Highlights from this year's Asian invasion
Auto shows are all struggling to reinvent themselves as more and more brands are choosing to sit them out. There were many no-show brands at this year’s Frankfurt show. Some shows are mounting concurrent “mobility” conferences, but Frankfurt seems to have added a supplier/engineering event such as North America’s SAE World Congress. Of course, prime show floor space vacated by Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Jeep, Nissan, Infiniti, Peugeot, and DS managed to get snapped up by “young Asian brands” with unfamiliar names such as WEY, Thunder Power, Aspark, and a few more-established names. We’ve got highlights.
Borgward Isabella Concept
This storied and supposedly still well-known and respected German brand has been revived by a team of Chinese investors. A plant is already up and running in China producing SUVs. The plan is to bring them to Europe next year and to eventually open a plant near Bremen, Germany, to build vehicles for European consumption. This fetching concept named for the fetching coupe produced in the brand’s heyday was penned by a new design team based in Stuttgart with designers plucked from Mini (Anders Warming) and Kia (David Genot). The Isabella borrows very few design cues directly from the vintage car, but it attempts to deliver what that car represented in its day—a beautiful accessible dream car. The four-door coupe profile features an exceptionally aerodynamic profile (air flows behind the C-pillars), and its interior is highly imaginative. Features include a “coffee table” lower shelf under a “surfboard” covered in silver mesh, bisected by a black “scarf,” which contains most of the controls for the large curved screen just below the windshield and also for a hologram display. These folks are dreaming big!
Borgward BX5, BX7, and BXi7
Borgward is not part of a joint venture with any Chinese brands (there is a relationship with truck manufacturer Foton Motor Group), but boy, their styling department seems to be borrowing pretty heavily from Shanghai GM/SAIC’s work with Buick. The smaller BX5 and larger BX7 both seem to echo the waterfall grille and rear-quarter-panel details of the Buick. The BXi7 is an all-electric version of the BX7. The mainstream utes are on sale in China now, and sales in Europe are expected to start next year.
Japanese EV upstart Aspark unveiled this low-slung and fairly fetching supercar that’s about the size of a Ford GT, claiming some pretty amazing numbers for it: 0-62 mph in 2.0 seconds. Yikes. Naturally it’s routing its power to all four wheels, but even with only 1,900 or so pounds to tug around, that’s asking a lot of the tires’ grip. It’s also impressive given the modest output claims of 429 hp and 563 lb-ft of torque. The range is claimed to be about 90 miles (145 km), and the top speed is 174 mph (280 km/h). We’d caution against holding your breath for this one, but if it can put down numbers like those, there will be a lot less laughing at the dorky name.
Speaking of names that might not have been thoroughly focus grouped in English-speaking countries, Hong Kong-based Thunder Power is also planning to get into the EV business. Unlike Aspark and a few American EV startups we can think of, Thunder Power has a factory under construction in Guangzhou, China, that will reportedly be capable of producing 100,000 EVs per year. An R&D center will be located near Barcelona, Spain, and the company is planning to build an assembly plant there, too, for satisfying European demand. This is Thunder Power’s second appearance at the Frankfurt show. Last time it showed a concept of the sedan that appears this year in development-prototype camo. The focal point of this year’s display is a new SUV concept that was presented along with a naked aluminum chassis buck. The SUV points in the general design direction of a production variant that is sure to lose the pillarless coach door arrangement and probably the cross-car infotainment screen. The sedan is expected to go on sale next year, with the SUV following a year later. Pricing for the sedan has been reported starting in the mid-50s stretching to 100,000 euros—so, Tesla territory. The Milanese design work might not strike all eyes as more beautiful than a Tesla.
China’s Great Wall introduced the premium SUV sub-brand WEY this past April and has opened a technical office in Germany. For its Frankfurt debut, it designed an off-road coupe concept called the XEV, which, as the name suggests, is electrically powered. The concept manages to look pretty good without looking like anybody else’s SUV—a rare combination in the still fairly nascent Chinese auto industry. WEY aims to begin selling its SUVs in Europe in 2019, most likely opening with the Hi4-hybrid powered VV5, which definitely has a vaguely familiar look to it. The crossover will be available in sporty S and Hi4 powertrain variants. The latter consists of a 2.0-liter gasoline four-cylinder Great Wall engine fitted with a belt-alternator-starter good for 13 hp, spinning the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Out back there’s a 174-hp electric motor. The hybrid battery stores just 1.166 kW-hr of electricity.
The Chinese invasion of Europe really gets rolling in 2019 when Chery expects to bring its globally homologated Exeed TX SUV model here (the Tiggo 5X and Tiggo 7 sharing the floor space do not meet European standards). Hatchbacks and wagons will follow in the years to come, with all new vehicles being designed (for now in Shanghai under the direction of Canadian James Hope, who was recently hired away of GM Europe) to meet European safety and regulatory standards. To rev up Frankfurt showgoers, Chery brought along its low-slung, muscular Tiggo Coupe crossover concept. Planned for autonomous drive, like nearly every new show car, this one aims to lure in millenials with a steering wheel that folds and becomes a game controller during autopilot mode. A vibrating seat aims to provide a vivid 4-D gaming experience. Chery plans to heavily target young people who are less brand conscious.
Chinese megabrand Geely, owner of Volvo, purchased the London Taxi Company from receivers in 2013, and the resulting sub-brand LEVC is now rolling out its next-gen “London Cab” and hoping to extend sales throughout Europe (hence the presentation of the TX eCity cab in German taxi beige). They are being built near Coventry in the first new assembly plant to be built in England in 10 years. The range-extended electric vehicle can travel 80 miles (129 km) on an electric charge, after which a Volvo 1.5-liter I-3 engine kicks in and extends the range to 400 miles (644 km). The rear compartment is taller and roomier than the current black cab, with seating for six (three in rear-facing jump seats). Wi-Fi connectivity and both USB and 12-volt charging sources are provided for passengers, and there’s a panoramic sunroof. Deliveries begin in October at a price of 55,000 British pounds ($72,600 USD).