Jens experiences two different realities, from Beijing to Vienna.
In late April, I had the chance to visit two very different automotive events: the Beijing auto show, an epitome of opulence and a market bursting with opportunity, and the Vienna Engine Symposium – that’s where the world’s foremost engine development specialists meet annually in the city’s Imperial Castle.
In Beijing, I witnessed the kind of automotive event you simply don’t see anymore in the West. Daimler asked us to come out to the BTV Grand Theatre in the Chaoyang District, and the launch of the long-wheelbase E-Class was accompanied by an orchestral live performance. Fittingly, this China-only E-Class comes with a new roof and rear body treatment that emulates the Maybach – which, by the way, has sold over 500 units in China last year (silencing any critics who may have argued that the brand should have been left in peace). And this E-Class proves another thing: “Best-effort” solutions don’t work anymore in China. The execution of this long-wheelbase version is perfect.
China’s own brands are coming out with increasingly well-executed and unique designs, and they’ve captured one particular segment by storm – the compact crossover SUV. It’s dominated by their own brands, like Haval. And the imports, for the first time, are struggling to catch up. A lot of the Chinese concept cars were impressively beautiful, and were bold statements of self-confidence. Build quality is catching up as well, with a lot of expertise from Europe.
Qoros, the experiment of a Chinese near-premium brand with technology and design from Europe, is still struggling. Brand awareness in the local market is relatively low, and the actual production numbers are far below capacity. But, on the show floor, they came back with a vengeance. Qoros teamed up with Swedish supplier Freevalve, a sister company of super sports carmaker Koenigsegg. Christian von Koenigsegg himself went on stage to introduce the technology – which does away with the traditional camshaft and timing belt in favour of an electrohydraulic valve system. It could come to market in two years, and can reduce consumption by 20 percent – with a strong increase in power. The beautifully styled prototype proved Qoros’ strength in design. The car is another winner by their chief designer, Gert Hildebrand.
And, for Volkswagen, the Beijing auto show must have been an oasis of peace. The diesel scandal, which dominates headlines and discussions in Europe and America, played absolutely no role in Beijing. It was good to hear some VW speeches that were not laced with apologies – a ritual that’s becoming a bit tedious everywhere else. Instead, VW showcased the next Touareg – with its T-Prime concept. It shows a new premium face that will be shared with the next-gen CC and the China-only Phideon large sedan.
Trying to predict the future
While the Beijing auto show was a show of self-confidence, the Vienna Engine Symposium took place in a somewhat more sombre mood. The entire industry is caught in an atmosphere of suspicion. Politicians have lost their trust, and the more cynical ones are exploiting the diesel scandal in order to put on a tough act.
E-Mobility has gotten a huge – and probably undeserved – upward push, and an executive even asked: “Is it even worth putting any more money into the combustion engine?” Coincidentally, while the Engine Symposium happened, the German government announced that electric cars would be subsidized by as much as 4,000 Euros per unit – reiterating its goal of replacing conventionally powered cars with electrics. Of course, this also highlighted the fact that electrics still need subsidies and a huge political tail wind to sell in any meaningful numbers at all.
Despite the scepticism on political developments, the speeches and presentations in Vienna underscored the fact that the internal combustion engine still has huge potential. There is a massive amount of high technology trickling down from the premium segment into the mass market. VW’s EA211evo engine family will include 1.5-liter four-cylinder engines fitted with a cylinder deactivation system and turbochargers with a variable turbine geometry. On gasoline engines, VTG chargers have been exclusive to the Porsche 911 Turbo.
Engineering specialist FEV showed a Mercedes-AMG A45 with an added electric supercharger that boosts immediately, eliminating the turbo lag that plagues AMG’s series production car. AVL List in Graz introduced a variation of the Alfa Romeo 4C with twin turbocharging and an E-charger, bringing power to 474 horsepower and top speed to around 320km/h. And Bosch unveiled their ideas and concepts for water injection. Currently available only on the BMW M4 GTS, water injection can raise power and efficiency significantly – especially on downsized engines. And 48-volt mild-hybrid systems have even more potential.
Another topic that was extensively discussed in Vienna is whether fossil fuels can be replaced by synthetic bio fuels – not at any price, of course, but potentially this approach will be cheaper than converting the vehicle fleet to electricity. By replacing conventional fuels with biofuels, you don’t need to open Pandora’s Box when it comes to the raw materials necessary to produce batteries, the recycling issue, and the safety problems that come with EVs – not to mention the challenges for a country’s power grid.
But will it be possible to convey the message to politicians? Many voices I caught in Vienna were sceptical: “The discussion is not rational;” “The mood is against the entire auto industry;” “We have to push for E-mobility, or we will get more into the defensive;” “In France, there is a lot of diesel bashing and that is a tragedy.”
In the past, the mood has been better in Vienna!