The good and bad of motorshows, and why your VW might be a lie

This past week has seen the Frankfurt Motor Show reveal several oddities, chief among them the Mercedes-Benz IAA concept car which is, for all intents and purposes, a shape-shifting automobile that is more like Captain Nemo’s weekend runabout and less of a car I’d actually want to drive.

The back end seems straight off the Nautilus’ original design sketches and its absurdly marine silhouette both thrills and terrifies in equal parts. And “shape-shifting” is not just a random adjective thrown in to increase the word count, this car actually changes shape on demand; and it has been billed as the most aerodynamic vehicle ever built.

Not so much the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. Just eye-balling this vehicle one can learn several things about it: it is not cheap, it does not look very aerodynamic, it won’t change shape (unless you crash it) and… it was at KICC. Yes, someone put an SLS AMG on display at the recent Total Motorshow to satisfy the dark desires of those in the petrolhead community who have the will but lack the way.

Oddly enough, unlike the IAA Fish-Car in Frankfurt, the local SLS was not displayed by Mercedes-Benz (or their licensee franchise CFAO DT Dobie), it was in a completely unrelated display terminal. The Mercedes stand had run-of-the-mill cars with normal shapes and normal power outputs for normal people.

Here is the thing about motorshows: most participants have themes that they try to highlight by means of a standout display object (such as the IAA). There are those who focus on green energy, others on performance, yet others on design language; on the whole most of them also display concept cars but all these things invariably add up to one thing: they point in the direction the companies or entities are heading or want to head. They are a projection of future things or manifestations of company policy.

The KMI Total Motorshow of 2015 could also be billed as the most petrolhead-friendly yet. The following is a run-down of what was there, and what probably wasn’t.

Someone put an SLS AMG on display at the recent Total Motor Show to satisfy the dark desires of those in the petrolhead community who have the will but lack the way. PHOTO | COURTESY

General Motors

Not so much the locals. General Motors had a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on display; which was a good thing for those who have never seen a Camaro outside of a Transformers movie; but who is it for? What does it mean? Will GM sell the Camaro — which is available only in left-hand drive, just so you know — locally? Are they changing tack, switching from their hugely successful commercial vehicle operations to a performance bent with a focus on supercharged V8s?

If so, where are the SS cars? If not, what was the whole point of bringing a car they either cannot or will not sell here? If it was to attract a crowd, does this mean the rest of their lineup is as captivating as a bowl of white rice and just as bland that they have to bring a red-hot-chili-pepper Camaro (the Camaro WAS red, just so you know) to colour things up a little or else risk zero exposure due to lack of interest? What was the theme here? They didn’t see Porsche display a 918 Spyder, did they?

(*Update: it turns out that General Motors will sell you a Camaro if you ask. The pricing is unclear but unreliable sources threw figures like “Sh40 million” in my direction, which is ridiculous. I’d expect it to sell at a quarter of that price.)

They did have a heavily breathed-upon D-MAX though, an off-road monster that looked both willing and capable of monstering the Rhino Charge, but flash as this vehicle looked, it could not hold a candle to the Camaro is sheer presence and attraction. That Camaro now has more fingerprints on it than the entire Interpol criminal database.

 

Porsche

They had a really comely 911 Carrera Targa GTS going for well over Sh20 million. It found a buyer, a young man who proved that clearly the rest of us are not working hard enough with our lives. He is 24 (reportedly); and he left the rest of us mulling pensively over how much money we don’t have. The rapidly-expanding SUV range was present too, manifest in the shapes of the Macan and the Cayenne.

 

Jaguar Land Rover

Right next to Porsche was the Jaguar Land Rover stand. Nothing here that I haven’t seen befo… Holy smoke! is that an SVR Range Rover Sport? Why yes, it is! Before those not in the know start wondering why I would get all giddy about an SUV I have driven before, let me just clarify a few things. There is a Range Rover Sport, which I have driven. Then there is a Range Rover Sport SVR, which I have NOT driven, but I’d love to. The answer can be summed up in six characters: 542bhp.

More familiar to this writer was the Jaguar XE that I drove and reviewed extensively not too long ago. It was like saying hello to an old friend; and it was also a reminder that I should write more articles. For the lovers of all things snazzy, there was an F Type on show too.

 

Subaru

Well, well, well, what have we here? A brand new WRX STi; or “an Evo knockoff” in Queen’s English. Given the masses that this fire-breathing chariot attracted, perhaps I do not fear for my life as much as I should be. All these fans; in their dozens, and scores and hundreds just milling about appending their signatures on the wall and secretly thinking “If I get my hands on one of these, I will give that Baraza guy something to write about; the idiot”. I don’t hate Subarus. I just don’t like them that much, though I may buy one in the foreseeable future. Life is full of paradoxes.

Toyota

Toyota had extremes on display. There was the dipsomaniac LX570 Lexus on the upper end (asking price: Sh25.5 million) and the Prius on the other; painted green just to remind us that it is a “green” car; if not in colour then at least in character. The Lexus lay outside of my financial scope, the Prius lay outside of my curiosity scope and there was no GT86, so time to shuffle on…

The bus business

In the commercial vehicle section there was a young upstart in the form of a MAN bus (the 26.310 also known as an HB4, I think). The bus is very similar to the Scania vehicles that have received high praise in these pages over the years in that the engine develops 310hp and 1550Nm of torque, exactly like the Scania F310. It is also available with a full adjustable air suspension, again like the F310 though this suspension setup is not commonly used locally, the air suspension being reserved for the driving axle only in the Scania; and again only on the tri-axle vehicle. The MAN comes with airbags all round. That is where the similarities end: while the Scania “only” has a 6-speed manual transmission, the MAN boasts a 12-speed automatic which should prove superior in terms of performance and fuel economy; but this cannot be decided on paper, we have to see how the vehicle performs in the real world.

