1999 Geneva Motor Show

March 14, 1999

The 1999 Geneva International Motor Show might be remembered as one of the most eventful car shows in recent history. DaimlerChrysler nixed its plans to invest in Nissan, while Renault eyed its own offer for the beleaguered Japanese brand. Cadillac promised it would return to race at Le Mans for the first time in 50 years. And for once, the slew of exotic, expensive makes didn’t detract from some important mass-market coupes and sedans ready to roll on Europe’s narrow streets. The highlights from the show follow here, presented by our stable of TCC international reporters.

OPEL EYES SPEEDSTER. Don’t blink, or you could miss the Opel Speedster. The concept two-seater is designed to race from 0-100 kph (0-62.5 mph) in "under six seconds," according to Opel Chairman Bob Hendry. It’s powered by a brand-new 2.2-liter four-cylinder aluminum engine — the same powerplant that will drive a wide range of future Opel products. Officially, the new Speedster is just a concept car, but that could change depending on the reaction the roadster gets from Geneva showgoers. — PAE

SHOOTING FOR SHARE. Opel has invested $350 million in a new assembly line to build the Speedster’s engine. But that’s only a small piece of the $9 billion GM intends to invest in Europe over the next five years in order to revive its sagging market share, according to GM Europe President Michael Burns. GM’s market share slipped to 10.9 percent in 1998, down roughly 2 points from the mid-‘90s peak. Burns is optimistic GM Europe will take share away "from a lot of different people" with a variety of new and improved products, such as the new Zafira. For lack of a better term, you might call the Zafira a mini-minivan. It has flexible seating for up to seven, yet it has the exterior footprint of a conventional European compact. Zafira’s seating can be reconfigured in a variety of different ways to make room for plenty of luggage and cargo. Like other automakers, Opel is looking to reduce the number of basic product platforms it uses, but it will expand the variety of vehicles it offers. The strategy should help cut costs while increasing the number of market segments GM can target. "That’s the way you’re going to win in this business," Burns said. He added that his "stretch goal" is to reach $840 million in earnings this year, up from $419 million in 1998. — PAE

Mercedes CL 500

Mercedes CL 500

COUPE COUP. Coupes were the hot ticket for several automakers this year. Mercedes-Benz offered up the new V-12-powered CL600, and a V-8 version, the CL500. The CL600, which goes on sale later this year, will carry a $90,000 price tag. It boasts 367 horsepower and shares the same suspension as Mercedes’ new S-Class. Both new CL models will feature DaimlerChrysler’s new active body control, essentially an automatic suspension system intended to smooth out the pitch-and-roll movements of cornering, accelerating and braking. Audi, meanwhile, offered up several coupes of its own, as well as a Roadster version of the hot new TT. And the German automaker unveiled a new V-8-powered A6, which is expected to significantly expand the sedan’s appeal in the power-hungry American market. — PAE

PRANCING PONY. You’d need X-ray eyes to see the most significant new feature of the Ferrari 360 Modena. The Italian automaker’s new entry in Geneva is built around an all-aluminum body structure developed as part of a five-year joint venture between Ferrari and aluminum supplier Alcoa. The 360 Modena replaces Ferrari’s top-selling F355 and is meant to keep sales running at record levels for a third year in a row. The price tag for the new car is $170,000, up 5 percent from the old car. Drivers will discover an extra 20 horsepower, which should make a significant difference considering the 360 Modena is 220 pounds lighter than the old F355. A racing-style automatic gearshift system can change gears in a lightning-fast 150 milliseconds. The F355 was Ferrari’s most successful model ever, accounting for sales of 2,000 units a year, about half the total volume for the carmaker, which is 87 percent owned by Fiat SpA. — PAE

LeMans Cadillac.

LeMans Cadillac.

CADILLAC, WE HAVE RETURNED. America’s best-selling luxury brand will be returning to the grueling Le Mans racecourse in June 2000, a full 50 years after its last appearance. The automaker used the Geneva Motor Show to unveil a scale model of its Northstar LMP (short for Le Mans prototype) racer. The open-cockpit LMP will be powered by a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged version of the Northstar V-8 used in such production models as the Caddy Seville. Insiders suggest it will make about 650 horsepower in racing trim. "The idea of returning to Le Mans after 50 years … could put on display some of the virtues that made us great," announced Cadillac General Manager John F. Smith. It should also provide extra visibility for the General Motors division, which is trying to orchestrate a rapid expansion of its miniscule European market. — PAE

