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Geneva Motor Show seeks green light out of gloom

Filed on March 1, 2009

GENEVA - The auto industry will put ecology and economy on display when the Geneva Motor Show opens to the public on Thursday, to try to reverse plunging sales, plant closures, lay-offs and threatened bankruptcies.

The first European rendezvous of the year, in neutral territory -- Switzerland has no major car maker -- from March 5 to 15 is still expected to attract 700,000 visitors, according to the organisers.

Some 120 new or modified models are due to be presented in the western Swiss city as car companies from around the world woo reluctant buyers.

"What is striking is that every car maker is presenting ecological and economical models," said show spokeswoman Silvia Blattner.

From being a "marginal" albeit growing component of the show in recent years, cars with a more environmental flavour are now taking centre stage, she added.

For the first time, Geneva has turned one of its seven exhibition halls into a dedicated showcase for green technology.

Carlos da Silva, analyst at Global Insight, said: "The rise in oil prices at the beginning of 2008 made manufacturers aware of the need to prepare for the future."

Troubled General Motors's German brand Opel is one volume car maker going electric, with the unveiling of the Ampera saloon destined for mass production.

Californian newcomer Tesla Motors will show Europeans its 109,000 dollar (86,000 euro) convertible, all-electric sports car capable of accelerating to 100 kilometres per hour (62 miles per hour) in four seconds.

At the thriftier end of the market, Indian car maker Tata is due to unveil the European version of its mass production Nano microcar with a reported price tag equivalent to a big scooter; 5,000 euros (6,347 dollars).

Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen are placing smaller and more economical petrol and diesel engines under the bonnets of outwardly standard vehicles.

Even bespoke maker Bentley feels obliged to nod to the green mood in its most powerful production car yet, with 621 horsepower and 12 cylinders engineered to drink biofuels as well as petrol.

The world's biggest automobile groups -- General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Chrysler -- have borne the brunt of the economic crisis after consumer credit dried up late last year and unsettled buyers put off big spending.

Sales continued to fall in 2009, with new car registrations dropping by 27 percent in Europe last month to 958,000 vehicles, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association.

Sales plunged by 18 percent in the United States in 2008, and by 37 percent last month according to some studies.

Japanese car output fell by a record 41 percent in January as exports tumbled by more than half, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers' Association reported.

US-based General Motors, a problem child for many years, last Thursday warned of a "challenging" year ahead as it posted a 30.9-billion-dollar annual loss for 2008.

The world's biggest car group was on the brink of bankruptcy, according to ratings agency Moodys.

GM illustrates the global reach of an industry that directly or indirectly underpins the jobs of an estimated 12 million people in Europe alone.

Its fragile European offspring, Opel and Sweden's Saab, this month set out to find billions of dollars in funding to distance themselves from their parent group.

Cost concerns prompted Nissan, Porsche and Ferrari to stay away from the Detroit Motor Show last month.

But they are in Geneva, which will only suffer a halving in the size of the GM stand.

Even the dream makers are adapting.

Swiss concept car maker Rinspeed's annual display of quirkiness this year is an electric-powered, single-seat sportster that can lengthen at the push of a button to accommodate three.

Clad with solar panels and showcasing clean technology, the car is called the "iChange."

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