Frankfurt Auto Show: Hybrids, Electrics From BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen to Dominate

BMW i3

German automakers make zero-emissions vehicles and hybrids -- Hollywood's hot cars du jour -- a priority at Europe's biggest auto show, and, says VW executive Rudolf Krebs: "The time is ripe to introduce electric mobility on a large scale."

Car sales are surging in the U.S. but remain at their lowest levels since 1993 in Western Europe, a lingering legacy of the financial crisis.

German carmakers especially are taking note of the growing appetite among Americans for hybrid and zero-emission electric vehicles -- the all-electric Tesla Model S is now Hollywood's default status car in the luxury category. 

Given the dependence of European automakers on the American market, the Frankfurt auto show, opening on Tuesday, will be characterized less by blue-sky concept cars -- though there will no shortage of those -- than by Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and others making the case that their products have relevance for buyers in the U.S., where profits are still strong and tastes are shifting, especially among younger consumers whose creeping apathy toward car ownership could portend a major headache for carmakers in years to come.

Two major trends at the show will be pure electric and hybrid engine choices and an increasing emphasis on cars that integrate seamlessly with personal electronics. The latter especially is seen as crucial to luring younger buyers.

BMW's i3 plug-in electric has already generated considerable buzz for its revolutionary clean-sheet design and extensive use of carbon fiber components to reduce weight and extend range. In a nod to the carmakers' emerging green pedigree -- a major selling point with younger buyers -- even the i3's dashboard trim is made from responsibly harvested eucalyptus. The car will go on sale in the second quarter of 2014, priced at $42,275 before government incentives. 

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At Frankfurt, BMW will debut the second car in its line of super green vehicles: the slinky i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, available in the U.S. next year. Like the i3, the i8 is constructed from lightweight carbon fiber materials. The gull-winged door car, which will be priced around $120,000, pairs the i3's electric motor with a turbo-charged 228 hp 1.5 liter gasoline engine that drives the rear axle. The car can be driven in pure electric mode around town with a range of about 20 miles; when the gasoline motor is engaged the i8 can leap from zero to 60 mph in under five seconds.

Mercedes will unveil a plug-in hybrid version of its completely revamped S-class flagship at the show. The 2014 S 500 hybrid is powered by a 3.0 liter turbo-charged V6 and a separate electric motor. The 2014 S Class is already one of the most technologically advanced cars in the world, with heads-up displays, 3D cameras and onboard radars that allow it to take over from the driver if the car's computers sense an imminent collision. Mercedes is serious about imbedding connectivity into its cars -- it recently tested the integration of the Google Glass wearable computer with the map interface in the new S Class.  

Also at Frankfurt, Volkswagen will launch an all-electric version of the Golf, Germany's best-selling car, available in the spring of 2014. Along with BMW's icars, the significance of VW -- a huge multinational and one of the top three car manufacturers in the world along with Toyota and GM -- fielding an electric version of a high-volume car like the Golf is evidence that German carmakers now consider zero-emissions vehicles a viable market.

"The time is ripe to introduce electric mobility on a large scale," said Rudolf Krebs, the head of VW's electric-powertrain technology, in a press conference last week.