August 5, 2008 / 12:17 AM / in 9 years

Europe's sports car makers feel endangered

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - As Europe’s giant car makers do battle with environmentalists and lawmakers over emissions curbs, makers of classic European sports cars like the Aston Martin DB9, Ferrari F430 and Porsche 911 are struggling to be heard.

Environmentalists say today’s supercars, with huge engines pumping out up to three times as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as the average vehicle, have no place in a world struggling to rein in climate change.

But Lamborghini and its rivals argue that theirs is a rare art that needs protecting, blending timeless European design elements with cutting-edge technologies that themselves can help save the planet.

At the same time, sports cars usually only leave the garage at the weekend, contributing just 0.3 percent of European Union car emissions.

“As a high-luxury brand we are representing Europe to the world,” Lamborghini Chief Executive Stephan Winkelmann told Reuters. “We are a species to protect.”

Many European car makers fear that the EU’s focus on emissions will make them uncompetitive around the world, leading to their eventual demise.

As part of its drive to lead the world in battling climate change, the EU’s executive has proposed cutting carbon dioxide emissions from new cars to an average of 120 grams per km by 2012, compared with a current EU average of around 160 grams.

But the EU has come up against the political muscle of big auto, with its wide range of marques from the tiniest Fiat to the most powerful Porsche.

Sports cars, which usually pump out anywhere between 200 and 500 grams of CO2 a km, will be handled differently to avoid damaging their ability to compete in international markets.

“We want a strong outcome for the environment ... but we don’t want the rules to disproportionately disadvantage small volume and niche manufacturers, many of which are in the UK,” said a British diplomat in Brussels.

NICHE PROTECTION

Niche manufacturers making less than 10,000 vehicles a year will be able to negotiate individual targets with the EU executive, including Britain’s Aston Martin, which supplies mythical secret agent James Bond with his DBS coupe.

“We don’t believe the intention is to make us extinct,” said Bradley Yorke-Biggs, director of strategy at Aston Martin.

But the situation for its Italian and German rivals is far less certain as they are divisions of larger auto groups and cannot argue their own targets.

“We are committed to reduce CO2 emissions heavily in the next years so we are doing whatever is possible without destroying the DNA of the brand to bring them down to a much better level than today,” said Lamborghini’s Winkelmann.

“But you have to understand, it will never meet the 120 g or 130 g per km.”

Sports car makers are already cutting weight to improve acceleration and reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

Britain’s Lotus has managed to get carbon dioxide emissions down to 196 grams per km in its Elise S, using a glass-composite body and aluminum chassis.

“Weight is a good thing to cut as it doesn’t help anyone,” said Aston’s Yorke-Biggs.

Cars powered by hydrogen or fuel cells remain in the realm of fantasy, and the next big technological step looks set to be electric-powered cars.

Although electric sports cars like the U.S.-based Tesla are available, customers might be slow to embrace that technology.

”An Aston Martin is a very emotional drive, and how much of the appeal would be lost with an electric engine?“ said Yorke-Biggs. ”It would take time for our customer base to accept that.

Peter Everingham, 62, says fellow Ferrari drivers might accept an electric Ferrari one day, as long as it featured the same perfectionist design qualities they have become used to.

“At the same time you’re buying into the history, the Formula One team -- all that is part of the passion,” added Everingham, who drives a 20-year-old Ferrari 328 and is secretary of Britain’s Ferrari owners’ club.

FERRARI AT RISK?

While working to reduce emissions as much as possible, sports car makers still need to cut a deal with EU politicians.

The European’s Commission’s exemption for niche manufacturers would cover Aston Martin, which hopes to sell 7,500 cars this year, 60 percent of them in the EU. It could also cover smaller marques like Britain’s Lotus and Morgan, which still uses wood in its cars.

But it would not help Ferrari or Maserati. The two marques sell less than 5,000 high-powered cars a year in the EU, but they would be excluded on the grounds they are part of the larger Fiat group with western European sales of around 1.2 million.

“Fiat does not agree with the current proposal, which would discriminate against Ferrari and Maserati,” said Fiat Group spokesman Gualberto Ranieri.

The European Commission argues Fiat could spread the burden of the sports car emissions across the group -- a situation that Fiat says would add around 1 gram per km to every car.

Everingham says that just as the world is changing to focus more on the environment, so sports car drivers are also changing the way they use their cars, driving more on race tracks and less on crowded highways.

Resorts are cropping up in the United States and Spain where enthusiasts can keep their cars, visiting at the weekend to put them through their paces.

“They’ll thrash them round the track for a couple of days, send them to the repairers, and then they’ll head home,” he said.

Additional reporting by Gilles Castonguay; Editing by Sara Ledwith

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