Special Coverage

Auto Show

GENEVA – General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz bids his farewell to the Geneva auto show at the Adam Opel GmbH press conference here.

Earlier, Opel CEO Carl-Peter Forster tells the media what they already know, that GM’s German subsidiary is losing jobs and may be finding a new investor as its U.S. parent company struggles to stay alive through the global economic crisis.

Swiss-born Lutz may not be soft-spoken, but he’s not a pessimist. “Opel will again be the engine of profitability for General Motors,” he predicts.

A semi-independent Opel might choose other kinds of cars to show at a future Geneva show, rather than the European-styled version of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. However, this year, the star of the Opel stand is the Ampera plug-in in its production-intent version.

“It’s no longer a concept car,” says Opel spokesman Stefan Weinmann.

The Ampera is the sister of North America’s Chevrolet Volt. Both cars were developed under the same lead engineer, while Opel engineers and designers contributed to the look and tuning of the European version. The Ampera’s alloy wheels and the front end’s horseshoe headlights and grille come from Opel’s 2007 Flextreme concept car.

The Ampera is expected to be marketed in late 2011, “in countries to be determined,” and a right-hand-drive version will be sold in the U.K. starting in 2012, executives here say.

As with the the Volt, the Ampera seats four. Both cars are propelled by electric motors that give them a range of 37 miles (60 km) on the lithium-ion battery pack. Using the internal combustion onboard generator considerably extends the range.

A more European project on the Opel stand is the station-wagon version of the Insignia, which is this year’s European Car of the Year. The large car, a competitor of the Volkswagen Passat, is the type of vehicle Germans like to make for their domestic customers.

The station wagon, called the Sports Tourer, was displayed in pre-production form at the Paris auto show last fall and goes on sale in Europe this month. Two new engines for the Insignia are being launched as well: a 2.0L turbodiesel pumping out 190 hp and a 1.6L gasoline-turbo engine that produces 180 hp.

Still, the future of the auto industry in Europe seems more oriented to improved fuel efficiency and a petroleum-free future, which means even a semi-independent Opel will likely need to rely on GM for developing electric-vehicle technology.

Also at the show, Foster introduces Chevrolet’s new global small car, the 4-door Spark, which was unveiled as the concept Beat minicar in 2007 at the New York auto show. The 2-door Beat bested out two similar GM concepts, the Trax and Groove, in a public popularity poll to become GM’s hopes for a profitable future as the automotive world moves away from gas guzzlers.

The Spark will be sold in Europe with 1.0L and 1.2L engines and will later be sold in the U.S., India and elsewhere in the world. GM’s difficulties have put a Michigan engine plant for the Spark on hold, but plans to assemble the vehicle in America remain unchanged.

Saab Automobiles, already on government life support in Sweden as it prepares to break away from GM, is here introducing the Saab 9-3X small cross/utility vehicles. The problem with Saab has always been product, and the 9-3X is badly timed as car buyers in Europe move away from utility vehicles.

Saab has been ahead of the curve for turbocharged gasoline engines, just now gaining popularity with other auto makers that need to downsize. However, Europe has been dominated by diesel engines in the past decade, especially in the luxury and sport/utility segments.

Forster says Saab will continue to work on downsizing and weight reduction in making turbocharged engines more efficient.