While it may not be entirely fair to compare the Total Motorshow to the Frankfurt affair, it is only appropriate to set high targets. Perhaps the Total Motorshow could think of expanding? Apparently, there was a scuffle for slots inside the KICC Plenary Hall, which means the show should not be short of content. While the KICC grounds provide a convenient and presentable ground, space is becoming an issue. It may be time to move on.

I have a few complaints, the first being: why accord certain individuals special access credentials if said credentials are just going to be revoked at the gate and the right of parking judged on the car you drive? I was summarily dismissed from the service entrance by the racist guards because of driving a “small” car (and was told in no uncertain terms to make way for the Range Rover that was hooting behind me). They said there was no parking space. So where was that Range Rover going? Just move your damn car, and try not to make a scene, sir. This is more of a personal issue so I will leave it there.

Less personal is this: why invite the so-called “media” only to chase them away while in the middle of working? I have a team (an actual team), which acquired the necessary permissions and approvals to make a documentary about the Total Motorshow. Sounds like a win-win for everybody; right up to the moment when someone walked up to my team and very firmly asked them to pack up their equipment and leave. Why? Apparently they don’t want people to see what the motorshow looks like when it’s under preparation. They are only supposed to see it when ready, not a minute earlier. Also, some of the manufacturers want their “launches” and unveilings to be a surprise and as such leakages from press hounds will ruin the entire process. Odd, then, that these same manufacturers actively and cordially invited my team to their still-under-construction stands to field questions and uncover their cars for filming. So what was the cageyness all about, Total? People already knew that there was a Camaro, a Sport SVR, a Jaguar F Type and what-not, what exactly were you trying to hide?

People know it takes preparation to put together a show of this magnitude. The stands don’t erect themselves overnight when no one is looking. Then again, it is the cars we are interested in, not the men in blue overalls nailing boards and joining metal beams.

This brings us to number two: leakages and previews are not our fault. The car manufacturers should smoke out the moles from within their ranks and not point to camera-toting folks just trying to get some footage. A good example is the Camaro by GM. Photos of the vehicle at GM’s yard on Mombasa Road were online long before the motor show was postponed for the first time. It was fairly easy to guess what the car was for, so it didn’t surprise many when they came across it at the GM stand, nestling among lesser metal.

Lastly: there was reported interference from the authorities in the setting up of one manufacturer’s stand. Without naming names, said manufacturer actually won the Best-In-Show Award in a past event in which I was a judge. Live and let live, huh?

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IN OTHER NEWS

Motorshows are all about car manufacturers and here is some news about one of the biggest: Volkswagen. It is quite a read, I assure you.

Over the past few days, the Volkswagen Group has been found out to be cheating in one of the key determinants of motor vehicle manufacture: that of emissions. The short version is: their turbodiesel cars, made between 2009 and 2015, are not as emissions-compliant as VW say they are. Sure, all these cars undergo testing but VW got around that little hurdle in a manner that is as impressive as it is intimidating: they designed their cars (particularly Volkswagen and Audi) in such a way that the cars can TELL when they are being tested for emissions and as such behave appropriately (by releasing minimal emissions), but in real world applications… well, they are not the Goody-Two-Shoes you think they are.

Sure, emissions control is a good thing, if you believe in global warming and pollution. Science says cows contribute more to global warming from their incessant flatulence more than cars do with their exhaust outputs, but you don’t see anybody recalling all the beef burgers about to be sold to hungry Passat and A4 drivers. However, half a million of these Volkswagen and Audi cars are on the brink of a recall (as of the time of writing) simply because Volkswagen may have given conservative emissions test results that were slightly less than honest.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal; after all Ford has a history of overquoting performance figures (particularly horsepower), Lamborghini did it with top speeds, Porsche underquotes their own outputs to lull the opposition into a false sense of security, and Ferrari provides  highly tuned “test” cars that perform nothing like  real-world Ferraris do. Everybody cheats. Even I do sometimes. Volkswagen took cheating to a whole new level.

The cars themselves cheated. They can tell when they are being tested, by means of a “defeat device” that activates full emissions control during the exercise. From there it is back to normal, fuel-burning, atmosphere-clogging routine.

This recall and its associated chicanery affects only 2.0 litre 4-cylinder TDI engines, so not ALL Volkswagen products will be recalled (Bentley and Bugatti owners, rejoice!). However, it brings to the fore an argument that is, while not exactly pleasing to environmentalists, should not be avoided.

What, exactly, is the big deal? So VW may have “cheated”. Emissions controls are the reason why cars are so heavy and relatively slow nowadays in spite of bigger engines and more power.Everybody blames the car for global warming but cars contribute to less than a fifth to the atmospheric destruction that is global warming. We might be running low on oil, but there are alternative fuels that will STILL support internal combustion, and internal combustion is the one reason why we fell in love with cars in the first place. The name is “petrolhead”, not “radial tyre-head” or “plastic fender-head”: we love cars because of the internal combustion engine.

Volkswagen is going to face a heavy penalty from the EPA, something to the tune of $18 billion, and that is not counting the costs of the recall. To put the frivolity of all this in perspective: sales have only been halted in the US.

What? The rest of the world doesn’t have 2.0 turbo diesel Volkswagen engines or what? Why only the US?

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