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Paris auto show muffles 'uh-oh' with 'ooh' and 'ah'

By Associated Press
Published September 25, 2004

PARIS - An airless tire, cars that warn drivers they're drifting out of their lane and built-in air fresheners are among new technologies being unveiled at the Paris International Motor Show, offering a glimpse of the automobile's future.

Putting a brave face on lukewarm sales and tight margins, automakers are preparing to announce about 60 new models and other innovations at the 16-day show that opens today. Some 1.5-million visitors are expected.

Citroen's new C4 family car comes with six infrared sensors that monitor the painted lines on road surfaces. The driver's seat vibrates as a warning if the car drifts out of its lane without activating the turn signal at 50 miles per hour or more.

The C4 is also the first commercial car to carry built-in air fresheners. Developed by French company Parfum d'Image, they replace the familiar dangling cardboard pine tree with a "perfume cartridge" inserted into the dashboard. Scents such as bamboo, vanilla, or even odors designed to combat tobacco addiction are pumped into the car's interior from its ventilation system.

Michelin unwrapped an early prototype of an airless tire, a product that could change the face of an industry it helped found. With a maximum safe speed of 170 miles per hour, the prototype performs similarly to inflatable tires - with important differences.

"No more pressure checks, no more flats, no more spare wheels," said Daniel Laurent, Michelin director of development.

The tire is made from 115 rings of tough resin laced with glass fiber and remains roadworthy even when shot with a rifle. Tests show it will outlast the average car, Laurent said, leaving just the outer treads to be replaced periodically. No date has yet been set for its commercial launch.

Car makers also showed off their latest "green" innovations, including a new Citroen C3 supermini that can be refilled with natural gas in the home garage. When that runs out on long journeys, the engine switches to standard gasoline from a reserve tank.

Several manufacturers gave updates on their hydrogen cell development programs, but BMW stole the show with its 12-cylinder H2R concept car, a sleek, low-slung prototype that clocked 190 miles per hour on the test track.

On the commercial side, BMW premiered the latest version of its M5 sports sedan, with 507 brake horsepower (net effective power as measured by a friction brake) under the hood, making it the most powerful of the Series 5 cars.

Mercedes unveiled the latest version of the compact A-class and gave a glimpse of two prototype versions of its upcoming "Sports Tourer" - part sporty sedan, part people-mover.

Among racier offerings, Ferrari grabbed the most attention with its F430, successor to the 360 Modena. With Formula One-derived features such as a high-speed gearbox, the F430 boasts a top speed close to 200 miles per hour.

Behind the glitz, however, many car makers are facing hard times - particularly in western Europe, where the market's 1.8 percent growth since January is nowhere near enough to plug the industry's idle capacity.

The mood in Paris was darkened by last week's announcement that luxury car maker Jaguar, now a unit of Ford, plans to close its historic plant in Coventry, England, laying off 1,100 workers.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes Car Group also warned Thursday that operating profit will fall this year despite higher sales. Nevertheless it said it plans to hire 800 more workers to produce the newly relaunched A-class at its plant in Rastatt, Germany.

European and American car makers like Fiat, Ford and Volkswagen have all lost market share - mainly to Asian tigers like Toyota.

Elsewhere . . .

U.S. CAR SALES SLIGHTLY UP: Heavy discounting by General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., and rising demand for foreign brands, helped lift U.S. vehicle sales in September even as the nation's largest automakers likely lost market share, analysts said. Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa said he expects a seasonally adjusted annual selling rate of 16.8-million units for September, up from 16.6-million in August but slightly below last September's rate. Major automakers report September sales next Friday. Among foreign brands, Casesa said he expects Japanese manufacturers to rebound from August's "less-than-spectacular performance."

[Last modified September 25, 2004, 00:59:56]

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