Updated: March 4, 2010 9:37 AM | By Frank Jordans, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, cp.org

Geneva auto show opens 80th edition on note of optimism as questions remain over hybrid future



Geneva auto show opens 80th edition on note of optimism as questions remain over hybrid future

Visitors enter the fair halls at public opening of the Geneva Motor Show in Geneva. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Martin Meissner)

GENEVA - The 80th Geneva Motor Show opened its doors to the public Thursday, offering a note of optimism and fun after two difficult years for the industry.

The hybrid revolution, however, remains elusive. Among the stars of the show are Nissan's Juke crossover, Alfa Romeo's Giulietta hatchback and the Volvo S60 sedan.

German automakers Audi and BMW went head-to-head in the hot hatch segment, a European term for amped up subcompacts popular with younger style-conscious buyers.

Audi presented its A1, available in three and five door versions, as a direct challenger to BMW's Mini series and a big departure from its larger, more mature models. BMW, in turn, raised the stakes by building its biggest ever Mini, the Countryman, a four-door, all-wheel-drive version of the successful 1960s revival.

Show visitor Kevin Leutwiler from Switzerland said he admired the A1's aggressive, sporty style but added "it's not a car for a tight budget." The A1 retails from about C15,000 ($20,460), which is still cheaper than the basic Mini Countryman starting at C21,000 ($28,650).

The economic downturn in recent years has deterred many potential buyers from purchasing new cars, though scrappage incentives have helped ease the pain somewhat for automakers.

Most manufacturers are expecting a dip in European sales this year despite the economic upswing, due to the sudden end of cash-for-clunkers programs. The Italian and German markets, which were buoyed by schemes that saw the government pay incentives to drivers who traded in older, polluting cars for more efficient new models, are forecast to be especially hard hit. Some experts expect sales to drop by as much as 1 million in Germany, where 3.8 million cars were sold last year.

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne told reporters at the show that the Italian market would be 1.7 million vehicles without the incentives, compared with 2.15 million in 2009. Incentives in Italy kept sales from plummeting last year, dropping just 0.2 per cent from a year earlier.

But he insisted that the crisis is over. "The important thing is to manage the future," Marchionne said.

One question the industry is asking itself is when European consumers are going to start buying hybrid and electric cars in large enough numbers to make their production profitable. So far, only Toyota has had any real success with hybrids, and mainly in Japan and the United States.

While plenty of exhibitors in Geneva showed off alternative fuel concept cars, only a few offered production ready gas-electric or pure electric models such as the Porsche Cayenne, Honda CR-Z coupe, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Auris.

Some spectators said the hybrid label made little sense on powerful sports cars and SUVs.

"Hybrid is very good for the world," said Ondrej Leseticky from the Czech Republic. "But a hybrid Panamera wouldn't be a Panamera." By chance, Porsche is planning to make this high-end sedan the next model to come with a hybrid option.

Andreas Wuethrich, who came down to the show with his family from nearby Biel, said he would consider buying an electric car but was concerned about reliability.

"It's a new technology and the range is still limited," he said. Many electrics have a range of less than 100 kilometres, enough for a spin around the city but too little for a family holiday.

Other visitors said alternative fuel vehicles are still too expensive compared to regular gas alternatives.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, many hybrids are priced higher than their conventional counterparts, slowing the market uptake for such vehicles.

One electric car designed for long-distance travel is the Rinspeed UC? - pronounced "you see?"

The hitch is that you need to load it onto a special train.

Frank M. Rinderknecht, Rinspeed's founder, said the UC? was meant to provoke a debate about the future of personal mobility. Switzerland is already the country with the highest per capita rate of car sharing, a system of pay-as-you-go auto ownership increasingly popular in Europe, where rail companies offer integrated transport solutions that allow people to travel to another city by train and pick up a pre-booked car at the station.

Dirk Bake, director of the German national car sharing association BCS, said some people are tired of waiting for the perfect green car to come along and so are joining car sharing clubs for both ecological and economic reasons instead. The number of users in Germany increased by 15 per cent to 158,000 last year and could eventually reach 1-2 million, he said.

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On the Net:

Geneva Auto Show: http:www.salon-auto.ch/en/

UCS hybrid scorecard: http://bit.ly/aHCcIF

Car Sharing information site: http://www.carsharing.net/

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AP Business Writer Colleen Barry contributed to this report.

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