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2017 Frankfurt Motor Show: The unlikely star

Amongst all the immensely capable supercars, fancy concepts, F1-inspired metal and a new Ssangyong is a little, retro-styled electric car that eclipses them all, as Ben Griffin explains.

As Frankfurt Motor Shows go, 2017 is deserving of all the superlatives and hyperbole it gets. At least three cars will make it onto the bedroom walls of a generation of petrolheads and the ones that don’t are destined to line UK roads. Impressive just doesn’t cut it.

Predictably, it’s the ultra-fast and ultra-expensive cars have received the most attention, but choosing a clear winner of the show is more difficult than you may think. And, chances are, what you are thinking is probably wrong.

The most obvious choice would be the Mercedes-AMG Project One because supposedly it is the closest thing to a Formula One car that you can have on the road. In fact, the 1,000bhp+ hypercar is said to accelerate as quickly. Think 0-125mph in six seconds. Goodbye, internal organs.

Astonishingly fast? Yes. But the moment you hit a corner and it will start acting less like Lewis Hamilton’s whip and more like everything else. And it is much less pretty than the current hypercar trip that is the McLaren P1, Ferrari TheFerrari and Porsche 918 Spyder.

You could also get a bit hot under the collar for the Ferrari Portofino, which replaces the California T, because an affordable Ferrari is still a Ferrari. With more power and various other improvements it should be a winner, but then is a poor man’s 812 Superfast really deserving? No.

There were also countless crossovers and SUVs, including the Skoda Karoq, Hyundai Kona, Vauxhall Grandland X, VW Atlas and Porsche Cayenne and almost all of them will be rather sensible purchases. But nobody has ever won an award for being sensible outside of a local council.

You could also wax lyrical about the Lexus LS, which is a visually imposing set of wheels with a truly exceptional interior and we can say that because we have already sat in one. Think more LC500 and less RC. But Alan Partridge would want one so it has to be ruled out.

Then there is the Hyundai i30 N, which injects rally goodness into an affordable family-friendly hatchback. Recent Hyundais actually have more personality than some of their German counterparts, which bodes well, but can it really compete with the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R? Probably not.

Vauxhall, meanwhile, managed to unveil something that looks like people with eyes actually designed it and the 2.0-litre capable of producing 252bhp means the Insignia GSI saloon could go as well as it looks.

Renault – often forgotten these days because of the Ford and Honda’s latest hot hatchbacks – also got some air time with the 276bhp Megane RS. It will almost certainly offer an involving drive, especially with the addition of four-wheel steer, but then so did the last sporty Megane. And the one before that.

You could also suggest the Audi A8, which offers levels of self-driving previously unseen in most production cars (watch out, Tesla), but getting excited about a car that does all the work for you is a bit like getting excited about commuting to work on a train.

A special mention goes to Ssangyong because its painfully slow but assured upward trajectory into relevance was started by the reasonably capable (if a little rough) Tivoli and will continue with the Rexton SUV.

The old Rexton had all the driving ability and charisma of a rusty cement mixer, but the new one looks half-decent and it will be cheap enough to buy once our Brexit pound has tanked even further. Sadly though, it’s about as desirable as the new Dacia Duster, which was also on show, so it misses out on gold.

No, for us the winner is a concept car we know almost absolutely nothing about. So few figures have been released on it you would think Diane Abbott had written the press release, but it’s what the car represents that matters most.

We are, of course, talking about the Honda Urban EV Concept, which manages to look somewhere between a Honda N360, VW Golf Mk1 and Mk2, British Mini Cooper, Peugeot 205 GTi and a few other much-loved hatchbacks from the 80s and 90s. It’s so deliciously retro a Lava Lamp would be flustered.

Yet it also cuts a fresh, interesting and exciting look. The faint blue glow behind the LED Honda badge tells you it has come from the future, yet its circular headlights and simplistic bumper pay homage to a time when petrol and diesel were all we had.

It will likely have a modest electric motor that will propel it along with reasonable pep and the interior adopts the usual multi-display setup concept cars love to use, which is nothing ordinary.

But then it goes and uses bench seats like a 70s Ford Escort and has doors that open the wrong way, which only adds to what motoring journalists call ‘character’. As concepts go, it is familiar and futuristic all at the same time, which is a tough balance to get right.

What we do know about the Urban EV Concept is that is 100mm shorter than a Honda Jazz and is going to become a production car in 2019, but how close to the original concept is anyone’s guess. We can only hope the answer starts with ‘v’ and ends in ‘ery’.

Obviously, if somebody with very deep pockets lined up both cars in front of us and said pick between the AMG Project One and Honda Urban EV Concept, the Project One is the one we would drive home in. We haven’t gone completely mad.

But the hypercar thing is nothing new and it is already starting to be challenged by all-electric monsters such as the Rimac Concept One, which ex-Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond has shown to be a bit of an animal. Cutting edge or not, the race for speed has been going on a long time.

Honda’s Urban EV Concept stands out tallest for us because it makes us excited about a new age of superminis and hatchbacks that are fast and fun, much like Renault’s bonkers Zoe E-Sport, but also clean and cheap to run.

More importantly though is that cars like the Honda Urban EV concept will be affordable, unlike that fire-breathing AMG, and with the cost of motoring on the rise and the Government looking to kill petrol and diesel there is no doubt small electric cars are the answer. Until teleportation becomes a thing.

We can see future 17-year-olds wanting to own something like the Honda Urban EV Concept as their first chariot of four-wheeled freedom. Hell, if it was priced sensibly, offered a sensible driving range and reasonably pokey we would chuck money at Honda right now.

Given the fact that fewer people are bothering to pass their test, motoring needs all the help it can get. But if the future looks half as good as this, maybe giving up on the combustion engine will be much less painful, after all.


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