PARIS - It was the Paris auto show, not Frankfurt, but mighty Volkswagen dominated all the same.
VW showed three key new models, took the lead in the fuel economy race, and resurrected the legendary Bugatti brand with an 18-cylinder concept car.
Meanwhile, VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech openly wooed BMW at the show.
Volkswagen is on a roll. Sales and earnings are rising. The German 'people's car' company has this year bought Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti in a bold move into the ultra-luxury market. Even politics are going in VW's favor. Gerhard Schroeder, a member of VW's supervisory board, was elected Germany's new chancellor on the eve of the show's opening.
In Paris, VW Group had it all and promised more. It launched the Lupo mini, Bora lower-medium sedan and Audi TT. It unveiled a super-economical version of the Lupo that VW says travels 100 kilometers on only 3.0 liters of fuel - an industry first. The new three-cylinder, 61hp diesel engine is destined to power the Lupo and other small vehicles from Seat and Skoda.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Bugatti EB 118 signalled a rebirth of the prestige brand that could become the group's flagship. After acquiring the trademark in June, Piech ordered Italdesign's Giorgetto and Fabrizio Giugiaro to create a new Bugatti.
The famous father and son team designed a four-seat coupe called EB 118. It is powered by VW's new 18-cylinder, 6.3-liter engine with 555hp and permanent four-wheel drive.
Some doubted whether the engine was real. But when Fabrizio Giugiaro turned the key, the EB 118's W-shaped powerplant rumbled to life and the special Italdesign section of VW's stand filled with blue smoke.
Piech has said VW may resume producing Bugattis at the site of the old French plant in Molsheim, near Strasbourg, where around 6,000 Bugatti cars were built between 1909 and 1956.
'If we decided to launch Bugatti on the market, the plant would definitely be interesting for assembling them,' he said.
Meanwhile, Robert Buechelhofer, head of group sales and marketing, said VW is testing consumer reaction to the EB 118.
VW is also developing new Bentley models beyond the current range, though no Rolls-Royces. Piech stumbled when he bought Rolls and Bentley, then had to pass the Rolls name and trademark to BMW. But he has responded by pursuing BMW, saying the two rivals could cooperate.
BMW has been cool to the idea, though Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder apparently told a French magazine that cooperation with VW was possible. Pischetsrieder later said the translation from French was wrong and his comments blown out of proportion.
When Piech spotted BMW public relations boss Richard Gaul at the show, he said, with a smile, 'Tell your boss he should be a little more concrete.'
Piech also told a German newspaper that VW and BMW have not closed the door to cooperation. 'On the contrary,' he told Welt am Sonntag.
'There is nothing at all to this,' Gaul said.
VW's other new ultra-luxury brand, Lamborghini, has been placed under under Audi's control. Sources here said Audi will announce details of a restructuring later this month. They say an Italian-born liaison manager, Rodolfo Rocchio, will be sent to Lamborghini's Sant'Agata Bolognese headquarters to work alongside Lamborghini President Vittorio Di Capua.
New Lamborghini proposals are emerging. In Paris, French coachbuilder Heuliez showed a concept convertible, the Pregunta, with a Lamborghini 530hp, 5.7-liter engine.
Meanwhile VW is crowding into new segments with its existing brands. The Lupo enters Europe's new class of sub-Polo cars. Audi's aluminum-intensive TT coupe and convertible takes the group into high-line sporty coupes.
More is on the way. Besides a new eight-cylinder engine version of the Passat next year, executives here said a larger, $85,000 VW-badged sedan will be introduced in 2001.
'It will be an all-new car to compete with the (BMW) 7 series,' said Buechelhofer.
While Audi and VW may encroach on each other's territory in the future, the character of each brand will be different and consistent with the brand personality, Buechelhofer said. The small aluminum space frame Audi AL2 due next year is far more sophisticated in design and technology than any of VW's smaller vehicles.
A luxury sport-utility that VW is developing with Porsche would not aim at mainstream competition when it arrives in 2002, but at BMW's new sport-utility due next year, Buechelhofer said. (See story on Page 4.)
Buechelhofer said the group's expansion and acquisitions had not been random. 'We are working on improving our prestige,' he said. 'Our new products have all been successful and have given the VW brand in particular much more credibility.'