PIMS 2014: Deutsch Opulenz

While Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi displayed futuristic concepts in their areas, there was nothing of that sort going on around the German manufacturers. Perhaps unwittingly playing to the national stereotype, the Germans decided to approach PIMS 2014 firmly from the present, eschewing fanciful concepts in favour of fully-loaded versions of their showroom offerings. Here we take a look at Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

(Warning, slightly long read ahead.)

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We’ll start with Volkswagen, since they had the most people milling about.

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The new Beetle (the old “new” one is the New Beetle, and this new “new” one is just “Beetle”, just like the old one), was still drawing quite a crowd, although we’re not entirely sure it’s the kind of crowd that VW were hoping for. In the 10 minutes we allotted to observe the onlookers, it was mostly middle-aged men and college-aged girls. While you’re busy with that demographic…

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…the real star of the Volkswagen area was the Golf, shown in GTI trim. For the unfamiliar, the Golf GTI is the GTI by which all other GTIs are measured. Debuting as a modern, Giugiaro-styled hatchback in 1974, the Golf has been a hit since, and none more so than the GTI.

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The red grille stripe is a clear shoutout to the GTIs of yore.

Few cars could compete with the Golf’s proposition: sporty, practical and stylish, it was just about enough car for the majority of anyone’s needs. As for the GTI, it gave the family man a sports car that could seat four and their luggage, and it gave the young male teenager a sports car he could convince his parents into buying.

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This marks the first time that the Golf will be officially sold in the Philippines, and Volkswagen has done the little car right by introducing it with the GTI. Outside, there are a few cues to give away that this is the sportiest model, while the interior is every bit as sumptuous as you might expect from a European car.

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Volkswagen’s quite excellent DSG mediates between the engine and front wheels, and an electric parking brake frees up a lot of storage bins on the centre console. Personally, I’d prefer a true manual gearbox and a non-electric handbrake, but we must move according to the ceaseless flow of time, it seems.

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Style, however, is not always something that moves with time. A thoughtful throwback to the GTI’s earlier days are these plaid seat inserts. You might think that this looks ridiculous, but they do combat the predominantly grey interior somewhat; they don’t quite cover enough real estate to completely counter the grey, somber, grown-up look of the cabin. Perhaps they could have covered more of the seat with it, and covered some other interior bits with it. As it is, the interior looks way too serious for a car that should invite fun and whimsy.

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Ultimately, the GTI, the model’s halo car, only started out as a side project, because the real goal of the Golf was to try and find a replacement for the Beetle (the old one, not the new “new” one), so it still had to be based on the bones of a car built for practicality. I think the Golf GTI has done all the better for it, since you get most of the fun of driving a sports car and the interior space of a compact sedan, complete with actual rear seats. This one is probably just for 2.5 people, because the middle cushion will not be a pleasing spot to be in after half an hour; at least there’s a seatbelt for that unlucky soul.

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One thing the Golf has always been is of the times. Unlike the venerable old Beetle that soldiered on with only required mechanical revisions, the Golf saw regular changes to keep it competitive. Thus, the Mk 7 Golf (or Golf VII, if you prefer your Roman numerals) comes with a pretty luxurious interior, with the downside being that it’s mostly black. Well, there’s some plaid in there, so it’s not completely depressing.

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Should you feel the need for a more airy interior, however, what could be a better solution than a hole in the roof? The optional panoramic sunroof turns half the roof black, and creates a large panel that retracts back over the rest of the roof to open up the cabin.

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It also comes with this deflector to reduce turbulence inside the cabin with the roof open at high speeds. You might want the sun in your car, but that doesn’t mean you have to invite a tornado too. This should also keep a significant amount of polluted air outside the cabin, which should be handy for those times on out-of-town trips where you drive by a farm fertilised by natural means.

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The Golf GTI was getting the most attention out of all the cars in the area, and a good handful of them looked like they were seriously considering purchase. I think it’s high time the Golf entered the Philippine market; it’ll give the upwardly-mobile set a new marque to to play with. Prepare to see these in your favourite upscale subdivisions within the year.

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All of the other cars in the space were things that you could see in the VW showroom, so this black T5 off in one corner was of particular interest, if only because it’s never been in any large shows before. This is the latest in the long line of Transporter vans, starting with the much loved Kombi.

