If you wander round the 64th IAA international motor show, gazing at the major carmakers' elaborate, chic, cool and definitely high-end trade-fair stands, then the first thing you think of is: The future is white! The floor is white as good as everywhere. The walls are white. The decidedly short-cut dresses of the smart girls who pose next to the extravagant concept cars and the good old mass models are usually white. And many of the vehicles are white. Matter of fact, almost everything is white, as white as a piece of paper bereft of all writing, as pure as innocence. Even the energy that you simply have to expend to drive to enable us mobile contemporaries to get from A to B fast, comfortably and safely - is basically white, because energy is supposed to come out of the power socket or fuel cell colorless and if possible free of emissions. Here and there, you spot a powerful blue, a tender pastel light blue, a fresh green, a radiant yellow, an emotional red or a trace of valuable silver on a wall, ceiling or dress, simply for contrast's sake and depending on the corporate design of the corporation or marque on show. Green and white or blue and white look especially grand, of course. If one believes the staged IAA settings, then white is without doubt the color of the future of individual mobility.
Anyone on the look-out for innovations and visions on the morning of the first press day of the IAA will encounter a strange ritual. This is the day when all the press conferences are held, when with much pathos and confidence the corporation CEOs announce the latest models and the latest visions and then also serve up the latest wisdoms on the latest projects - by means of which the sector intends to win over the future. The sequencing of this collective evocation of tomorrow is very precisely timed. Which means that the whole day through a huge throng of pressmen and women, preferentially the international motor press (and here the women are still definitely in the minority) moves from hall to hall, from stand to stand. Even if images of the most important novelties have long since been published and the first tests driven, this certainly does not stop the veils now being ceremoniously lifted once again. Meaning that the brave new dreams made of aluminum and carbon fiber (and here and there an everyday vehicle made of sheet metal) wait patiently under the finest of fabrics for the ultimate unwrapping. And until the last speech has been made, the last drapes whipped off, the last disguise removed, the stars of the current automobile generation are not yet considered fully born. The press folders that are then distributed, the drinks that are then served are but the echo of this public birthing rite.
Learning from onions
While technology is being fine-tuned for efficiency, the core design issue reads: Is there too much or too little of it? Or, to be more precise: Is there too much styling and too little design? If you consider all the vehicles on parade, wooing buyers the world over, then it is fair to say over and above all questions of taste that today nothing is left to chance. In fact, even the most minute of details is shaped, corrected, improved and optimized by the particular design team. If the marketing department calls for youthful zest, then (as with the VW Beetle's "fender") there's a guitar amp in the trunk. If more sportiness is called for, then the tail of even the chunkiest set of mass-market wheels gets its own diffusor– or at least a fake that looks like one. Nothing new or surprising about this. What is new is the fashion of treating an automobile body like an onion, i.e., here and there peeling back one layer of the carbody. After all, nothing is as boring and disliked as smooth surfaces as they might give the impression something had been left undesigned.
This gets take to such extremes that for the two models in its new i-series (slogan: "Born electric") BMW has exposed the inner structure by opting for glass doors – something that unfortunately only looks half as good as is intended. And to make certain the client thus courted sees that everything is getting lighter, unlacquered engine hoods made of weight-saving composites are all the rage even for elegant models. That's not modesty whatsoever. The exercise serves primarily one purpose: to use design to show everyone what technology can do. In this way, a technoid expressionism responds at the level of design language to the undisguised faith in technology the engineers still have. Not that we have anything against technology. The progress made here is indeed immense, even if the general public, hysterical given the latest data on climate change, would prefer to see engineers hastening in seven-league boots from the combustion engine to the electromobility. But the fact remains that even in design a purely technical notion of future prevails, one that threatens to obscure all other visions. Like a good old carbody maker, the designer provides the right clothes: here close and sleek, there flowing; here massive and bulky, but always with a small curve in the metal sheet here and a little daylight running lamp indicator there – with yet another cubist facetted door here and a cheeky dent or a muscular bulge in the side there.
Wide, long flat, that's the latest vision for a hybrid class of luxury-end vehicles. They're a synthesis of luxury sportscar and station wagon, or of luxury limo and coupé. Not in the sense of a fastback or shooting brake based on existing models, but a hybrid made with a view to a new and reinterpreted car segment. Among others, Porsche showed the way with its big flagship Panamera. The key characteristic: All these giants are long, extremely flat and extremely wide. So cars are by no means only getting smaller, but larger too; and the newcomers are definitely not just bulky SUVs. While for many years the practice was to get out the pump, apply it to all the cars, and simply inflate the volumes, there's now a new design trend discernible. Flat and squeezed wide is the new flavor for the luxury segment. After all, difference needs to be visible. As regards the sheer dimensions of these concept vehicles, they now and then bring to mind the massive luxury limos of the 1930s and 1940s with their enormous engines.
Future-oriented studies often try to wing their way into tomorrow. There's hardly any self-respecting design team in this segment that still sticks with conventional doors. With the new mega-class movers often almost the entire side of the carbody swings upward - with some of them in the form of huge double doors. Evidently it's not just that red bull in a can that gives you wings, as the car designers obviously also need that upward momentum in order to orchestrate interiors shaped to be as airy as dirigibles, lifting off into the land of our future dreams. B-columns? Passé. Such designs are clearly fueled not only by the need for extravagance. As today it would seem that the load-bearing sections of a car can be created with such rigidity as to simply omit the annoying central column.
