Hybrids, small SUVs, sense of relief at Frankfurt

Porsche CEO Matthias Mueller presents the new 918 Spyder at the 65th Frankfurt Auto Show on Monday. More than 1,000 exhibitors will show their products to the public from Sept. 12-22. (AP/Frank Augstein)


Associated Press

The world’s automakers are showing off their shiniest, most advanced vehicles at the Frankfurt Auto Show, which opens this week. Among the 70 world premieres are a notable number of new cars powered either by batteries or hybrid gas-electric systems. There are also outlandish concept cars that flaunt technology and design but aren’t intended for sale.

It’s all spread over an area the size of about 32 soccer fields at the sprawling Frankfurt Messe . The show, held every other year, attracted 928,000 visitors in 2011. In the crowd this year wil be Gov. Nikki Haley, who’ll be looking to recruit jobs for South Carolina starting today.

Here’s what else to look for:

PLUGGED IN: The show has a slew of new battery-powered electrics and hybrids, which combine electric motors with internal combustion engines. But they also come with uncertain sales and profit prospects. Both types of car cost more, and pure electrics can give consumers “range anxiety,” or the fear of running out of power.

That fear is a reason that plug-in cars such as GM’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf have struggled to win market share in the U.S.. And gas hybrids are a tough sell in Europe, where people can get good mileage using cheaper cars running on diesel fuel.

WHEW, WE MADE IT: The mood at the show will be the recession is over “and we survived,” says analyst Christoph Stuermer at IHS Automotive. Sales in the U.S., a key market for automakers, are finally back to pre-recession levels and could reach 16 million this year. EU sales are headed for just under 12 million this year, far below the 2007 level of 15.6 million.

Still, there’s hope that sales have at least bottomed. The 17 countries that use the euro emerged from an 18-month recession in the second quarter.

SMALL SUVs: It’s a hot category as more manufacturers try to emulate the success of vehicles like the BMW X1, Opel Mokka and Dacia Duster. These SUV-styled vehicles have muscular styling and a higher seat for the driver, but are built on small-car platforms. Mercedes will unveil its GLA small SUV and Lexus will feature the LF-NX concept — using Toyota’s successful hybrid drive system.

CONNECTED CARS: Linking the car to the Internet, smart phones or GPS services is billed as a theme of the show. But there’s not a lot to see — yet.

One car on display, the new Mercedes S-Class luxury sedan, can already drive on its own in stop-and-go traffic to reduce driver fatigue, although it quickly reminds drivers to put their hands back on the wheel. Other carmakers are aiming for similar levels of driver assistance, but technological and legal barriers remain.

Still, even if all the trials go smoothly and regulators force manufacturers to adopt such technology, it could take years before it reaches the market.

Maybe something for the next Frankfurt Auto Show in 2015.