If the Frankfurt Motor Show 2011 is anything to go by, the automotive industry is in a state of conflict at the moment. Zero emission cars - the only way the industry can continue to grow without twinges of guilt - are certainly on the rise, and yet the hunger for high-performance luxury drives continues unabated.
As is traditionally the case in Frankfurt, German marques dominated the show, with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi exhibiting a hugely contrasting collection of vehicles. On the one hand, they gave us wonderfully innovative mobility solutions for the megacities of the future; on the other, a host of ultra high horsepower performance cars. It's a delicate balancing act for these leading luxury carmakers.
On the BMW stage, for instance, sat the first offerings in its electric sub-brand, the i3 and i8, which Wallpaper.com reported on back in August. These two fantastically futuristic designs shared the stage with the new petroleum-powered M5 performance car. Over at the vast three-storey Mercedes-Benz hall, a fleet of Smart electric cars and a hydrogen-powered F125 concept were exhibited a stone's throw away from the powerful new SLK 55 AMG.
Audi also displayed conflicting behaviour, starting the weekend before the show with a group of academics, architects, urban planners and IT experts gathering to discuss the challenges facing the world when 70 per cent of the population will be living in dense urban settings. At this forum, the role of the car and its identity were questioned, given that the young generation appears to care more for smartphone apps than car ownership. It is an intriguing and ongoing debate that will lead to a second Audi-sponsored Urban Future Award in 2012.
The following day, in Audi's spectacular pavilion, the marque displayed a wild mix of cars that ranged from the neat A2 electric study, two brilliant electric Audi Urban Concept studies, and the dazzling electric e-tron concepts, together with the slinky, swift and unashamedly fossil-fuelled S7, S8 and Audi's other high-performance cars.
The stars of the Frankfurt show can essentially be divided into four groups: pragmatic everyday road cars, performance luxury drives, design concepts and ecological studies.
Centre stage at the Volkswagen stand were the Up family of cars, VW's new Small Family range that will eventually include three and five-door hatchbacks, a mini MPV and a buggy concept, all powered by a choice of conventional and electric engines. The Ups are small, smart, affordable and global cars - and therefore highly relevant to our mobility concerns.
Honda, meanwhile, presented the fresh-faced Civic family car. The Japanese firm caused a stir back in 2006 when it first introduced the European Civic. It was a radical departure in terms of design with a futuristic, almost spaceship exterior and a more premium cabin than this market is used to. The 2011 Civic is a slightly more self-assured car, introducing elements of its Japanese heritage especially in some of the exterior detailing. Chief designer Daisuke Sawai described it as 'the harmony between man and machine', a familiar refrain from auto designers.
Mini introduced the production version of the Coupé, the latest variant of the BMW-owned marque. It couldn't have been easy evolving such an iconic design as the Mini hatchback into a two-seater, yet the design team lead by Anders Warming have been brave and at times brash - in this instance creating a small sports car with an innovative roof design. The new Mercedes B-Class is also worth noting in this area.
In the performance car category Porsche took centre stage with the newly designed 911. This is the marque's pinnacle car. It is what defines the brand, and revising its truly classic shape is no easy task. For the new 911, design director Michael Mauer has maintained the iconic silhouette but thanks to a few tweaks here and there - most notably in the length of the wheelbase - he has freshened up the design, bringing it more in line with Porsche's other models. Only truly dedicated car buffs will notice the difference, we suspect.
Naturally there were some notable Italian supercars. Ferrari didn't disappoint with the new 458 Spider convertible and Lamborghini showed the raciest version yet of its Gallardo. The British highlights in this area were the new
As is customary at motor shows, there were design concepts a-plenty. All eyes were on Jaguar for its long-awaited 'E-Type replacement', the C-X16 study. Any link between this neatly packaged sports car and the original, iconic E-Type is largely media-invented (although the hatch-back boot looks familiar). Jaguar is striving to move away from retro design and the C-X16 largely succeeds.
Maserati showed off its Pininfarina-styled luxury sports-utility Kubang, which it plans to start building in 2013 as a direct rival to the Porsche Cayenne. The Italian marque also announced plans to build a small saloon.
Ford's Frankfurt focus was the Evos, a rather flashy scissor-door design study in bold red that represents the second evolution in the marque's Kinetic language, as used on its current generation of cars. More importantly, the Evos was a showcase for Ford's next-generation interior technologies, with a heavy reliance on cloud connectivity for the data-hungry driver.
One of the main highlights, though, came from Citroën and its Tubik people carrier concept. This is a fresh take on the campervan and clearly inspired by current furniture and textile design, offering a flexible and modern living-room environment with high degrees of connectivity for larger families on the move.
In terms of ecological innovations the BMW i3 and i8 are incredibly interesting electric drive propositions that have been intelligently executed. The final production cars promise to stay close to these conceptual ideas when they hit the roads in 2013.
The two Audi Urban Concept studies are also inspired designs. The twin two-seaters - a coupé with a sliding roof and a Spyder convertible - combine elements of race car, roadster and city car rolled into one small electric vehicle. VW's Nils is a concept study along similar lines, a single seat three-wheel car for urban commutes. Even Vauxhall is getting in on the commuter car action with tits well-thought-out RAK e two-seater.
It was also refreshing to see the emergence of small, privately-owned new automotive company Eterniti, which is dedicated to making niche luxury cars. The British firm showed its first car at Frankfurt, a Porsche Cayenne-derived 'luxury SUV' called the Hemera. Production is planned for next year.
The individual exhibition architecture also spoke volumes about the various marques. Audi came out on top with a vast, multi-million euro pavilion that it built from scratch, rather than using space within the exhibition halls. The futuristic building housed a fully functioning racetrack, allowing visitors to experience Audi's expertise in performance, sustainability and connectivity with an actual test drive on site.
In contrast, Honda had a playful pavilion with a serious message. By manipulating flexible polyethylene tubes, Belgian designer Sebastien Wierinck created a series of colourful pipes connected to a single focal point - 'The Dream House', where Honda's ecological and technological visions come together under one roof.
Ultimately, however, it felt like two contrasting and conflicting realities were thrust up against one another - uncomfortably. Frankfurt 2011 was a surreal experience. Yes, there was plenty of clean urban mobility thinking on display, but ultimately it felt like a battle of European superpowers.