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Cato: Taking the pulse of the global car market

The Geneva motor show proved the place this spring to get an excellent handle not just on the European car market, but the world's.

Sure, many of the 170 models introduced as all-new or significant updates in Geneva are primarily destined for booming emerging markets. And European car makers - primarily the German ones - need growth and sales in China and India and Russia and Brazil to earn profits. Europe? Car sales are flat or down and will be for 2011, meaning almost no car maker is making money here.

14 exciting new cars for the rich – and the rest of us IN PICTURES: These interesting models were shown in Geneva earlier this month

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Thus the new models for Latin America, Asia and Russia are critical. At the same time, Geneva is where you find loads of fast and expensive higher-end models aimed at the rich and famous. Cases in point: the world premiere of Aston Martin's V8 Vantage S and Ferrari's new FF model, the first Ferrari with a real trunk.

In between, well, Fiat's Lancia brand showed a new lineup based on U.S. partner Chrysler's models. Yes, the Chrysler 200, 300 and Town & Country are coming to Europe wearing Lancia badges. Badge engineering. Go figure.

Here's the plan, according to Reuters: vehicles branded "Chrysler" in the United States and Britain will be sold under Fiat's Lancia tag in Europe. Meanwhile, Lancia models will be sold as Chryslers in Britain by the middle of the year. All Chrysler and Jeep models sold in Europe are made in North America. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has said that Chrysler expects non-U.S. sales to increase to 500,000 by 2014, up from last year's 147,259. Good luck with badge engineering, Chrysler and Fiat. It's not worked in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future.

But at least Fiat's Alfa Romeo brand had something new, unique and interesting - the new Alfa Romeo 4C, an evocative sports car slotted into its lineup between the sensational 8C sports coupe and its more affordable offerings. We might see them in Canada in the next couple of years.

However, the unveiling that might resonate for Canadians included Mitsubishi's Concept Global Small car that points to a design and technology direction we may see in productions. Suzuki, like Mitsu rethinking its place in the world - especially North America - showed its own concept car, the Swift-S. At a time when rumours are swirling about Mitsu and Suzuki leaving North America, these concepts point to a lively future.

Volkswagen? The world's most profitable auto maker showed the new Golf convertible, a revamped Tiguan SUV and the latest Microbus concept with an electric drivetrain and seating for six. It will be a sales success.

Hyundai, which is emerging as a serious global powerhouse of a car company, unveiled its mid-sized i40 station wagon for the first time and the Veloster coupe first seen at Detroit in January. The i40 is Hyundai's fourth vehicle designed specifically for European motorists, but with oil now more than $100 a barrel the i40 wagon might have traction in Canada - especially if Hyundai offers it with the 1.7-litre diesel engine planned for Europe.

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Hyundai joined with its partner, Kia, to show off some seven eco-friendly vehicles including hybrid electric versions of the Sonata and K5. Speaking of South Korea, General Motors' unit there was responsible for the Chevrolet Cruze hatchback which would surely do well in Canada, though it won't be sold here for the time being.

We could go on with a big, long list of introductions, but instead let's pick a star of the show: the Volkswagen Group. VW aims to be the biggest car company in the world by 2018 and therefore is in serious expansion mode. The new products are coming so fast and furious, VW has engaged its new subsidiary Italdesign Giugiaro to create concepts like the Microbus that will surely end up in dealer showrooms.

Still, BMW's Vision ConnectedDrive concept was something of a revelation. This concept is a futuristic roadster that shows how driver-assistance systems and infotainment features can be networked via the Internet. Lots of touch screens and voice-activated controls.

Of the three Detroit-based auto makers, Ford has the largest market share in Europe at about 8 per cent versus No. 1 Volkswagen with an 11 per cent European market share, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association. Ford of Europe is also profitable in Europe, which something not many car companies can say.

What did Ford show that should come to Canada but won't? The new Ranger Wildtrak compact pickup. Ford says the new Ranger will not be sold in America, even though it will be sold in 180 other markets worldwide. Why? It's almost as big as the full-size F-150, would cost almost as much, lacks body-style variations, has a small bed and would have trouble meeting U.S. roof crush standards.

That said, Ford has 20 new or significantly refreshed models to be introduced in the next three years in Europe and many will come to Canada - including, possibly, the B-Max wagon or van. The B-Max shares some design features with the Fiesta but also minivan-type design elements including rear passenger doors that slide rather than swing open.

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