Down and dirty with the off-roaders of IAA Frankfurt 2019
The 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show isn't solely about electrified performance vehicles. There's also a small but fascinating collection of 4x4s and off-road sports vehicles, some of which are weird concept cars, others soon-to-be hot-selling market staples. Whether you want to see what mid-century autonomous off-roading might look like, or you just need to haul supplies around a muddy job site, Frankfurt's collection of off-road-ready vehicles will be of interest.
The icon, the legend, the go-anywhere hero of mud and dust ... the Land Rover Defender finally returns after a three-year hiatus. And, well ... meh. The look is better than we feared, straightened out and toughened up over the much-maligned 2011 DC100 concept that served as an early preview, but a US$50,000 glossy, unibody 110 loaded with driving sensors, Apple CarPlay and over-the-air updates wasn't exactly the simple, hard-nosed 4x4 we thought we were waiting for. An available Urban Pack?!
Whatever the case, this is the future of the Defender, so fans will have to embrace it or leap to the Wrangler or Land Cruiser camps. And there's still a lot to embrace, starting with the newly developed all-aluminum D7x (for extreme!) architecture that Land Rover claims results in its stiffest body ever, some three times stiffer than body-on-frame designs. A permanent all-wheel drive, two-speed transfer box and host of off-road systems like Configurable Terrain Control, Wade Sensing and ClearSight Ground View help the toughest Land Rover of them all make its way through thick and thin. Accessory Packs and a huge a la carte accessories list should create a low-hassle path to building out the perfect Defender for your usage, whether that's day trips with bikes and kayaks or months' long overland expeditions.
Speaking of accessories ... maybe it was just that we attended Frankfurt right after the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon, but staring at the Defenders on the show floor got us very excited for a new generation of Defender expedition vehicles. While we'll have to wait a while for the third-party pop-up roofs and mini-kitchens, Land Rover's most ambitious accessories program ever is already preparing to supply Defender owners with accessories like a roof-top tent, expedition roof rack and inflatable tailgate awning. Some of the first Defender off-road campers will look something like the one above.
Very much the opposite of a long-awaited off-road icon, the Audi AI:Trail quattro is more an out-of-left-field off-road oddity that'll never, ever happen. The little 4x4 completes the AI series that started two years ago with the Aicon and proceeded through the AI:Race (originally called the PB18 e-tron) and AI:ME. The AI:Trail is the strangest of the bunch, absolutely loaded with weirdness like indoor/outdoor hammock seats and swarming drone headlights/utility lights.
But the AI:Trail quattro isn't merely weird novelty for the sake of it – it provides an interesting exploration of how electric drive and autonomous technology can be used to power the on/off-road vehicle of the future. Its Level 4 capabilities are available on highways and in cities, handing the reigns over to the human driver when pavement turns to dirt. The four wheel motors of the 435-hp electric drive constantly adjust torque to manage traction and slip, while an auto-adjusting tire pressure system tweaks psi for changing surface conditions. Sensor-based alerts let the driver know if the terrain exceeds the vehicle's ground clearance or angles of incidence.
The AI:Trail won't be tackling Hell's Revenge alongside the new Defender anytime soon (ever), but it certainly is a rare and interesting look at how next-gen automotive technologies could be used to enhance off-road capabilities and experiences.
A whole different beast from either the AI:Trail or new Defender, the new aCar from Munich-based Evum Motors is another interesting off-roader in Frankfurt. Tucked away from the bright show floors of the main halls, the aCar stands quietly in the New Mobility World area of the show, drawing in the occasional passerby with its bright paintwork.
More a truck than a car, the aCar is designed as an all-electric utility vehicle for agriculture and industry. Its basic dual-motor four-wheel drive has an output of 27 hp and range up to 124 miles (200 km). Solar panels can be added to the roof as battery support, and a modular design makes it easy to outfit the aCar for different tasks, from hauling packages, to carrying hay, to sweeping the street. It has a payload of 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) and a top speed of 43 mph (70 km/h).
Evum developed its initial 2017 prototype with emerging markets in mind, but it's now planning to start in Europe, where the €28,900 aCar will be sold as an affordable, versatile and low-maintenance work vehicle. The company is preparing its production facility in Lower Bavaria and plans to start rolling out vehicles in early 2020 before expanding its footprint with micro-factories in target markets.
Check out more of these Frankfurt stars and the supporting cast of off-road vehicles in the photo gallery at the top of the page.