Car makers brush off crisis in Geneva

Global car makers brushed off a crisis year with a glitzy array of new models at the Geneva Motor Show on Tuesday, pinning their hopes on compact, clean and economical luxury to woo an uncertain market.

Newcomers included the Audi A1, the German luxury car maker's venture into small car territory, while Mini, Nissan and Renault's Dacia sought to shrink the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with the Countryman, Juke and Duster.

Japan's Nissan also rolled out a redesign of its small Micra, while scandal-hit Toyota brought its clean hybrid technology closer to the mainstream market by fitting it to the Auris hatchback.

Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn said the previously eurocentric Micra was targeting sales of one million a year by 2013, with production shifting to emerging, and cheaper, India, China, Thailand and Mexico.

"This new platform changes everything. Now we will be able to compete... and at the highest level," Ghosn said.

Volkswagen and Opel unveiled spacious new people carriers at opposite ends of the size scale, with the Sharan setting out to win over big families and Opel's Meriva aiming at more compact groups.

French auto maker Renault revealed its coupe-cabriolet Wind, a fun variation on its small Twingo, while South Korean Hyundai and Peugeot showed off concept cars with edgy shapes, hinting at future saloon cars.

"We want to create some provocative designs," said Oh Suk-geun, chief designer of Hyundai, better known for its big selling cheap and practical vehicles.

But the traditional sports car makers toyed with the more sober mood in the wake of the economic crisis, as pressure over carbon emissions gradually translates into taxation and city driving restrictions in some countries.

Porsche showcased a 911 GT3 with a hybrid petrol-electric engine, while Ferrari presented a prototype of a hybrid versions of its 599.

German giant Daimler, maker of Mercedes and Smart, announced that it was teaming up with China's BYD (Build Your Dreams) to develop and mass produce an electric car for the fast growing Chinese market and its huge cities.

"This is a cooperation between the most senior automaker and the youngest... between the country with the best auto industry and the country with the biggest auto market," BYD Auto General Manager Henry Li said in the Swiss city.

Industry analyst Frank Schwope of German NordLB bank said it was good way of bringing some cheer to recent "bad results" for Daimler.

"The opening of a show is conducive to such good news," he added.

Nonetheless, hints abounded of the gloom that depressed sales in the United States and Europe, two of the world's biggest markets, and brought some companies to their knees over the past year.

Toyota was still apologising and trying to reassure customers about the quality of its cars following massive recalls.

Toyota Vice Chairman Kasuo Okamoto acknowledged that the Japanese firm might have lost sight of its customers in recent years during its swift ascent to become the world's biggest car producer.

"We're determined we should really be going more frequently to our customers to get the information we should be getting," said Okamoto, outlining measures to keep tabs on production quality.

"If we do that the problem will not be repeated," he added.

Meanwhile General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said the government supported US giant was no longer intent on wresting the title of world's biggest producer from its Japanese rival.

"It's not a priority and, when you think about it, it's a completely stupid thing to want to be," Lutz told journalists.

"I think any time a company goes for being the world's biggest as the goal they almost inevitably get themselves into serious difficulty because you're starting to focus on the wrong things," he said in Geneva.

On Tuesday it emerged that General Motors will recall 1.3 million cars in North America over a potentially faulty power steering motor.

Some 250 exhibitors representing 700 brands from 30 countries are on show in Geneva. Up to 700,000 people are expect to travel to the Motor Show when it opens to the public from 4 to 14 March, according to the organisers.

bur-pac/dt

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