Originally created 09/15/99

Automakers focus on practicality at Frankfurt auto show



FRANKFURT, Germany -- Automakers unveiled a number of boxy family cars at the Frankfurt auto show Tuesday, offering a glimpse of Europe's automotive future that looks decidedly practical.

Volkswagen's new Polo, new versions of Ford's Fiesta, the Audi A2 and concept vehicles by Opel and Chrysler all have a similar shape -- drawing cues from the minivan with their conventional car hoods and a hatchback-style rear.

There were also new advances at the high end of the market as Mercedes showed its S600, a V-12 luxury car, and a coupe version of its SLR super sports car. BMW showed off its Z8 roadster and an X5 "sports activity vehicle" that combines design elements of a station wagon and sports utility vehicle.

The Frankfurt International Motor Show opens to the public Thursday, but automakers held media preview days beforehand to showcase their latest models.

One of the biggest draws at the show was the tiny Smart, manufactured by Micro Compact Car, a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler. The car has been plagued by slower than expected sales, and the company said Tuesday that Lars Brorsen, the head of the Smart division, was quitting over difference on how to market the car. However, DaimlerChrysler board member Juergen Hubbert said the company was still committed to the brand.

The concept Smart roadster drew appreciative oohs as it was unveiled for the first time at the show. The car is a departure from the boxy Smart coupe, featuring flowing curves and bold side air vents commonly seen in sports cars.

Most of the models unveiled Tuesday were bigger than the Smart cars -- but not necessarily by much.

The Frankfurt show is typically a showcase for designs aimed at European demands: fuel efficiency and an ability to fit into tight parking spaces. Automakers emphasized the small bodies of their models while boasting of increased interior room for passengers.

"We understand fully that we need to have a sharper focus on the needs of the European driver," said DaimlerChrysler co-chairman Bob Eaton.

The concept Java, which is in the same aerodynamic "one-box" profile as many of the other new models, features rear seats that are positioned higher than the front. The design is similar to theater seating, giving back-seat passengers a better view of the road.

While Java is designed for sale only in European markets, a few of the concept cars eventually will reach the United States, such as the upscale Mercedes models, according to DaimlerChrysler.

Among other announcements at the show Tuesday:

-- Audi showed the new A2 with an all-alumimum body, making it 40 percent lighter than if it were made of steel.

The German automaker also filled out its sporty S series with new S6 models. A new direct injection diesel engine is featured on a version of the A8.

-- VW tried to build on the success of the New Beetle in the United States by unveiling a lower-priced model, along with a higher-end turbo. The cheaper version cuts about $2,700 off the base price of $18,900.

The new Polo from VW has larger headlamps and a lower license plate in back for its updated design.

VW's Concept D car gives a look at what a luxury car from the German automaker known for affordability would look like. The smooth contours of a sedan conceal a V-10 engine that gets 313 horsepower.

-- BMW's Z8 roadster builds on the James Bond-appeal of its Z3. The car also comes with James Bond-like gadgets -- a "Multi-Information Radio" allows drivers to use one control unit to operate the stereo, satellite navigation system and telephone.

The X5 takes aim at the frenzied sport utility vehicle-market in the United States. The frame is based on a passenger car, which the carmaker says maximizes safety in case of a crash.