There are plenty of examples: Worthy of mention is the Mercedes F 125! (a smart strategist stuck the exclamation mark not only behind the 125! years, but also behind the number of the latest concept car), the Peugeot "HX1", the Fisker "Surf" and (with a stronger element of the sportscar about it) the Aston Martin "One 77". Finally, not as a taste of tomorrow but as the flavor of today, there's the Ferrari FF. And as regards monster wing doors, we shouldn't forget the Citroën "Tubik", which is albeit the product of a completely different mindset. If one considers the hood sections, then almost all these flat guys boast a wide shark-like radiator grille, the one with a bit more of a smile, the other flashing its teeth and all of them would not doubt bite hard the moment you see them in your rearview mirror.
The Mercedes F 125!, with or without the exclamation, is destined to be not only a premium GT limousine of the next generation but one, i.e. ready to roll as of about 2025. The technology it utilizes could, if one believes what Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche proclaims, change the industry radically. About five meters long, featuring four seats and two huge wing doors made of a fiber composite, it relies on a fuel cell, a lithium-sulfur high-voltage battery and an electric engine for each wheel - delivering a total of 231 horsepower - and a completely new user system. Mercedes is hoping to store the hydrogen which the fuel cell then transforms into electric energy, in a completely new way, namely in a so-called structurally integrated composite storage unit. This bulky technical term is the gloss for a kind of metal sponge in which the hydrogen can be stored. Together with the power from the batteries, the F 125 is expected to have a radius of about one thousand kilometers per charge. Or take the Fisker "Surf" - which, as its name suggests, not only surfs through the wind and across the countryside but, so the brochure says, is "the world's first electro-luxury sportscar for an active and ecofriendly lifestyle". NB: When it comes to luxury, the continental drift has only just started and now large false slabs are moving in the direction of those who can afford these new efficiency toys.
What strikes one about the aesthetics of these luxury limos, be it of the present or the future, is primarily that they are flat and immensely wide. They look very squat and are impressive if only because of their sheer size. If we ignore for the moment that a very flat car seems sporty but getting into it is not exactly comfortable and cannot always be achieved as graciously as might be desired, then the real negative is the disadvantages when it comes to maneuvering. So who in their right mind would wish to steer one of these round or down a tight carpark ramp? We already know that the four-seater Ferrari FF, which is 1,953 millimeters wide, already has trouble at roadworks on German autobahns, as the left lane is then reduced to only two meters in width. Add to the width the flowing form. Polished like a pebble in a river or flowing like water between two cliffs, these massive vehicles duck to avoid the wind. Peugeot adds an edgy spoiler to its "HX 1" pebble and has the headlights pop out like dangerously sharp blades – something that of course is a far cry from a mass-produced version. Will the premium segment or the future really be that wide? We will see. And what is certainly true is that not only does time heal wounds it also corrects the one or other exaggeration.
Tubik, the racing pig
For decades, the corrugated iron shed on wheels that was the Citroën H type (built from 1947 to 1981) shaped the face of French marketplaces and crafts trades, guaranteeing the provision of basic transport automobiles; and now it's morphed into a luxury transporter in the form of the "Tubik", which looks quite a bit like a racing pig. Needless to say, the designers went over the top when transforming the poor old tin box into something new. All the same, the monster with the radiant blue radiator grille has an astonishingly extreme shape. The design approach is highly original, albeit not pie in the sky for Citroën. It's all very simple essentially: You take a metal pipe that is somewhat rectangular and stick a white front on it and a white rear, too, and then trim it all to be a martial in appearance. As you like it!
The rest of the ideas are reasonable, and, inevitably, hybrid or electrified. There's not all that much new to be reported here in the way of design. Not yet, or so we hope. Or should I refer again to the Mercedes F 125? Mia, Mia, and not 'miaow miaow' or even 'smart, smart' is what you hear when it comes to practical and ingenious electromobility in an urban radius of about 100 kilometers. Because the French mini microbus "Mia" is practical, with a single seat up front, well thought out and surprisingly not vain. And the Smart "Forvision", which aesthetically speaking is a bit too toy-like, has the one or other clever detailed solution. For example the ventilators integrated into the rear lights, which (driven by power from the solar cells in the roof) if required suck hot air out of the interior. Will the new single or two-seater urban racers of roofed-scooters (as you like it: from Audi, VW, Opel or Renault) win out at the end of the day against electric bikes or scooters? Again, time will tell.
The past and new futurism
One thing becomes clear at this 64th international motor show: The car has by no means reached the end of the road. Not only because the auto industry is large and powerful and indispensible to the economy, but because it is likewise innovative and flexible. The new futurism being propagated is fast, clean and social. Meaning: white. To put it differently: The future has never before been designed at such expense, and nevertheless remains a white sheet, with no writing on the wall. Perhaps soon less design will become more design. Then those workhorses will have a new chance that have survived from an age when there really was dirt on their wheels and now appear like so many fossils in a white-washed future that we still definitely have to achieve will. One of them is still to be found on the Land Rover stand. Upright, hard-edged, full of rivets: the Defender. An honest option down to the last bolt. A war child, like so many other things. Next it, under the cypher DC100 poses the first study for its successor. And it is quite a successful beau. But lacks two things: character and tenacity. But that's a different story.