IAA 2019 — Thoughts On The Future Of German Compact Family Cars

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The 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung), was a strange and different experience compared to the last time I was there. The road trip in itself was a +1000 mile long and very satisfying experience in my Tesla Model 3, which I will dedicate another post to cover. In the following article, though, I will try to put into words the puzzling buzz of change in the realm of passenger cars from a consumer perspective.

Quick IAA 2017 Recap

I wrote about my trip to the IAA in 2017 on EVObsession, and apart from apologizing deeply that I drove in my son’s knackered 1994 VW Golf, because it would have been a nightmare to drive my own 1st-gen BMW i3 with what would have been around 30 charging stops in total, I also had this thought on the long drive home:

“When the German brands start offering a wide range of fully electric models, that are comparable to the current fossil fuel models, German EV sales will explode. The question is, will the German auto industry make the transition fast enough, and will they be able to keep up with demand? These heavyweight companies probably think they have a loyal customer base, but what if these people get tired of waiting and begin ordering Teslas? Or even Chinese models? The clock is ticking.”

Well, German auto giant Volkswagen Group may just make it in the nick of time, because what I think I saw at IAA 2019 was a whole lot of people ready to spend money on electric cars!

Pending Avalanche In The Electric Compact Segment

How was IAA 2019 different from 2017? When I entered the large exhibition hall housing VW, Porsche, Audi, Seat, and Skoda, it was very clear something had changed. I mean, there was an actual waiting line to enter the hall! And inside it was mayhem. This was Saturday, midday, and it seemed every German family, their kids included, was in that hall. Kids? Sure, it’s not unusual to see an occasional parent bring a child that has an interest in cars, but this was like Disneyland!

Slowly it dawned on me what was going on. The VW brand occupied half the hall, with all the I.D. vehicles center stage, which in itself was grand and sparkly, but not so many people were pushing to get to see the models on stage. No, because VW had cleverly placed several ID.3s all over the place and this is where the pushing and shoving was taking place, mostly by kids!

I recently had my Tesla Model 3 at a local town fair, and about 30 kids where crawling inside and out of my car, playing video games on the center screen and looking for buttons to push, all the while shouting at their father: “Buy one dad!” Father was glancing at mother, who was whistling through her teeth: “No!” (Because nobody has realized the Model 3 is considerably cheaper than the Model S). But here these ID.3s were filled with kids crawling all over and pushing all the buttons (yes, it has more buttons than the Model 3), and parents where nodding at each other and clearly thinking: “Yes, this could work!”

It was like the ketchup effect, propelled by the neighborhood effect. The last time I was here, I heard people who where looking at the prototype EVs and going: “Yeah, maybe it’s the future, but hey look, the new VW T-Roc is cool!” As if it would be embarrassing to even suggest the next family car could be electric. This time around everybody was fondling and probing the affordable compact electric vehicles, hardly noticing their internal combustion ancestors glooming in the corners.

The original Beetle. The original Golf. The original ID.3 (pronounced like the German word “idee,” German for “idea”). VW is betting its entire brand on the MEB (Modularer E-Antriebs-Baukasten) platform, with the ID.3 being the car to ensure boom over bust. Will the company succeed? I think so.

The Opel Corsa-e was in there too, and again, kids all over. Fathers studying the battery pack. Mothers checking the back seat comfort. The Honda-e was cute as can be — a bit short ranged, but wow, the fit and finish on that car. It surely will get its urban high society audience, with the nimbleness of the Smart and material quality of a high-end Honda.

And those not at the show, the Peugeot 208-e and the updated Renault Zoe (100 kW charging is a big deal!) will underpin the avalanche of buyers that are now ready to ditch their old Golfs, Polos, Astras, Corsa, Civics, Corollas, and — well, the list goes on and on.

Demand? Absolutely!

One thing made me even more sure that what I was witnessing was the German middle class going on a car shopping spree: Porsche was right next to VW and it was cleverly arranged so that a handful of the new all-electric super-sedan Taycans were all over the ground floor, while the 911s, 718s, Macans, Cayennes, and Panameras where literally shelved on the wall, so you had to go up stairs to see them. People were lining up to have a few minutes sitting in the Taycan! They loved it — ladies taking the seat, gents taking the photo, and vice versa.

So, when people were done drooling over the pricy Taycan, they went right over to the ID.3 realizing: “Uh, this is funky too, and affordable!” In other words, I sensed that people were forgetting that they were checking out electric cars. They were simply checking out super cool cars for the first time in a very long time, mostly ignoring their technical heritage. I guess this is what happened when the original Golf was introduced to replace the outdated Beetle. I can imagine the total awe of the advanced front wheel drive, liquid cooled engine, and super light, yet the roomy body of the original 1974 Golf.

The Renault Zoe is selling in respectable numbers in Germany, on par with the BMW i3 no less, so one can only imagine that the Corsa-e and ID.3, both roomier than their internal combustion predecessors, and more conventional looking than the i3, will hit smack in the middle of the European middle class that just may be more ready to make the switch than most realize.

BMW? Audi? Mercedes? And all the rest? I didn’t have time to cover them all, and I don’t think there were any real mass-market candidates. Cool cars, production as well as concepts, but the kids didn’t crawl around in them … and they were simply not colorful enough to match the spirit of this article. 🙂

Specs? Type Corsa-e, ID.3, Honda E, etc. in the search field above.

The Chinese? “Wey” out of my league to cover, but I like the colors.

It will be very interesting to be back in 2 years from now and see how this all plays out. I heard that the IAA should somehow have lost its nerve this year because of the extreme restructuring the whole industry faces. Not at all. Yes, some will lose this game (Ford, what’s with all the hybrids?), and even the winners will make less money while they transition to the new electric platforms, but the cars of the future will be awesome, and people will want to see them.

All photos by the author

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 232 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen