I have seen Volkswagen’s future, and it’s a little car called the Up! (I didn’t put the exclamation point there, VW did.) The Up! was, to me, the most significant car introduced at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, because I can see it becoming ubiquitous worldwide as a tiny blow for sanity and good fuel economy. It’s more in touch with the company’s cheap and cheerful roots than the Beetle. VW thinks it could be the biggest-selling small car in the world. That's a tall order, because with the singular exception of North America, tiny cars rule.

An auto introduction in Frankfurt is much like one in Detroit or New York. Repetitive blessed-out techno music plays, until there’s an ear-splitting din from an over-the-top sound system and an executive bounds out (they all bound out) and tries to build some excitement for the new model, which is either driven onto the stage or unveiled, with a flourish, by a bevy of models.

Perhaps VW was unsure the tiny and unpretentious basic Up! was sexy enough, because it chose to unveil not just basic two-door car but a whole family of six siblings, some fanciful (a nautical dune buggy, an accessory for the yachting set) but also two eco-themed versions that are headed for production. It’s an adaptable shape, not flashy but true to the company’s mission (in a way the huge Touareg SUV will never be).

The Up! will be on the market by the end of the year in Europe, and it’s likely for the U.S., too, but no guarantees. It probably depends on the price of oil. The Up! is a very small car that makes the Honda Fit look macho, but it does have seating for four and a nicely appointed interior. There’s a mini three-cylinder, one-liter engine under the hood, and fuel economy of up to 4.7 liters per 100 kilometers. The range is 517 miles, so you’re not going to run out of gas, and the greenhouse gas emissions are a low 108 grams per kilometer. It’s going to be produced at a plant in Slovakia, and will cost, in Europe, less than 10,000 euros ($13,785). Here's what it looks like on video:

The E-Up! and the Eco-Up! will be even greener. The Eco version is powered by natural gas, and emits just 79 grams per kilometer. It’s expected to be on the market by the fall of 2012. A year later, the battery-powered zero-emission E-Up is supposed to go into production. The car rolled out in Frankfurt was just a concept car, but VW did have its E-Motion electric Jetta available for rides.

Also shown, albeit very briefly, was the single-seat Nils electric concept car, developed as an exercise in future commuting (“from the world of 2030”) in conjunction with the German Federal Ministry of Transport. From a distance, it looked strikingly similar to Audi’s also-new-in-Frankfurt Urban Concept study, designed for “minimalist mobility.” Both are ultra-lightweight designs, with tiny pod bodies and (shades of Indy racing) wheels out on struts. With a relatively small battery pack and a 65-kilometer range, both cars are intended for affordable basic commuting.

Audi’s more production ready EV was a design study for a new A2 electric, which used a striking light band that followed the headlights around the car. Audi’s chief designer, Stefan Sielaff, said in Frankfurt that building a new car around a battery allows a whole new visual language, particularly in the interior layout. The A2 was somewhat fanciful, but we’re quite likely to see more of it.

The Mia Electric (at right) is aimed at just about everywhere but the U.S. right now. It’s a fascinating electric minivan with a fiberglass body, one central front seat and a relatively spacious rear compartment with room for two. Sliding doors give huge access on either side.

The car (just 9.4 feet long) was designed by Murat Günak, a veteran of VW, Mercedes and Peugeot. Gorgeous it isn’t, but intriguingly practical. Karsten Wurzer of Mia told me it weighs just 1,600 pounds, and that’s with the driver included. There is also a larger Mia L (which adds an extra seat in back) and a commercial box van. The French factory is gearing up to produce 1,000 cars per month.

The tiny size and weight allows use of a very small lithium-ion-phosphate battery pack, just eight kilowatt-hours in the base model and 12 kilowatt-hours as an option. Range is 50 to 75 miles with the small pack, and up to 130 with the larger one. Charge times are also aided by the small battery size—just three hours for the eight kilowatt-hour model. Top speed is approximately 62 miles per hour, so it may see some limited autobahn use.

The car is headed for car-sharing programs in Great Britain and sales in Switzerland, Turkey and the Benelux countries. Of course, they want to sell it in the U.S., too, but they always say that. Everything I saw about the Mia indicated it could be built to an affordable price, and they quote a price of 18,800 euros ($25,934) in France. “It’s cheaper in France, where there are 5,000 euros in government subsidies,” Wurzer said. That would make the price without any supports more than 23,000 euros, or $31,000. That’s not cheap, but it’s less than most other electric cars in Europe.

Speaking of exclusive cars, I found the time to check in on the Fisker stand, where I met Henrik Fisker himself (he said my writing was “unavoidable,” which I hope was a compliment). And he showed off the all-new Surf, a station wagon or “shooting brake” version of the Karma plug-in hybrid that is just now trickling onto the market.

Leonard DiCaprio, Colin Powell and Fisker chairman Ray Lane have cars, but they’re running on manufacturers’ plates until the car gets all its federal certifications. Spokesman Roger Ormisher told me that many cars have now rolled off the production line in Finland, but they won’t be shipped to dealers (two each) until the certification arrives.

The Surf is a twist on the Karma platform, as is the Sunset convertible. Fisker told me the Surf will go into production as early as next year. I sat in the Surf, which was unusually well appointed for a show car. Fisker has a way with leather and suede. The rear seat was somewhat tight, but usable, so it’s definitely the utility Fisker.

There was lots more. Smart had a lavish stand that showcased a tweaked electric drive version of the car, but not the all-new platform that Smart needs. The third-gen electric Smart is headed for 30 markets, and it features a bigger 55-kilowatt motor, and faster acceleration of zero to 32 mph per hour in five seconds. It’s faster on the top end, too, and able to reach 74 miles per hour. Range is now 87 miles.

Finally, I was struck by some vehicles from a carmaker I’d never heard of, Germany-based Wiesmann. They were glittery sports cars, a roadster and a somewhat uneasy-looking GT, and they shared a lot of body language with Jaguar’s legendary C Type. Wiesmann has been around since 1988, and claims to be the “leading manufacturer of purist sports cars.” I didn’t even know they existed, but still strongly doubt that claim. The cars are virtually hand-built, and darned expensive. If you have to ask you can’t afford a Wiesmann.

Supercars are the new growth industry—there’s more than a hundred companies out there making them now, and many were exhibiting at Frankfurt. But the electrics are taking up more and more floor space, and it’s the Up! (and cars like it) that will change the world.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Europe, once the land of the diesel, is now plugging in with a vengeance
Volkswagen has a major new eco-car, with both natural gas and electric models. That was just one of many green introductions at this year's Frankfurt motor show