Car lovers indulge in Geneva

By March 3, 2011

GENEVA — Car lovers slipped behind the wheels of their dream cars Thursday at the 81st Geneva Auto Show, with some checking out the latest in electric engines while others — dreamers and the ultra rich — focused on flamboyant gas-guzzling supercars.

Among the stars of the show, which runs through March 13, were Volkswagen’s Bulli, a contemporary take on the old minibus much loved by hippies in the 1970s, and Hyundai’s i40 D-class accessible luxury station wagon.

In the high-end segment, Lamborghini rolled out the sixth generation of its V12 engines and Ferrari unveiled the FF, a V12 billed as the company’s most powerful four-seater ever.

Porsche crossed a sportscar with greater fuel economy with its hybrid version of the Panamera.

H.P. Breitschmied, a mechanic from Zurich, eyed the six-seater Bulli, which allows the front and back three-passenger benches to fold down into a bed.

As a mechanic he spent plenty of time fixing up the original VW minibuses. But he remembers the old version as a work horse, and wasn’t so sure about the glamor element in the new Bulli concept, which is being studied for a market launch.

“It’s very nicely made,” he said. “But it’s not for me.”

Still, the nostalgia-evoking minibus attracted the most attention, even though parked next to the new Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4.

Lamborghini — whose latest creation gets just 13 miles (21 kilometers) to the gallon — appeared oblivious, like other supercar makers, to the spiking gas prices that have focused mainstream attention on greener technology.

And despite the ever-increasing power of supercars, there’s always someone who wants a little more juice.

Jon Oakley’s British company, Oakley Design, specializes in squeezing more power out of the Ferrari 458 and is branching out into Lamborghinis.

“Business is booming,” Oakley said, standing at the Lamborghini stand. The race car driver started the business about six years ago focusing on Porsche drivers, but business dropped off with the economic crisis.

“We thought Porsche drivers were upscale,” he said. But as the economic crisis set in, Oakley said they just stopped upgrading their cars.

So Oakley looked up the auto food chain to the supercar drivers. They tend to be vastly wealthy men who can put down more than €200,000 ($276,000) for a car — and then hire a tuner to increase the horsepower, essentially buying next year’s model.

Oakley said he can take a Ferrari 458 and increase the horse power from 570 to 644, and boost the maximum speed to 214 miles per hour from the original 198. The price tag is around 40,000 British pounds ($65,000) for the kit, and perhaps another 10,000 pounds for labor and travel, depending on where the customer lives.

Oakley sees a future market for improving performance of luxury hybrids like the Porsche Panamera, which debuted in Geneva.

“If we start with a hybrid, which is more of the middle range in performance, there is no reason we can’t squeeze it into the upper end,” Oakley said. “It’s a learning curve for us.”

By Colleen Barry

The Associated Press

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