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Geneva Motor Show Wrap

Audi has the Mini firmly in its sights with an expected starting price around $33,000, with a three-door to kick off sales

Europe is back in business, celebrating the end of the global financial crisis that rocked the car world and drove the biggest of them all - General Motors - into bankruptcy.

There were green shoots of happiness at the Frankfurt Motor Show in late 2009, but this week's Geneva Motor Show shows the same sort of excitement and promise of an early spring morning in Europe.

Every carmaker has something new in Geneva, from full-blown production models to quirky concepts. The Swiss show is often dismissed as a sideshow but this time, with 25 new models as diverse as the Nissan Micra and Porsche Cayenne, there is serious action on every front.

Carmakers are predictably focussed on green solutions to meet the challenges of fuel economy and CO2 emissions - with Fiat even showing a tiny two-cylinder engine for its funkoid 500 - but there is also room for fun.  How else do you describe a Honda city concept that looks like a 20th-century take on the unicycles used by Circe du Soleil acrobats?

But even the green machines have turned mean as Ferrari shows its 599 Vettura Labratorio hybrid, although BYD from China balanced things with its fully-electric E6 hatch.

Porsche also has its 918 supercar concept and both it and the Ferrari tap Formula One technology with KERS hybrid packs - that's Kinetic Energy Recovery System - to store energy for a quick, explosive boost of extra power.

Porsche plans to put the 918 into production but, as yet, Ferrari is only using the super-special 599 - painted symbolically in green instead of the Italian brand's signature red - as a rolling labratory.  "We want to understand how to use this technology. We are not yet at the point to see it in a road going Ferrari," says Amedeo Felisa, Ferrari's CEO.

The upbeat mood at Geneva is captured by the top man at Bentley, Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen, who says the reaction to his company's Mulsanne and Supersports models has filled him with confidence after a shocking 2009.  "There is a feeling that it is behind us," Paefgen says as super-wealthy Bentley buyers emerge from their GFC-proof bunkers.

Walking the stands at Geneva I see green machines that are more than just concepts and plenty of choices for small-car buyers, from budget hatches to baby prestige cars like the Audi A1.  The little Audi gets a rousing reception, Volvo wins praise for the safety and styling of the new S60 sedan and the Alfa Giulietta - replacement for the 147 - raises more questions about the often-promised renaissance for the brand.

Lexus shows a compact new CT200h hybrid that brings petrol-electric power to a new group of buyers, Mini has the Countryman with extra ground clearance and the basics for a World Rally Championship challenge in 2011, and the Mitsubishi ASX crossover - test driven this week by Peter Lyon near Tokyo - heads the Japanese contingent.

For Alfa fans, the Giulietta is pitched at the Volkswagen Golf with a range of 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engines.  BMW’s new 5 Series and a 4-litre six-cylinder X5 diesel creates a predictable buzz among SUV fans.

Kia’s head of design, Peter Schreyer, lifts the wraps off the stylish new Sportage, which is due in Australia later this year, with the promise of both turbodiesel and petrol engines, as well as front and all-wheel drive.  The Sportage could be major hit for the Korean brand, matching the impact of the Hyundai ix35, when it goes on sale with an opener in the sub-$30,000 bracket.

Ford leverages the first European appearance of its new Focus hatch in Geneva by unveiling the Focus wagon, which at this stage is a Europe-only car. Europeans are big wagon buyers and the wagon is expected to account for one-third of all Focus sales there.

But the Focus wagon is only the halfway point - the fifth of 10 proposed models - using the same basic building blocks and the future includes a Focus electric car. Currently, the wagon, hatch, sedan and C-Max and Grand C-Max all share the same underpinnings.

“We are now using our global resources to develop cars for all countries, including Australia,” says Ford's technical chief, Derrick Kuzak.  He also reveals the current Europe-only Kuga compact SUV and North American Escape will be replaced by a single global car, which could head to Australia, and hints that a hot performance Focus with a more-powerful version of Ford’s 2.0-litre Ecoboost turbo engine will also be available in Australia.

Lexus uses Geneva to showcase its critically important CT 200h hybrid, which it hopes to become a volume player.  But the CT 200h is not the only car to push the green theme at the affordable end.

Hyundai has the stylish turbocharged 1.7-litre i-flow concept sedan, which uses a lithium-ion battery pack with six-speed dual-clutch transmission, and it is joined by the ix35 FCEV hydrogen fuel-cell car and Opel’s Flextreme GT-E.

Apart from Ferrari, Porsche shows off its GT3 R Hybrid - also with KERS - and 918 Spyder, both exploring the outer limits of hybrid drivetrains for race and road cars.  The Cayenne, along with the VW Touareg, share their hybrid debuts as Audi uses the first appearance of its baby A1 to reveal a full-electric E-tron concept that joins earlier R8-based plug-in supercars.

Apart from the conventional petrol and diesel A1, Audi also adds the RS5 coupe to its A5 lineup and a hybrid A8 sedan. The RS5 gets a powerful 335kW/430Nm 4.2-litre V8, quattro all-wheel drive and seven-speed S-tronic dual clutch gearbox.

Like the BMW-built Mini, Audi has several distinctly styled A1s on its stand. It says owners will have access to so much customisation that no two A1s will be exactly the same.

Audi has the Mini firmly in its sights with an expected starting price around $33,000 for the A1, with a three-door car to kick of sales with a five-door and cabrio expected. The range-topper is expected to be an S version with a performance-tuned turbo four cylinder engine.

Citroen springs one of the few real surprises of the show with its hot-pink Survolt sportscar while Giugiaro teams up with Proton to deliver a stylish hybrid city car.  The Survolt is a pure design fantasy with no likely production expected. The showcar did not even have an engine and Citroen says it has been designed to go electric.

Apart from the sleek Citroen, two Italian styling houses - Pininfarina and Bertone - have show cars based on Alfa Romeo mechanical parts. Bertone returns to Geneva for the first time in two years with the Pandion 2+2 concept coupe and Pininfarina shows the two-seater 2uettottanta.

Apart from the twin concepts, Citroen has the DS3 Racing as well as its DS High Rider three door, a pointer to the next-generation C4, which is due to be launched next year as a five-door.  The company will only build 1000 versions of the DS3 racing and the head of local importer Ateco Automotive, Neville Crichton, says he would like to bring a few to Australia but will initially focus on launching the DS range.

“It certainly is a good looking thing,” Crichton says.  Mercedes-Benz continues to create a buzz at Geneva with its SLS Gullwing supercar but the F800 Style, a pointer to the next-generation CLS minus its cantilever rear doors, dominates the Mercedes stand and shares the limelight with the E-Class cabriolet.

Fitting in the quirky category in Geneva is Aston Martin’s Cygnet hatch, a remake of Toyota’s iQ city car. The $50,000 makeover model will only be sold to existing Aston Martin customers.  Aston Martin boldly has the Cygnet right next to its four-door flagship sports car, the Rapide.

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