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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Scantily clad models were once as much a part of motor shows as shiny sports cars and roaring engines, but as women buy more cars, and green credentials dominate, carmakers are slowly changing their ways.
While some manufacturers of macho sportscars are still using sexy models to promote their cars, many carmakers are anxious to portray a more responsible, inclusive image that goes hand in hand with favoring low CO2 emissions over speed and power.
As the Paris Auto Show opened to the media on Thursday, before its official opening on Saturday, Lamborghini's stand boasted three of its powerful sportscars and three models in skintight strapless silver dresses, slit to the thigh.
Mass carmakers showed off a more restrained image: Renault's hostesses wore knee-length yellow dresses with short sleeves.
Alliance partner Nissan's stand featured a model in a loose-fitting pale blue one-shouldered dress promoting the new Leaf electric car.
"The days of bikini-clad women on bonnets are long gone," said David Fitzpatrick, Account Director at automotive PR agency PFPR Communications. The agency managed the 2008 British Motor Show's PR and noted that a quarter of visitors were female.
Carmakers just emerging from a deep crisis and unsure of what lies ahead for the European market cannot afford to alienate potential buyers with tactics many see as outdated.
The last Paris Auto Show, in autumn 2008, attracted over 1.4 million visitors, mostly men, although women visitors are increasing in number.
Many stands at the show on Thursday featured male hosts, but they were outnumbered by far by women.
Claude Guillaume, director of specialist recruitment agency Mahola, which is supplying 600 hosts and hostesses for the show said things are changing.
"We are a long way from the hostess stuck in the role of standing like a pot plant next to the car," she said.
"My clients' specifications focus on the quality of information, a trend we had already noticed at the last auto show, and which is being confirmed this time.
Matt Thompson, marketing director of UK motoring website Autotrader agreed there was a shift in attitude:
"The brands that really understand motorists are changing for obvious reasons -- why on earth would you want to alienate a very important, equally important, sector of your audience?"
Thompson noted that over half of UK driving licenses are held by women, while Autotrader's website users are around 30 percent women, up from around 20 percent about a year ago.
Hyundai Europe vice president Allan Rushforth said: "the changing role of models at motor shows reflects the increasing recognition that women play a central role in the buying decision."
Hyundai's stand at the Paris show featured hostesses in tailored white dresses with a black belt and matching white jacket -- "we give them a full set of clothes," joked Rushforth.
Another factor is also at play, said PFPR's Fitzpatrick: "The rise of CO2 emissions to become the new measure of a car's status -- usurping top speed and 0-60 time -- has brought about a more sober approach to the way car brands portray themselves."
Rushforth agreed: "The move away from using under-dressed women has coincided -- perhaps not entirely by chance -- with a growing focus on the environmental impact of cars. Technology has brought a new 'green' glamour to motor shows."
French manufacturers, known for their small, fuel-efficient cars, are keen to point out that their image tallies with this mood.
"Peugeot has never really played the glamorous, sexy card," said a spokesman for the French brand.
On Peugeot's futuristic black-and-white stand, male and female models in casual suits with open-necked shirts and short black dresses respectively showed off the new HR1 concept car.
Renault, which does not employ models on its stands, says hostesses dressed in yellow -- as well as a few hosts -- that show off its cars are briefed on the products, technical details and brand so they can provide visitors with information.
"We're a mass market carmaker. (Models) are more for Maserati or Ferrari -- niche carmakers selling works of art, for a very small number of people," said a Renault spokeswoman.
Fiat is known for its Italian glamour, and some eyebrows were raised in Detroit last January when models in futuristic metallic minidresses joined the Fiat 500 small car on a joint stand Fiat displayed with its new U.S. partner Chrysler.
But a spokesman for the group, whose brands include Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati, said it has never crossed the line.
"There's a difference between having girls in designer clothing, and girls looking cheap," he said.
Editing by Steve Addison