Why You Can't Buy This Car

G. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM chief executive, introduces the Opel Corsa. The car is fast, eye-catching and efficient  --  and GM has no intention of selling it in the United States.
G. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM chief executive, introduces the Opel Corsa. The car is fast, eye-catching and efficient -- and GM has no intention of selling it in the United States. (By Michael Crabtree -- Bloomberg News)
By Warren Brown
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

GENEVA, March 6 The Opel Corsa OPC is a little sports coupe that looks sharp, runs fast and gets 30 miles per gallon. It can be parked in the tightest of parking spots. It proves beyond any reasonable doubt that fuel-efficient cars don't have to be boring. And even at the stiff price of 34,664 Swiss francs -- about 22,000 euros in most of Europe -- Opel, the European subsidiary of General Motors, expects the Corsa OPC to be a big and profitable seller.

But Opel has no plans to bring that hot little number to the United States, where the Corsa OPC would list for about $30,000.

The reason: "Europe and the United States are two different worlds," says Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman for global product development.

Consider the matter of gasoline prices.

At a fuel station near Geneva's Exhibition Palace (Palexpo), Tuesday's price of regular unleaded gasoline was 1.61 Swiss francs per liter. That works out to about $5 a gallon -- a bargain by European standards.

Prices for unleaded regular in bordering countries -- France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein -- run as high as $7.50 a gallon. Compare that with an average price of $2.48 a gallon in the United States.

"We could sell the OPC here and make money because gasoline is near $6 a gallon," Lutz said. "If we had $6 gasoline in the United States, we could sell it there at a profit, too," he said. But he said it is unlikely that Americans would buy a little car at $30,000 "when they're paying $2.50 for gasoline." "We need $6 gasoline" in America to make sense of the Corsa OPC in that market, Lutz said.

He has a point.

Even at Switzerland's lower gasoline costs, consumers say fueling their vehicles takes a big bite out of their operating budgets. So they behave accordingly. They drive when they must drive, as opposed to hitting the road for no particular reason. Carpooling is not a concept here. It is an economic necessity. Bicycles, petroleum-powered scooters and motorbikes, and small cars of all sorts are plentiful here. And they can be sold at a profit for their manufacturers because consumers recognize their value in reducing fuel costs.

What is happening this week and next at the Geneva International Motor Show, taking place at Palexpo, is instructive. The stars of the show are not the super-slick Ferrari and Lamborghini automobiles, though those cars, surrounded by exquisitely beautiful female models, are attracting their fair share of attention.

The real stars are the cars ordinary European consumers actually buy. They are micro cars, subcompacts and mid-size automobiles. Gasoline engines in the 1-liter range are commonplace. Diesel engines, generally about 35 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline models, are everywhere. There are a few sport-utility vehicles on display, including a version of GM's Hummer. But most of the SUVs here are small by American standards. And full-size pickup trucks at the show, or on the streets of Geneva, are few and far between.

There isn't as much fuss here as there is in the United States over gasoline-electric hybrids, though there are a number of hybrid samples available for viewing. The problem is price. Gas-electric hybrids often cost substantially more than their traditional gasoline-powered rivals. And many European consumers, who already get high mileage from diesel-powered and smaller gasoline models, don't see an advantage in paying more for a technology that does not deliver a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency.

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