- Associated Press - Monday, February 28, 2011

GENEVA (AP) - The car industry, it seems, just can’t get a break.

Just when automakers thought it safe to roll out new models in the wake of the devastating economic crisis _ 170 premiers are advertised for the Geneva Auto Show opening this week _ confidence is shaken by a spike in oil prices due to civil unrest in Libya and other energy-producing nations.

Gas pump prices, which are at a seasonal record in the U.S., will sharpen attention at the auto show on technologies that squeeze more power out of conventional engines, along with much-anticipated news in hybrid and electric vehicles.

Although most carmakers are showing upbeat signs of recovery, the key theme, as during the financial crisis years, will once again be fuel efficiency.

Rolls Royce’s one-off electric-powered Phantom luxury sedan could give electric the kind of upscale appeal it so far lacks. The concept car, to be unveiled on Tuesday, will be tested on tracks in different climates around the world this year to help decide what drivetrain it should have. At the moment, however, there are no plans to put the car into full production, the carmaker said.

BMW, which owns Rolls Royce, also is launching its latest ActiveE electric concept car in Geneva.

“We’ll see a lot of alternative powertrains, which will get a lot of attention given the current oil prices. No one knows where that is going to go, especially given what is going on in the Middle East,” said Ian Fletcher, analyst at IHS automotive.

As for hybrids, BMW and PSA Peugeot announced on the eve of the auto show Monday that they would invest euro100 million ($138 million) in a joint venture to build hybrid components from 2014. Their goal is to create an open European platform for hybrid technologies, which PSA Peugeot Citroen CEO Philippe Varin said the joint venture also would enable development of electric powertrains.

Also Monday, Volkswagen presented a luxury hybrid for its Porsche brand, the Panamera S. The car boasts carbon emissions of 159 grams per kilogram and consumption of 6.8 liters per 100 kilometers.

There will be a particular focus on engine downsizing, an industry term for squeezing more power out of small engines. Nissan will be showcasing a 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine in the Nissan Micar DIG-S that is touted as having the same power as a 1.5 liter four-cylinder model. Fiat has done similar work with the Twin Air engine in the Fiat 500.

“It’s tweaking current technology to meet new levels of expectations. The internal combustion engine is still a relatively cheap way of producing power on a light vehicle,” Fletcher said.

With sales in Europe still sluggish, automakers have been counting on emerging economies, especially China, for major growth. But news that the once-galloping economy is slowing down, even to an enviable 7 percent, could cause companies like Volkswagen and BMW some worry.

Still, automakers are showing optimism coming into Geneva, evident in the rollouts planned. After seeing participants scale back in recent years, organizers said they had requests for more show space than they could provide, and that 70 brands will be represented from 31 countries.

Geneva’s motor show, which focuses primarily on European companies, is considered one of the more prestigious auto events of the year. And because it is based in industry-neutral Switzerland, which does not produce cars on any industrial scale, it creates an even playing field for German, French and Italian companies alike, not to mention a rare venue for Asian automakers like Tata to show cars outside of their markets.

Automakers that held back launch during the economic crisis _ not wanting to squander the considerable investment _ will be out in force.

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