Bentley LeMans

Bentley LeMans

BENTLEY AT LE MANS, TOO? Volkswagen plans to race the Bentley supercar it developed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 2000. VW officially hasn't said a thing, but we cornered VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech at the Volkswagen dinner in the Noga Hilton Hotel and asked: "Are you going to race the Bentley at Le Mans?" "Yes." "When? Next year?" "Yes. It could be." The Bentley shown at the stand is a 630-hp V-16 with a lot of torque at low revs, just the kind of thing Bentley bragged about when it won at Le Mans in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. The Bentley is named "Hunaudieres," the name of the straightaway at the track, but all that torque will be an advantage coming out of the curves. — WD

BUGATTI FOR REAL? The Bugatti EB218 concept car developed by Volkswagen and ItalDesign's Giugiaro has four doors, while the EB118 shown at the Paris show last fall has two. Another big difference in the cars, said VW body engineer Hans-Martin Lent-Philipps, is that the EB218 is a real car. When VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech started the EB118 in Paris, it growled to life with a minor cloud of blue exhaust. Still, from an engineering point of view, "that car was just a concept," Lent-Philipps said. The EB218's V-18 engine stayed off, but the car underneath is engineered for real life. And that wasn't easy. "With the big wheels and big engine, there's no space," the engineer said. "It's harder to make the Bugatti than the Lupo." — WD

LAMBO GIVES DIABLO GT TREATMENT. Lamborghini’s new, very high-performance car will only be produced in a limited edition. Only 80 Diablo GTs will leave the factory of Sant’Agata Bolognese in Italy this year, the company said. The new Diablo GT that was first shown in Geneva is developed based on the experiences with the GT2 racecar. The Diablo GT is driveable on public roads and is homologated in most countries for racing. The new Lambo is the fastest production car in the world, with a top speed of 338 km/h (210 mph). Its new 6.0-liter V-12 engine produces 575 hp at 7300 rpm and has a max torque of 465 foot-pounds at 5500 rpm. Among other features, the GT has a multithrottle intake manifold, new intake and exhaust camshafts, intake variable valve timing and titanium connecting rods. — HH

DB7 Vantage Aston Martin

DB7 Vantage Aston Martin

A BETTER VANTAGE. James Bond, eat your heart out. The legendary British spy may just want to trade in his BMW now that Aston Martin has unveiled its newest model, the DB7 Vantage. "It returns Aston Martin to what we know best: power and performance," said Chairman Bob Dover to a crowd of fawning journalists. Under the hood of an otherwise conventional DB7, Aston packs in its first-ever V-12, a 6.0-liter powerplant pumping out a tire-spinning 420 horsepower. With a stick, the car races from 0-100 kph (0-62.5 mph) in 5.0 seconds. The automatic edition is a tenth of a second slower. "I think this car will do well," Dover declared in typical British understatement — with or without a check from a certain Bond. James Bond. — PAE

TOYOTA EYES THE TOP. Toyota Motor Corp. plans a third factory in Europe before 2005. The new chief executive of Toyota Motor Europe, Akira Imai, a straight-talking, ambitious businessman, said the new factory would probably be in Eastern Europe, possibly in the Balkans. It will be needed because he wants to raise production in Europe from 175,000 last year to 800,000 by 2005. "I want to be in the top five or six in Europe," Imai said in an interview. That means he plans to grow bigger than one or two native Europeans: one of the Big Six that now include Volkswagen, Ford, Opel/Vauxhall, Fiat, Renault and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen. Can Toyota get ahead of Ford to be No. 2 during his career? "Yes," Imai said. "Right now, Toyota produces almost 5 million cars. Daihatsu is producing about 650,000, so we are closer to 6 million. To take the same as GM or Ford or Volkswagen as a group, we can achieve that easily." — WD

TOUGH TIMES. Add it all up, and you’ll find that at least some European automakers are going to fall far short of their goals in the coming year. VW board member Robert Buechelhofer told Bloomberg news service he would consider it an "extraordinary success" if VW manages to increase sales and production this year. VW last month indicated fourth-quarter earnings rose 45 percent — but that was off from the third quarter, and the carmaker warned it will be "difficult" to raise earnings in 1999. — PAE

