You might expect cars at the world’s largest auto show, hosted in Frankfurt, Germany, to reflect European tastes for smaller, more economical cars. And, indeed, previewing what’s coming to the show in September, confirms those proclivities: Car makers are taking the miniaturization idea global. And in some cases, giving it a retro twist that will please the older, more-moneyed city dwellers who are all too happy to open their wallets to buy a little bit of nostalgia.
Volkswagen finally announced it’s definitely making a much-teased electric microbus, a 21st century resurrection of the beloved van from the 1960s, for sale in 2022. Based on the same platform as the I.D. electric car, it should pack eight passengers and their luggage into a vehicle the size of a small SUV and bedecked in a 60s-look packaging.
Mini, introduced in 1959 and now a part of BMW, evokes different memories—mostly of misspent youths spent aimlessly trawling the streets. While the newer Mini models aren’t as small as they were in the 60s, they still take up less road space than an SUV or crossover. And renderings of the Mini Electric concept, debuting in Frankfurt and set to go on sale, come complete with custom wheels and headlights, and flashes of yellow on that pay tribute to the much-loved Mini E, an early, but limited experiment in electric cars.
Daimler doesn’t have a brand that touches the same nostalgia for youth (its Mercedes-Benz brand was more about large, expensive, luxo-barges in the 60s). But it does own Smart, famous for the miniscule Fourtwo it introduced in 1998, a car so short it can be parked perpendicular to the curb. Daimler is doubling down on the concept of a quirky, ultra-convenient city car. At the Munich show, Daimler will unveil its awkwardly-named Smart Vision EQ Fortwo, which looks like a fishbowl mated with the OG Fourtwo and produced a blobby offspring.
Unlike the more reality-based cars from VW and Mini, this electric concept is 100 percent autonomous—no pedals, no steering wheel—and is designed for car-sharing in the city. The company has already dabbled in this space with car2go, which allows users in seven US cities rent a conventional Smart car by the hour, like an in-house version of Zipcar. But in the future, the car will come to you. Summon a ride and “swarm intelligence”—gotta love the future—will send the nearest car in your direction. A greeting will flash across the front grille, which doubles as a display board.
The truly adventurous can try the “1+1” sharing function, which allows the the car to find someone else who’s going your way, a someone who also shares your particular interests. “Possible passengers are suggested on the basis of their saved profiles and current travel plans, and can be accepted or rejected,” says Daimler. Screens inside the vehicle show what concerts you’ve both been to recently, or what sports you’re both into.
As outlandish as the concept sounds, it provides a strong indication of the German auto giant’s future plans. “This is the closest thing we’ve seen to a true product designed with automated mobility in mind,” says Tim Dawkins, who specializes in autonomous cars at SBD Automotive. “They’ve gone as far as designing how you’d interact with it.”
Small cars, easy to park cars are still useful in cities, even when they’re autonomous and park themselves. The operators of fleets still have to lease parking spaces somewhere, the more cars they can squeeze in, the cheaper that will be.
These electric retro cars will also help German automakers meet emission requirements in the US. They’ll likely also sell well in newer markets like China, which is doubling down on electric cars (and where consumers love nostalgic, foreign design).
The takeaway? If you’re a fan of past designs and enamored of future technologies, these slate of new vehicles proves there’s no time like the present.