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The T5 no longer retains the rear-engine rear-drive layout of the old Kombi, but it has made leaps and bounds in passenger comfort. “But there was nothing more comfortable than a space to sleep in!” you might say, but that life of the Transporter is, for the most part, over. You could probably option the van to give you enough space to lay out cots in, but most T5’s sold in the Philippines will probably be offered like this, provided that you are given choice in the matter.

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Whether you like it or not, the modern Transporter is no longer the low-cost, high-utility van the Kombi was. It has given up the funky name, the carefree lifestyle and the recreational drug habit to become the responsible grown-up people carrier with practical tastes and a much safer definition of “fun”. Exhibit A comes in the form of these cupholders, which pop out of the second-row centre console. The top of the console also doubles as a table, so this is obviously for in-travel consumption of food products obtained via drive-through window.

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There’s also space down below for other items. A slide-out drawer gives you space for items of some value, or condiment packets. The bin above it has more than enough clearance under the raised table for drink bottles and high enough side to keep the bottles in place.

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Cubbyholes are abundant in this car, betraying its real purpose of being a true family hauler. Volkswagen have basically attempted to give you a place for everything. These are the third row seats. Roomy enough for three adults…

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…and significant amounts of stuff. Pretty handy for keeping valuable luggage out of sight.

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Up on the ceiling, the rear passengers get these overhead lights. I’m tempted to call them reading lights, but I have tried reading in a moving car once, and will never try it again. With that out of the way, these lights have a very nice operation. Here they are in the “off” position.

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Roll the knob around one way, and the light assembly – bulb and reflector – tilts around to focus the beam of light towards the passenger.

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Roll the knob the other way, and the light assembly tilts away from the passenger. Roll the knob back to centre and the light turns off with the assembly pointing straight down.

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The blower vents operate with the same sort of mechanism. Keep the knob centred and the air blows out through the vents on either side of the closed slats.

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Roll the knob either way and the slats open, directing air downwards out of them. It’s a pretty simple mechanism, and should stand up to curious little fingers with little problem.

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Passengers up front get this centre stack. It’s all hard grey plastic, which is fine in a car like this, because you do want the trim to last. Some shiny bits would probably have done well though. I would also question the placement of the hazard blinker button all the way over on the passenger side. If they saw fit to move the gear selector closer over to the driver, then shouldn’t they have taken the hazard blinker with it? The switch blanks just above the gear selector would seem to make this a quick wiring job.

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The steering wheel is mostly just as nondescript. It does come with various controls at least, and isn’t angled like a bus wheel.

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For the driver, it’s a set of typical VW gauges, which mean two main dials and an LCD screen in between. It’s not the most exhilarating of gauges, but it is a clean design, and should present no legibility problems.

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A curious addition to the interior is this holster. I tried putting my Galaxy S3 in it, “tried” being the operative word, so I’m not sure how universal this is. I was not willing to try and explore the further functions of this holster, because this is a show car and potentially breaking things on a show car is not a hobby of mine.

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Surprisingly, the T5 comes with the indulgence of a glass roof. The car wan’t powered, so I couldn’t verify if the glyphs on the dial meant that the sunroof could be opened to varying degrees. Most likely it does, because that’s apparently been a long-time VW trick. Overall, I would rate this a solid choice for big families looking for a capacious vehicle; the front passengers have the sunroof to entertain themselves with, and the rear passengers are catered to by the thoughtful features.

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Like Honda and Nissan, Volkswagen also had a simulator running Gran Turismo up, allowing the kids to play around with digital Volkswagens. Along the same wall were a row of cubicles, for those who were interested in cutting a deal with the Volkswagen of their choice. The VW representatives also prepared a short program, with a couple of games to keep the mood high.

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Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, had no such gimmicks. The representatives did not prepare a program, nor did they have simulators for the kids.

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What they did have were these beautiful brochures. In fact, I’m not really sure if you can even call these brochures; they’re certainly far prettier than the picture that “brochure” usually draws up, and of far better quality too. In fact, they would not look out of place on a library shelf.

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These were obviously targeted towards a market that already had an idea of what the three-pointed star stood for. They had hundreds more of these booklets stacked neatly behind a curtain along the back wall, ready for distribution should the table run out. Brochures like this might seem surprising to some, but this is par for the course for Mercedes; I have a few Mercedes brochures from the late 1990s stashed away somewhere, and they are of even better quality than these, sized like a real magazine and featuring real paint chips in the colour section.

