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Originally published Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 6:47 PM

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As sales sputter, Europe rolls out new cars

Profits are falling for European carmakers and few consumers are buying, but despite the gloom, automakers began the rollout of new models at the Geneva Motor Show.

Associated PressThe Associated Press

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GENEVA — It is still a tough time to be a European carmaker. Profits are falling as idle factories produce more costs than cars. And fewer consumers are buying new cars.

Yet despite the gloom, automakers began the rollout of new models at the Geneva Motor Show on Tuesday, from a pair of hybrid supercars to a sedan to a raft of smaller SUVs. All done in an attempt to lure buyers back — or at least capture their imaginations.

“Our industry is not an industry of rationality. It’s also an industry of emotions. It’s about brands, it’s about attractive cars, it’s about power, it’s about handling, it’s about opinions, it’s about status,” said Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn said.

At the show, Ferrari and McLaren both unveiled sleek hybrid supercars sculpted from carbon fiber.

“LaFerrari” is the name of the new special edition Ferrari.

Only 499 of the models will be built — and some 700 people, many of them Ferrari owners already, have registered interest, requiring a selection process for the future owners. The price tag: $639,000.

The McLaren P1 in a glittery racing yellow set off by hash-marked slate gray cuts a racetrack figure. The hybrid technology has performance advantages because the electric engine fills in the gap before the turbo engine kicks in, P1 program director Paul McKenzie said. It’s a tiny effect, but everything counts in supercars.

The P1 can do 0-180 mph in under 17 seconds. It sells for $1.3 million, with just 375 in the series.

And Lamborghini’s run of the new Veneno is sold out — it made only three.

The latest in its tradition of bespoke cars, the Veneno is the fastest, most powerful Lamborghini ever built. At the Geneva show, where it was revealed Monday night, Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann made sure to rev the engine as he drove the car on stage.

Rest assured, the Veneno, named for an infamous fighting bull, sounds like a Lamborghini.

But why build a car for just three people?

“It gives you a high degree of freedom in terms of the design, you can test materials and new technologies, it has a halo effect on the other products,” said Winkelmann. “Last but not least, you’re fulfilling dreams, at least for a few people.”

However, Europe’s carmakers are finding it harder to recover from the collapse of the car market in 2008 than some rivals in the U.S. and Asia. Europeans are buying fewer new cars as their economies grow weakly, or not at all.

New-car registrations in Europe dropped 8.5 percent in January — more than exoected — and that is on top of a decline of 7.8 percent overall last year to 12.5 million units.

Even bedrock Germany, the engine of Europe, was suffering: Sales were down 9 percent in January and 10 percent in February, putting Europe’s largest economy and home to some of the continent’s most important mass market below the 3 million mark.

Auto executives are split over when the European car market will bounce back — or whether it will at all. Ford Europe’s Stephen Odell and Renault’s Ghosn put it at least three years out.

“Europe is going to be a very tough market for a while. It’s not about only 2013. It’s also about 2014, 2015, 2016,” Ghosn said. “The only question is, is it going to be bad or very bad?”

But Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne expect a turnaround as soon as next year but “a lot of it depends on the political resolve of the Europeans to find a way out of the quagmire.”

To add to Europe’s concerns, a new Chinese player was on the Geneva floor. Qoros, a joint venture between Chinese automaker Chery and Idan Ofer of the Israel Corp., was showing a sedan it plans to begin selling in Europe next year.

“I worry about them all the time,” Marchionne said. “They are not going away either. So welcome.”

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