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Nashville Scene A Swiss Account

Geneva Motor Show showcases international "exchange rate" among world auto tastes

By Marc K. Stengel

APRIL 24, 2000:  There is a kid-in-a-candy-store reaction that arises naturally among car buffs when they go to a big auto show. Give the kid a chance to visit one of the legendary international exhibitions, such as last month's 70th Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland, and you risk inducing sugar psychosis as the tyke romps heedless and elated from one elaborate display to the next throughout Geneva's Palais d'Exposition, or PalExpo.

On a first pass through this year's Geneva show, it was easy for an American auto writer to adopt the view that U.S. automotive tastes are not only ubiquitous but also irresistible worldwide. During "press days," there was a seemingly unbroken series of announcements at which manufacturers in places as diverse as France, Sweden, India, Germany, and Japan debuted "new" sport/utility vehicles for both home and export markets. When the automotive archaeologist finally gets down to business several millennia hence, he will undoubtedly reveal a deep stratum of paleo-sport/utilitary debris uniformly distributed the world over; and it will be easy to trace the origins back to North America.

This is not to say, however, that everyone interprets sport and utility in the same way as we Yankees do. Renault's new Scnic RX4 is an eye-catching bean pod of a vehicle, yet its all-wheel-drive powertrain and versatile interior space will do battle only in Europe with the likes of American-flavored Suzuki Grand Vitara, Toyota RAV4, and Chevrolet Tracker. What is obviously a French penchant for baguette delivery trucks has spawned a uniquely Gallic class of SUV in the forms of Citro'n's Berlingo, the Peugeot Partner, and Renault's new Kangoo. They're boxy, kitschy, and defiantly un-American with their high-efficiency, small-displacement engines. Strolling the French displays, one has to be impressed by the technology, styling, and exclusivity of that country's automotive scene. It remains inscrutable nevertheless why no one--not in the U.S., Japan, the UK, Italy, or Germany--ever attempts to emulate a single French design.

More typical, American-format SUVs are on offer from India's Tata concern, whose compact Safari and midsize Sumo models pay homage to the "the Raj" in the guise of very British Land Rover's Freelander and Discovery models, respectively. Ford somehow finds itself in the curious position of running away from an American affiliation: The long-awaited new compact SUV known as the Ford Maverick overseas will be rechristened Ford Escape in the U.S., the better to elude sour reminiscences of the company's shabby Maverick sedans of decades ago. In any case, the Escape/Maverick shares a common platform with the also-new Mazda Tribute, and both are determined to spoil the party for Nissan's come-from-behind success story, the Xterra. Moreover, when the Escape reaches the U.S., Ford will have an unprecedented five distinctly different SUVs to choose from.

Volvo, now newly stabled at FoMoCo itself, elected to take a different tack with its worldwide SUV launch at Geneva. Based on the company's new-for-2001 station wagon (reviewed here March 16), the V70XC (or Cross Country) boasts all-wheel-drive and almost eight inches of ground clearance in a 200-horsepower package brimming with trademark Volvo safety features. Undoubtedly influenced by other U.S.-available hybrids like Subaru's successful Legacy Outback and the new-at-Geneva Audi Allroad, Volvo plans to prove the Cross Country's mettle with a 25,000-mile solo-driver trek through 21 countries on five continents in six months. At PalExpo, driver Christer Gerlach introduced his XC--which is pointedly not specially prepared--along with his plans to "narrate" his trip by Internet communiqu all along the way.

It would be wrong to conclude that this year's Geneva Motor Show constituted a reverent, wholesale prostration to the American god of SUV, when in fact it is only with a marginal SUV scene in Europe and Asia that the U.S. industry seems to have any influence whatsoever. Otherwise, the Euroland auto scene is a garden of forbidden fruits for the American outsider. The microcar class is especially exotic to our tastes. It is filled with tiny, affordable bubblecars intended to zip through urban jungles and their medieval-width lanes with a maximum of zest and minimum of $1/liter (i.e., $4/gallon) petrol. I'm particularly fond of the two-seat Smart Car and its Mercedes-Benz sibling, the A-Class. The VW Lupo, Renault's Twingo, and Fiat's eencie Punto are also viable contenders--in Europe and Asia only, of course. In the U.S., they'd be roadkill. Fiat, however, should receive the dubious honor of unveiling Ugliest of Show: Its Multipla six-seater mini-minivan looks like a metallic form of oncologic metastasis on wheels.

Of course, the shiniest bits at any car show are the sporty ones, and in this regard Europe does and should forever reign supreme. Personally, I think the proliferation of Viagra cars like the seductive new Ferrari 360 Spyder, Porsche's inimitable 911 Turbo, BMW's austere Z8 roadster, and Britain's startling new supercar the Morgan Aero 8 is directly related to a European ability to turn both left and right on a racetrack. In a NASCAR nation like the U.S., where rolling relentlessly counterclockwise is not considered aberrant behavior, our homegrown sports jobbies are, fittingly, behind the times.

Even within a single multinational like General Motors, it's fascinating to ponder why Euros get the dashing new Opel Speedster while we get the Chevrolet Camaro. Even more pointedly, why do they get a genuine race-rally replica like the Opel Vectra i500 and we get the can't-give-'em-away Saturn LS--which is based on the very same platform? Aus Liebe zu Gott! C'est la vie. Them's da breaks.

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