CRUISIN’ GENEVA. European buyers got their first look at the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the "too-cool-to-categorize" small car that made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show last January. Looking to many like a downsized London Taxi, the Cruiser is one of several new segmentbusters — including the Opel Zafira — designed to appeal in a market where space and fuel are at a premium. The Cruiser’s interior layout and foldable/removable seats allow it to be configured for anywhere from one to five passengers. DaimlerChrysler officials say the vehicle will go on sale in Europe about a year from now, shortly after its American debut. It could ultimately account for as much as half the total volume for Chrysler-branded products. But company officials also hint they may be working on a new sedan that would specifically be targeted for the European market. — PAE

EURASIAN MOTORS? With DaimlerChrysler pulling itself out of the running, French automaker Renault appears to have a clear shot at completing a deal with troubled Nissan Motor Corp. "We're pursuing a thorough study," Renault Chairman Louis Schweitzer said following word of DaimlerChrysler’s decision. "We’ve always said that this represents an opportunity but is also something that wasn't easy to do." While Schweitzer declined to set out a timetable, industry sources suggest that both Renault and Nissan would like to wrap up their talks by late March, before the end of the Japanese fiscal year. Meanwhile, Renault officials reported their efforts to acquire the Romanian carmaker Dacia should be wrapped up by mid-April. "We're not expecting any more hurdles, Renault Executive Vice President Georges Douin told Reuters news service in an interview. — PAE

WHEELING AND DEALING. "This isn’t an auto show. It’s a bazaar," said a senior Ford executive as he surveyed the floor of the Geneva International Auto Show. "Everyone here is either for sale or looking for someone to buy." While the spotlight focused on DaimlerChrysler, Renault, and Nissan, it was clear that the industry, as a whole, remains in the grip of merger mania. A senior Ford official hinted his company might be looking at another acquisition in Japan. Industry scuttlebutt suggested both Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy Industries — which produces Subaru cars — could be seeking partners. After long expressing an interest in remaining independent, PSA Peugeot Citroen Chairman Jean-Martin Folz said his group also might consider a merger if the deal promised rapid industrial benefits. And, of course, there’s BMW, which many believe to be seeking a well-funded partner to help it recover from the financial problems of its British subsidiary, Rover. In his first major appearance, BMW’s new Chief Executive, Joachim Milberg, took pains to say his company wants to remain independent. Perhaps, but the BMW rumors show no sign of abating. — PAE

LUXURIATING AT FORD. Ford Motor Co. plans to boost luxury car sales from 200,000 to 1 million a year over the course of the next decade, company officials announced following the conclusion of Ford’s acquisition of Volvo Cars. Stockholders voted overwhelmingly to accept to $6.5 billion deal announced earlier this year. The 1 million unit target will require Ford to expand operations at all its luxury brands, including Lincoln, Volvo and Jaguar, noted Richard Parry-Jones, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president for product development. But the automaker used its slot at Geneva’s press days to show it is targeting other segments of the market. The Mondeo ST250 ECO concept car is a supercharged version of the Ford sedan that can run on standard gasoline or liquefied petroleum gas. Then there’s the TH!NK, a zero-emission electric-powered, plastic-bodied car that will go on sale in Scandinavian countries before the end of this year. "High performance and care for the environment are not necessarily competing interests," Parry-Jones said. — PAE

VOLVO WINS INNOVATIVE PRIZE. Last Wednesday Auto Europe announced that the winner of this year’s Innovation Prize is the whiplash protection system, WHIPS, from Volvo. With WHIPS, the seating system of the Volvo S80 reduces acceleration forces in the neck by about 50 percent. Auto experts and engineers from 12 countries nominated new technologies for the prize, while the editors in chief of the various European Auto magazines voted for the winner. The Innovation Prize is for new technology of any type, from service to safety and from engines to car concepts. Last year Mitsubishi won the prize for its GDI (gas direct-injection) system. — HH

EUROPE GETS SMART? Smart is attracting the customers it wanted to, but not as many as it wanted, said Hans-Juerg Schaer, the executive vice president for marketing and sales at Micro Compact Car smart GmbH. Schaer said Smart buyers like the microcar’s roominess, maneuverability and style, but don't like the somewhat harsh quality of the suspension, the price/value relationship, or the car’s fuel consumption. Smart is doing something about the criticisms: it's added equipment and cut prices on most models. A basic Smart now costs about $9,300 in France and Italy. It has also introduced a new diesel engine that gets more than 50 miles per gallon. The stiff ride is here to stay, most likely, a result of the safety measures enacted to keep the car from rolling over in emergency high-speed lane changes. — WD

Reporting: Henny Hemmes (HH), William Diem (WD), TCC Team (PAE)

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