GENEVA - Small is "big" in Europe. In a trend diametrically opposed to the U.S. and its ever-larger, ever-thirstier light trucks and sport/utility vehicles (SUVs), Europe is hungry for efficiently sized, efficiently powered passenger cars - so automakers are raising the bar on small cars.

Historically low-tech affairs that swapped high-tech options for fuel savings, small cars are now being built with electronic stability control, all-speed traction control and independent rear suspensions (IRS).

Here at the 68th Geneva auto show, Ford Motor Co. raises the stakes in Europe's biggest segment - the so-called Golf class - which takes fully one-third of all new car sales, with its new Focus, the replacement for the Escort. The Focus will offer all of the above-mentioned, in addition to being the first of its major competitors with a fully independent rear suspension. Insiders claim the benefits to ride and handling are immediately obvious.

General Motors Corp., incidentally, rejected IRS for the rival Opel Astra, because it costs too much. Ford says the Focus, with its totally new platform, actually costs around $1,500 less to build than the old Escort. But Ford Automotive Operations President Jacques A. Nasser is mum on how much was spent on the Focus program.

Not to be outdone, Volkswagen AG announces it will begin offering electronic stability control on its new Golf, prompted in part by reports the car rolled during tests conducted by Mercedes-Benz and GM's Opel.

Like Ford and GM, VW realizes the real battle in Europe these days is shaping up on the low end of the car segment. Mercedes has come down with its A-Class and Audi has made inroads with its hot A3. And now the Japanese are joining the scrum, concluding finally that vehicles designed for their home market typically don't sell well in Europe.

Toyota Motor Corp. shows just how serious it is about Europe with the production version of last year's Fun-Time concept car called Yaris, the name of an Australian river. The small car will be built at a greenfield French site opening in 2001. Sales of imported Yaris's begin in March next year. The very European-looking, deliberately un-Toyota Yaris now has a one-piece rear hatch, where the concept car had a two-piece affair, and heralds the arrival of a totally new family of compact 16-valve 4-cyl. engines, starting with a 1L version with variable valve timing.

Toyota also shows its Lexus IS200, but restricts the world premiere to a sneak preview on the eve of the show at a Geneva hotel. The IS200 will make its public launch at the Birmingham show in October, six months before it goes on sale. The front engine/rear-drive BMW 3-series fighter is built over a short wheelbase version of the new NC250 platform unveiled at the Tokyo show last year and is powered by an all-new 165-hp, 2L inline 6-cyl. Lexus pegs European sales of 15,000 annually.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. shows its J-BX and J-WJ concepts due out next year and its J-VX based sports car that comes in 2000. Honda hopes the three new small cars will boost its European market share to 2% - or 300,000 units - by 2000.

GM chose to show the press a coupe version of the new Opel Astra; the coupe is the replacement for the Calibra. The 30-second showing at the press conference favored a few photographers who had been tipped off, but requests for a formal photo session were denied. All the coupe shares with garden-variety Astras is the windshield, though it still manages to look like a blend of the three-door hatchback and the Calibra.

At the other extreme, VW says it plans to build 300 W12 supercars at a $166,000 price - that's around half the price of rivals from Ferrari and Lamborghini. VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech says the company will sell 100 roadsters and 200 coupes powered by the new 420-hp 5.6L 12-cyl. engine that's also destined to appear in VW and Audi luxury cars.

ItalDesign, which designed both cars, is the favorite to build VW's W12 roadster and coupe, though no final decision has been made.

The ultra-compact W12, created by cleverly connecting two VR6 engines at an angle of 72 degrees, is the first of what eventually will become a huge range of 4-, 6-, 8-, 10- and 12-cyl. engines, in both gasoline and diesel designs.

SEAT, another VW Group marque, sprang one of the show surprises with the Bolero 330BT, an attractive concept car that, if only at the front, defines the styling of this year's replacement for the Toledo compact car. Bolero is powered by an Audi-made twin-turbo 330-hp DOHC V-6. In VW's long-term strategy, SEAT lines up against Alfa Romeo, and the Bolero neatly fits between the Audi A4 and A6 in size, meaning it would compete with the top Alfa 156 models. No production plans are revealed, but SEAT people swear the new Toledo reflects many of the Bolero's design values.

The cabrio version of Mercedes' CLK also makes its debut, but the big news from Mercedes this year is the scheduled Paris show launch of the new S-Class. Apparently it weighs a significant 660 lbs. (299 kg) less than the old car and yet, according to a senior engineer, has the same interior roominess.

The European launch of the V-8 powered ML430 SUV was rather overshadowed by the mighty Brabus M V12, a 7.3L off-roader based around Mercedes' SUV. The Brabus produces an outrageous 589 hp. Dual purpose 285/50R18 Yokohama tires limit the top speed to 162 mph, but not its acceleration. Price? $237,000. Brabus says it will build 20 to 25 of them, but not for the U.S.