GENEVA, March 4 (Reuters) – A greener version of the sleek Lamborghini Gallardo and a European debut for Nissan’s luxury Infiniti brand were bright spots amid the gloom as automakers faced a slowing market at the Geneva auto show on Tuesday.
Europe’s biggest auto show is set to reveal almost 100 new models with a strong emphasis on more fuel efficient designs, but the U.S. dollar grabbed much of the spotlight on the event’s opening day.
For European and Japanese heavyweights such as Volkswagen and Toyota, the weak dollar is making competition tougher and prompting interest in boosting production in the United States.
Audi, part of Europe’s largest automaker Volkswagen, said that it was considering building a U.S. plant in response.
“We are considering the most varied options. That can mean joint production with Volkswagen but also a completely independent Audi plant would be a possibility,” Audi Chief Executive Rupert Stadler told reporters at the auto show.
Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe on the eve of the event said he would take steps to respond to the yen’s strength against the dollar and that the best long-term solution for Toyota was to have plants in its key markets.
BMW, the world’s biggest luxury brand, said it too was looking to boost production at its U.S. plant in South Carolina, keen to raise sales in its largest market as well as reduce its reliance on the euro.
Analysts expect 2008 U.S. auto sales to extend a downturn that accelerated in the second half of last year, reflecting a slumping housing market, higher gas prices and tighter credit.
U.S. February auto sales were grim for most but executives said they expect some relief in the second half.
“We still expect the economy to recover in the second half,” General Motors Corp Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told Reuters at the auto show.
“(But) our crystal ball is not that much better than anybody else’s.”
Toyota expects a second-half recovery for the industry in the North American market and Ford expects a rebound in U.S. industry sales then, as well.
GM’s Lutz said February U.S. sales had been been “very disappointing” for the industry and both GM and Ford plan to cut production in the second quarter while Chrysler, which cut production last year, has rolled out sales incentives.
Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors said it would respond to slowed U.S. sales by exporting Eclipse sports cars it builds in Illinois to China.
French maker Renault and its Japanese unit Nissan were among the more optimistic voices as Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said that 2008 targets were on track after a “reasonably good” February in which Renault’s global sales rose 15 percent.
Nissan said it would bring its Infiniti luxury brand to Europe this year in a challenge to European rivals BMW and Audi.
Lamborghini, a unit of Audi, was also optimistic about sales in 2008 and showed off a lighter, faster version of its 146,000-euro ($222,100) Gallardo which it said would emit 18 percent less CO2.
Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann said his customers were rich enough not to let recession fears make them think twice about buying.
Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne told reporters he did not share pessimism about the European market voiced by others including French peer PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Peugeot boss Christian Streiff said the company expected a flat to lower European market which chilled its shares. The company noted its stance had not changed since it published annual results in February.