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Given the spot of honour was the new C-Class, featuring all new styling and some high-end features which have trickled down from the flagship S-Class.

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This looks quite expensive for what was once the cheapest car in the Mercedes lineup. Instead of placing the electric seat controls and memory buttons down along the bottom of the seat, you have here a very intuitive way of controlling the seat’s movements. Not only does this provide some eye candy for the door, this also makes adjusting your seat on the fly that much easier.

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The steering wheel is thick in the sporty tradition, with nice cut-outs at the 9 and 3 position. It’s very nice to hold and supple to the touch, and there is not a single rough spot along the stitching.

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While I understand the reason behind the tacked-on-tablet look a lot of cars with central LCD screens sport nowadays, I’m not a fan of it. It just looks as if the interior designers went all crazy on refining everything, and then suddenly remembered that they forgot to put a screen in, so just stuck it there after realising that they’d run out of space.

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The centre stack is all shiny plastic, with a slightly suspicious dearth of buttons and controls.

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That’s because most of the car’s features and functions are controlled through the COMAND infotainment system. Early versions of these sorts of systems were exercises in computerised torture; menu navigation was horrendous, which was unfortunate because otherwise simple functions were buried in layers of submenus and inaccurate input was the rule instead of the exception. Today, these systems are much improved, with Mercedes’ system using a mouse-shaped controller and a rotary dial for navigation.

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The centre console bin opens up via a small button just in front of it. Press that, and the elbow rest flips up into two sections to reveal the bin. Nice bit of theatre, and with the simple release mechanism, it should last for years.

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Now, here’s some kit that has trickled down from the flagship S-Class. open the glovebox, and you’ll find this strange-looking thing in the corner. At first glance, this kind of looks like a small version of the transporter on the Enterprise, but it’s something a bit more mundane. See, this is an atomiser, designed to work with a special air freshener that Mercedes sells. What you do is select a scent from the range, buy it, and then place it into the thing. A few seconds later, and the interior of your car will smell like whatever scent you’ve selected.

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Details!

Taking the place of the C-Class in the Mercedes price range is the new A-Class hatchback and CLA-Class sedan. With these cars, Mercedes hope to attract new, younger buyers to the brand. This being a Mercedes, of course, being the least expensive doesn’t automatically mean being the cheapest. The difference between inexpensive and cheap is in the details. What you see above is a portion of the A-Class’ tail lamp. Nice huh?

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Step inside and you’re treated to the kind of luxury you come to expect of any car wearing the three-pointed star. There may be a little more hard plastic compared to the more expensive C-Class, but it’s still the same kind of tight fit and finish.

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Again, the LCD screen looks like a tacked-on afterthought, and the stripey dash material looks a little bit iffy. There are more controls here compared to the C-Class, but then again the infotainment isn’t quite as expansive.

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Hard grey plastic features a bit more prominently here, but that’s quite forgiveable, as it’s not got the rough texture you get with most, and the fit and finish are top notch.

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The steering wheel is just as nice as the one you get on the C-Class, albeit the instrument binnacle is a little more two-dimensional. The more interesting objects in this view are the control stalks behind the wheel.

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On the left is the Stalk of Many Functions. Clicking the stalk up and down operates the blinkers, and pulling and pushing it operates the high beams and low beams. Wipers are controlled by rotating the end of the stalk, and the switch in the middle turns the rear wiper on and off. To activate the washers, there’s a button at the end of the stalk that you push in.

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The right stalk is the gear selector. While this looks more complicated than the typical column-mounted shifter, this is at least easier to figure out with the helpful labels. On the other hand, it will probably take some time to keep from shifting the car into reverse when you meant to reach for the wipers. Shift paddles, are of course featured.

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Cruise control is yet another stalk, this time below the Stalk of Many Functions. The labels on it are a little complex, by dint of how many functions are available on the stalk. It will probably take a few weeks to completely memorise all these functions, especially if they’re coming from a less feature-laden car.

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The CLA-Class is basically the A-Class hatch with a trunk and swoopier styling. Some have criticised the CLA’s rear end for looking slightly melted, but it’s not that bad in the metal. I have to admit that it’s not my cup of tea, but I do suspect this is a matter of the rear lamps’ lines and graphics. Perhaps if the raised trunk lip was extended further into the rear quarter fenders the effect wouldn’t be so bad.

