Audi challenge to Mini debuts at Geneva show

Rupert Stadler, Justin Timberlake
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and pop star Justin Timberlake present the new Audi A1 at the Volkswagen Group event in Geneva, Switzerland.Martin Meissner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Audi's racy A1 — an obvious rival to BMW's successful Mini — stole the show Monday at the presentation of Volkswagen AG's latest offerings for the Geneva Motor Show.

It helped that the compact model with the characteristic Audi grill arrived with American singer Justin Timberlake at the wheel, flustering the presenter and threatening to throw the show off course.

The A1's small design is a departure for Audi, a brand better known for its luxury sedans.

It represents a clear challenge to the Mini, a widely acclaimed revival of the classic that helped BMW win market share among a younger, hipper audience.

The A1 will be available as a hybrid version, and the German car company has intentionally left a gap to be filled between its larger A3 and the new A1 model, said CEO Rupert Stadler.

Volkswagen also unveiled world premieres for its four luxury marques Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche, as well as more earthy brands Skoda, SEAT and of course VW itself.

VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn said the group expects to see growth in the world auto market this year after a difficult 2009. The company sold 41 percent more cars in January than the previous year, and is pinning its hopes on China and the United States driving growth in 2010, he said.

The group is on course to make hybrid and electric models a major part of its product range by 2013, Winterkorn said. A hybrid version of its Touareg SUV — developed jointly with Porsche's next-generation Cayenne — will go on sale later this year, he said.

Among the models that could follow are the Porsche 918 Spyder, a two-seater concept capable of unholy speeds on the Autobahn, but saintly and silent electric operation in town.

"Porsche has never shown a concept that wasn't built," Porsche boss Michael Macht told a hangar full of executives and journalists on the eve of the Geneva show's official opening to the news media.

The 918 Spyder won't go far on batteries — a mere 25 kilometers (16 miles) — but it's hard to see how a Porsche driver would be satisfied driving electric for long anyway.

The Bentley brand is slightly less ecologically ambitious with its new Supersports Convertible, though the 12-cylinder luxury limousine will at least be available as a flexfuel model from mid year, meaning it can run on ethanol and other biofuel mixtures.

The same option will be offered for Bugatti's 16C Galibier, if the concept ever makes it to the production stage.

No such green ambition for Lamborghini's new Gallardo top model, though the street racer has lost 140 pounds (65 kilograms) since its last incarnation.

SEAT showed off an electric only concept, the sporty three-door IBE that chairman James Muir said indicates the design direction VW's Spanish brand wants to take in future.

Skoda has kept the rally feel for its new Fabia RS, a style known in Europe as hot hatch.

Seeking to cover a white spot in its product palette, VW also unveiled its first pickup. The company plans to start selling the four-door Amarok in South America this year before rolling it out elsewhere later.

VW's new Sharan rounded off the evening. Europe's largest carmaker by sales hopes the family friendly minivan will add to the 600,000 Sharan models already on the road.