Hybrids Shine At Geneva Auto Show

Automakers rolled out newest hybrids, citing demand for gasoline-electric powered cars and the drive to stay competitive as fuel efficiency standards get stricter.

GENEVA (AP) -- Hybrid or hype?

More and more automakers rolled out their newest hybrids, or announced plans to do so, at the Geneva Auto Show on Tuesday, begging the question: Is the future now, or is this just attention-grabbing while the real powerhouse of the automotive world remains king combustion?

For right now, most automakers are hedging their bets.

Porsche kicked off the show with its new Cayenne S sports utility vehicle. French group PSA Peugeot Citroen SA is launching hybrids in 2012. And Toyota aims to have a hybrid across every model range by 2020.

Executives cite consumer demand for gasoline-electric powered cars and the drive to stay competitive as fuel efficiency standards get more and more strict.

But while hybrid pioneer Toyota, the world's largest car company, can point to the third generation of its successful Prius range for its green credentials, most manufacturers have bet the firm on improving their gas-powered vehicles for the foreseeable future. Some appeared content to offer hybrids as little more than a moral fig leaf for consumers who feel guilty about their carbon footprint.

"Hybrid sales are not booming any part of the world," said Saab CEO Jan Ake Jonsson. "One reason being of course is it is a very expensive proposition and today's gasoline and diesel applications are getting more and more efficient."

"Many people are asking themselves, for another two miles per gallon or whatever it might be, is it really worthwhile paying $5,000 or $6,000 for a hybrid solution?" he asked. "I think the hybrids need to be a little more cost efficient until we see a volume."

Saab, of course, has its own set of problems, relaunching an automaker that sputtered to a standstill in the absence of buyers until the Dutch automaker Spyker made a deal in December. Right now Saab is focusing on restarting production and filling its distribution chain -- but Acker says hybrid solutions will be part of all vehicles in the future.

That can range from full hybrids, which alternate between gasoline and electric engines to achieve improved fuel economy, to so-called partial hybrids, or cars with such features as start-stop technology, which automatically shuts down and restarts an engine when stopped to reduce idling and reduce carbon emissions.

Porsche CEO Michael Macht touted the Cayenne as "a milestone on the way to electric mobility" for the Volkswagen brand, even as Porsche's head of development acknowledged the powerful SUV can manage only 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) in pure electric mode.

"Our aim is to get a double digit range in the medium term," said Wolfgang Duerheimer.

Selling from $61,000 in the United States, it is the German carmaker's first production hybrid.

Daimler has already achieved that with its F800 Style research vehicle. The striking executive limousine has an electric-only range of 18.6 miles (30 kilometers).

Chief executive Dieter Zetsche told reporters the hybrid models were a conscious effort to boost Daimler's reputation among environmentally conscious consumers, but also make long-term sense as the company sees real potential for electric cars in the future.

Daimler sells a fifth of its S-class saloons as a hybrid version -- a fraction of total annual sales across its product range. In Geneva, Daimler added the E-300 BlueTEC diesel-electric to its hybrid line-up, and announced plans for a joint venture with BYD to produce an electric car for China.

BMW went for a tried and tested gas-only formula with the redesign of its best-selling 5-series model and the new Mini Countryman, both of which were unveiled in Geneva. Still, the Bavarians said they are working on a hybrid 5-series that automatically switches to electric mode once the car leaves the highway.

Audi, Nissan, Chevrolet and Mitsubishi all have various hybrid and electric vehicles in the pipeline, mostly with modest sales figures in mind.

Opel is pushing its lithium-battery powered fully electric Ampera hatchback, introduced two years ago at Geneva. This year, Opel Chef Nick Reilly drove one part way from Germany to the auto show this year in a publicity stunt. Yet the twin sister to the Chevy Volt manages only 40 miles (60 kilometers) on batteries before having to switch to combustion. The Volt goes on sale at the end of this year, the Ampera at the end of 2011.

In the United States, the market share for hybrid vehicles rose from 2.4 percent to 2.7 percent last year. Toyota's Prius accounts for half of those, with the only other mass market models -- Ford's Fusion and Honda's Insight -- trailing far behind.

For many automakers, hybrids are still about improving their image, said IHS Global Insight analyst Rebecca Lindland. She said drastic regulation and gas price hikes may be the only way to push consumers -- and manufacturers -- to embrace hybrids in bulk numbers.

PSA Peugeot-Citroen plans to launch the Peugeot 3008, a plug-in hybrid with diesel, in 2012, as well as the Citroen DS5 Hybrid as part of its goal to have one million cars in its fleet below 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer (.6 mile) by 2012. By 2020, CEO Phillipe Varin thinks hybrids will grab as much as 15 percent of the market.

"We think that probably hybrids are going to be the area to give the most development in the years to come," Varin said. "We think hybrid may be more important than electronic vehicles."

Associated Press Writer Eliane Engeler contributed to this report.

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