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Like the larger CLS, the crux of the CLA’s styling is the “four-door coupe” aesthetic, with a slippery roofline, hidden B-pillars and frameless windows.

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To hide the B-pillars, they are painted gloss black, with the ends of the doors extending over them, resulting in extended sheetmetal at the end of the doors.

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The star of the CLA range is the CLA45 AMG, which extracts 355 horsepower from its turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder. It’s a ludicrous power figure, with muted looks to keep the potential hidden from the unaware.

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The “normal” CLA45 is silly enough, but if you get the “Edition 1” CLA45, you get extra carbon fibre trim bits…

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…a small black bootlid spoiler, some grey stripes along the side…

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…and quad tail pipes. As the “4Matic” badge suggests, a 4-wheel drive system to help put all the power to the ground.

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You also get these matte finish black wheels with the Edition 1 CLA45…

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…and this angry red stripe along the inside of the grille opening.

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As the first turbocharged AMG, the CLA45 will have to answer for a lot of expectations. Like BMW’s M division, AMG will most likely turn to turbocharging in the future, as emissions and consumption requirements become ever stricter. The characteristics of the CLA45’s turbo 2.0-litre will become the measure by which AMG’s future turbo powerplants will be judged.

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For such a powerful, willfully silly car, the CLA45 actually looks quite restrained. It’s only the red grille stripe and sidelong stripe that dress up the car, but everything else – even the carbon fibre bits – look par for the course. The most refined Impreza STi ever? Perhaps, but knowing AMG it’s probably far more special than that.

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Over at BMW, there were no super-sedans. In fact, there were no sedans anywhere in the enclosure.

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All the vehicles in the BMW enclosure were crossovers and SUVs. This is the new X4, which is the swoopy-roofed version of the X3. Some words on the BMW model nomenclature: it used to be that the odd-numbered cars (3, 5, 7) were the sedans, and the even-numbered ones (6, 8) were the coupes. Today, any number preceded by “X” denotes a crossover or SUV, a “Z” denotes a convertible, the odd numbers are still saloons and even numbers coupes, but now they have the “Gran Coupe”, which are sedan versions of the coupes, and the “GT”, which are hatchback versions of the sedans. If it seems a bit confusing, we haven’t even gotten to the new “i” range yet.

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The “M” cars are, of course, the M Division-fettled cars. But not everything with an “M” is a super-BMW. Sometimes it’s just an “M Sport”, which is a regular BMW that’s been fitted with some mild performance and cosmetic upgrades. BMW haven’t made an X1M yet, but they can sell you an X1 M Sport.

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Occupying the centre of the area was the new X4. Taking its cue from the X6, the X4 takes the X3, removes the boxy roof line and replaces it with something much sleeker.

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It’s a pretty striking look, albeit you do sacrifice some interior space and rear headroom for it.

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Well, if it’s interior space you’re after, then just opt for the boxy-roofed X3. Fine, so you get less style points, but at least you can drive along comfortable in the knowledge that you opted for function over form.

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On the inside, you get a well trimmed interior befitting of the blue-and-white roundel. Notice the wood trim? It’s got some depth and a nice irregular grain to it, so it’s most probably real.

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It’s predictably nice inside, if a bit plain. The matte silver trim is a welcome change from shiny coated plastic, and does a good job of lifting the typical all-black interior. I know that BMW’s Individual program will let your specify an interior that’s as much to your liking as the program will allow, but I would seriously like to see some factory interiors with actual colour.

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The wood is too dark to add any actual warmth to the interior, while the small screen just looks disappointingly, well, small. The cutlines on the surround make it obvious that you didn’t spring for the top-grade infotainment system, and the silver trim doesn’t help at all.

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Like Mercedes (and basically every other high-end carmaker now), BMW have decided to create a central control system for the car’s technology features. Actually, BMW and its iDrive system used to be the one example people cited when explaining why such systems were terrible ideas. iDrive has gotten much better now than the first iteration, but BMW’s reinvention of the gear selector does come with a pretty sharp learning curve.

