to be enthused about among the more modest offerings. Volkswagen’s three-cylinder Up! is no longer the rear-engined revolution the original concept promised to be (it was abandoned for cost reasons), but it looks good, is remarkably well packaged and is currently making a lot of other car manufacturers very nervous.

Though seen as a city car it’s worth bearing in mind that it is more spacious than the previous generation of Polo, and with hybrid, electric, GTi, five door and who knows how many other variants on the way thanks to its almost infinitely adaptable platform, it would be a braver man than me who bet against its likely success.

Over the road, Audi showed sporty ‘S’ versions of the A6, 7 and 8, but it said much for the mood of the show that all eyes were on the little A2 concept car which, when offered in production form, will rival BMW’s carbon-bodied i3 which was also drawing the crowds in Frankfurt. These cars may be small, but they most definitely won’t be cheap, offering extreme levels of technology including electric power-trains and aluminium space-frame construction for the Audi and carbon-fibre reinforced plastic bodywork for the BMW.

Both appeared to capture the mood of the show quite brilliantly.

Others, however, did not. One of the most important cars at least to a British audience was the new Honda Civic, which turned out to look much like the old Honda Civic. But while that car was a bolt from the blue with its avant garde styling, the novelty has long since worn off. Disappointing too is the retention of a torsion beam rear axle while every one of its strongest competitors now boasts independent rear suspension. And no mention of any Type-R version in the pipeline.

SEAT, too, appears to be no closer to finding an identity for itself. While sister brand Škoda showed a production-destined concept called Mission L, a neatly judged saloon to sit between the Fabia and Octavia, SEAT’s slightly odd-looking crossover four-door coupé is indicative of nothing other than a potential future design direction for VW’s most troublesome marque. What it needs is clearly focused product now, not ‘finger in the air’ concepts.

Talking of which, no finger was more firmly waving around in the breeze than Land Rover’s, whose DC100 was its first public stab at trying to define a look for the car that will replace the Defender in 2015. Statistically the Defender is not big business for Land Rover; in fact with annual sales now below 20,000 units you might call it small fry. But Land Rover is acutely aware that there is hardly a thing you could do on the product side more likely to damage the brand as a whole than mess up its replacement.

The Defender isn’t a Land Rover, it is Land Rover. If the manufacturer had been hoping to cause a sensation, as it had with the LRX which became the Evoque with little modification, it must have been disappointed. If, however, it’s aim was merely to encourage debate, then the DC100 hit all its marks. Opinion swung wildly from those who adored it to those who dismissed it out of hand.

And this is the problem it faces: these days it seems a car has to do little more than oversteer for motoring hacks to accord it iconic status, but if any car made today deserves the title, the Defender is it. The LRX/Evoque had nothing to replace so there was no weight of expectation upon it. On the contrary everyone has a view of what a new Defender should be, including me.

I still own and use the Land Rover I passed my test in nearly 30 years ago and I’d hate the new one to be some fluffy fashion statement. If ever there were a car in which form must follow function surely this is it. What is needed should be simple, bewilderingly versatile and unrivalled off-road: a working tool, not a style statement of any sort. That will be a car which will appeal to the farmers, soldiers, peace-keepers and public servants around the world who have kept the Land Rover in production these past 63 years. And the very authenticity this brings is what will enthral the fashionistas too and ensure the new car is, if not quite so long-lived as the original, then at least assured a long, successful and productive life.

Andrew Frankel