GENEVA – Crisis-hit automobile giants entered battle for cash-strapped buyers at the Geneva Motor Show on Tuesday as they struggle to make the best of a fast shrinking market by unveiling new "green" models.
General Motors' European brand Opel unveiled its innovative mass production Ampera electric-hybrid saloon but the company made it clear it was in a fight for survival before the car is even put on sale in 2011.
GM Europe head Carl Peter Forster said Opel was expecting a response to its request for a 3.3-billion-euro (4.2-billion-dollar) aid package from Germany and other European governments, including Britain and Spain, in "days, maybe weeks."
About 50,000 people are directly employed by the company in Europe and with suppliers and dealers included, a potential 200,000 to 300,000 jobs are at stake, GM executives said.
Car companies around the world have announced tens of thousands of job cuts in recent months and governments have sought to cushion the impact of the crisis on the industry, one of the world's biggest employers.
"Overall (sales) volume has collapsed by 30 percent; we have some markets down by 70 percent," Forster said at the Geneva show preview days.
But he emphasised that Opel was succesful in its own right and could return to profit in 2011 if it distances itself from struggling US parent General Motors.
Chrysler Vice Chairman Jim Press reiterated in Geneva that his company had not ruled out Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection unless it receives a US government bailout.
Two of GM and Chrysler's biggest rivals, Toyota and Volkswagen, signalled that their fight was one to increase their share of a declining market in 2009 and to squeeze out rivals.
Car sales worldwide have been tumbling as the global credit crunch pushes the global economy into recession after years of good times.
In Japan, vehicle sales plummeted 32.4 percent in February from a year earlier, the steepest decline for the month since 1974.
Ford said Tuesday its February figures showed a slump of 48 percent while Toyota's US sales plunged more than 37 percent in the month.
Toyota Motor's Vice President for Europe, Thierry Dombreval, said the European market would fall by about 30 percent in 2009 to some 15 million units.
The downturn is set to continue well into next year, if not beyond, executives said.
"We're preparing for a crisis of two, three years and to be stable financially even if the crisis remains at its current, abominable level for two or three years," said Renault chief operating officer Patrick Pelata.
Opel and Toyota pointed to some temporary respite in Germany.
German new car sales jumped 22 percent in February on the back of a government trade-in scheme to encourage buyers but the good news was tempered by a continued slump, at 51 percent, in exports.
Toyota, the world's top selling car maker, aims to increase its market share in Europe in 2009 with the help of models launched in Geneva -- new versions of the Prius hybrid saloon and the Verso people carrier.
Toyota will face stiff competition from Volkswagen, Europe's biggest automaker, which announced Monday that it aims to perform better than the sector as whole this year.
VW reported a strong 15 percent gain in 2008 net profit to 4.75 billion euros (6.0 billion dollars) but declined to give financial guidance for 2009 and warned of tough times ahead.
In Geneva, the company launched a revamped sub-compact Polo, its most popular model after the Golf, with 10.5 million units sold since 1975.
The German firm is making big claims about the car's thriftiness, claiming that it will be most the economical five-seater on the market.
"The group's future is green," chairman Martin Winterkorn said in Geneva, stressing that "demand for environmentally friendly mobility is not a fashion fad."
India's Tata, which said it is aiming to market its low-cost Nano model in Europe in 2010-2011, showed an electric version of its Indica, to go on sale in Norway in September.