In Geneva, a treat for all senses

Auto show delivers extravagance in metal, and press freebies

The new Ford Fiesta, due for the United States in 2010, is the first of many upcoming European models that Ford is planning for global markets. (Clifford Atiyeh, The new Ford Fiesta, due for the United States in 2010, is the first of many upcoming European models that Ford is planning for global markets.
By Clifford Atiyeh,
March 6, 2008
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GENEVA—Through the haze of hot floodlamps, glittering metal, and the nearly infinite expanse of carpeted walkways, one thing at the 2008 Geneva Auto Show was clear: Maserati serves much tastier champagne than Ferrari.

Enter the press days at the Palexpo, a 330,000-square-foot convention center joined to the city's airport, where auto manufacturers treat hordes of media to ballet performances, fancy hors d'oeuvres and plush leather seating. Stick-figure female models stand in robotic poses, and cleaning staff scurry about, brushing and polishing bits of chrome.

Between the delicate bites of shrimp in the General Motors interview rooms and the buzz of journalists strutting through every stand, it seems the hundreds of new cars on display are merely there for decoration. Put down that free drink, and suddenly you're seeing, smelling, and feeling some of the world's most extraordinary machinery.

As Geneva hosts Europe's first auto show of the year, the city — and indeed the country, plastered with poster ads — seems as proud of its auto show as its private bank accounts. Brimming with optimism were Ford and General Motors, both enjoying success in Europe and at the same time struggling with record losses in the United States.

Ford introduced the new Fiesta hatchback, the first of an upcoming line of cars that will be built on a global platform, which Ford says will better unify its European and North American divisions. The Fiesta won't arrive in the United States until 2010, likely when newer generations of the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa will arrive. However, Ford is confident timing isn't an issue.

"You have to start somewhere," says Martin Burela, Ford global executive director for small cars, "and the small car, which is represented through the Fiesta, is the start, and in fact is the template that we're now going to use for other global programs."

Saab showed its 9-X BioHybrid, a swoopy crossover concept that follows GM's pursuit of ethanol powertrains, in this case being a 1.4 liter four-cylinder. Making their European debuts were the hulking Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and the Ferrari-eating 620hp Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1.

Dodge introduced Europe to the hot-rod Caliber SRT4, but not much else could be said for the Chrysler group, whose overseas divisions are mostly made up of imports from the United States.

Bugatti showed off a special Hermes edition of its Veyron 16.4, adorned with the French fashion label's leather, a two-tone brown paint scheme and "H" logos on the hubcaps. Sending a cannon ball into this Veyron's direction were the fiery Swedes from Koenigsegg, who brandished their new CCXR. Clad in unpainted carbon fiber, the CCXR generates 1018 horsepower when running on E85. The company says it is not waging a speed war.

"We're not the sort of guys who want to compete," says sales manager Andreas Petre, who called the Bugatti a "fat" car when compared to the lighter Koenigsegg. Six have already been sold.

Chinese automaker BYD was in attendance, though with Mercedes-Benz nearby, it keenly decided not to show its F8 convertible, which follows the German company's CLK styling a little too closely. Highlighted was a hybrid version of the F3 sedan, which save for the BYD logos is an exact replica of the previous generation Toyota Corolla, inside and out.

"We are a young (new)comer and following design trends," says sales assistant Lucia Zhang.

At the other end of the price spectrum is Mansory, which takes pleasure in creating body kits and outrageous color schemes for Bentleys and other luxury cars. A matte gold Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren with spotted yellow interior trim and a Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe with orange leather and white wood have infuriated their respective makers.

"Any manufacturer will fight (modifying their cars). They think they're perfect by the time they roll off," says Byron Dantzler, who manages parts for the brand in Beverly Hills, Calif. "For the average owner of a Bentley, there's a good chance his neighbor will have the same."

Honda unveiled the European version of the Accord, which is based on the exterior design of the current Acura TSX. In a Britney Spears-like stage entrance, the Toyota iQ, Japan's answer to the smart fortwo, rose out of a floor covered in bright LED lighting.

Toward the end of the day, the models surrounding the Spider variant of the Alfa Romeo 8C — the halo car for the Italian brand's 2009 reentry into the US market — were still half-smiling for the cameras as the show began to dry up. The booze was put away, of course, just in time for the public's arrival during the next week and a half.

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