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Unlike the clearly labelled column-mounted Mercedes selector, the BMW version itsn’t particularly forthcoming with its function. Luckily, a BMW Product Genius was around to entertain questions. The way the BMW gear selector remix worked was that the selector had two detents in both forward and backward directions. Pushing only to the first set of detents would manually shift gears, pushing past that would engage the indicated gear. Park was engaged by pushing the button on top. My stand on gear selectors? If you have to read the user manual to work it, then you’ve probably fudged it.

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Part of the BMW display were BMW’s line of bikes, perfect for the active lifestyle you lead for which you purchased your sporty BMW SUV. You could either carry your bikes by a rear-mounted carrier…

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…or with a roof carrier.

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If you’re not really the biking type, but are more of a camper, then BMW will also sell you this covered roof carrier, to keep all your rough-weather gear out of the weather on the way to the camp site.

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The X5 was the one that started BMW on a very profitable path of selling SUVs. Sure the purists cried foul, and that BMW was no longer in the business of making ultimate driving machines, but people want these cars, and they’re willing to pay a premium for them. Which means that BMW has the money to keep on making even better driving machines.

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Similar to the X5, the X6 is the genesis of the pseudo-coupe SUV. Well, some people might cite the Eagle SX4, but the X6 made the format popular.

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It is admittedly a pretty graceful design, but as with the X4, you sacrifice a considerable amount of utility.

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But like the X4, if you think of the X6 as a sedan on stilts, then you’ll be fine. At first the X6 seemed like a thoroughly silly thing, but over time it did grow on me. For a select market, this is the perfect vehicle; the ground clearance of the X5, but styling as sleek as a 6-Series coupe. Or, 6-Series Gran Coupe, to be more accurate.

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What didn’t grow on me, however, were the interior materials. I could not really comprehend why they were what they were. First off, the “machined” textured plastic looked nothing like actual machined metal. Fake wood would have been marginally worse, while gloss black trim would have been a billion times better.

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Is it just because this X6 is not one of the higher-trim models? Either way, when you’re paying a hefty sum for your pseudo-coupe SUV, shouldn’t you expect better materials? Or at the very least, the grain on the plastic could be much better to the touch. As it is, if you were blindfolded and asked to run your hand over it, you might not say “BMW”. Also, the raised “AIRBAG” lettering is very nearly unacceptable.

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Meanwhile, you walk around to the back and open the large hatch, which is powered. You can actually close it manually should you wish to, but why do that when, with a press of a button, electronics will close it for you?

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But before you close it, raise the carpeted rear floor. Here you will find that the floor is equipped with a strut, to save you from the indignity of having to hold it up by yourself. Actually, this is a pretty good idea, even if it does add something else to eventually break.

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This is what I don’t get about the X6: the materials up front are disappointing, but there are these non-cheap touches like the rear blowers and twin power points.SAM_3217

And then you have these coat hangers. Probably an option, but it does make me wonder exactly who BMW is considering this car being bought by someone being driven in the car instead of driving the car.

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This becomes more plausible when you look at the other optional extra: a tablet mount. Obviously, this is for the power-manager type, who likes to make every minute productive. Or, this could be useful for the kids; a bit unlikely considering the height this is mounted at.

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Perhaps it’s due to the generally boxier styling, but the roof trick doesn’t work quite as well on the X4. Meanwhile, the X6 looks quite good, whether or not you’re sitting behind the wheel or behind the driver.

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BMW didn’t really have any form of entertainment for the kids, aside from the pedal cars (display only), the free coffee (adults only), and the bikes on display (health nuts only), but they did have these ramp-like structures that curve gently up off the floor. Kids being kids, there were some playing on it. The surface was glossy but not slick, so as long as the kids didn’t climb too high, they were sort of fine.

That’s it for the German presence at PIMS 2014. While the dreamy concepts were absent, the cars were more than nice enough to draw people in. What’s interesting was the kind of crowd each seemed to be playing to. Volkswagen were going for families and enthusiasts. Mercedes-Benz were appealing to the upwardly-mobile, mostly-set-for-life yuppies with a taste for – nearly – peerless luxury. BMW meanwhile, were going for the weekend adventurer set. Fitting, I suppose: VW for the people, Benz for the discerning and monied, and BMW for the monied who wants to look “younger” than the guy in the Benz.

We still have a few more things to cover from PIMS 2014, so stay tuned for more.

– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag

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