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Rumble Seat 

Geneva --For an American car buff, a stroll through the Geneva International Auto Show can be a humbling experience. A Citroen Xsara? Talk about your triple-word scores. Sbarro? Don't they make pizza at the food court?

And then, rising above the signs for companies like Seat and Tata, the familiar blue badge of GM, beaming like a lighthouse over the confusion-tossed waters of Palexpo Hall. General Motors. Dale Earnhardt, Mr. Goodwrench, Chevy Suburbans. I'm home!

But there is not a Jimmy nor a Park Avenue in the place. Instead there are Agilas, Zafiras, Omegas ... oh, my!

Each of the Big Three--Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler (a special case)--wears a very different face in Europe than it does in America. As a result, many of the Big Three's most popular models simply are not available in the United States.

"Consumer tastes are very different between America and Europe," says David Reuter, product development spokesman for Ford of Europe. "Each market has very different expectations of size, performance, design and fuel economy." In America, for instance, the average size of a vehicle is way up, driven by horsey SUVs. In Europe, vehicle size is going down, driven by traffic congestion and lack of parking.

"In the U.S., luxury is having a big car," says Donna Boland, spokeswoman for Mercedes-Benz USA, a division of DaimlerChrysler. "In Europe, luxury is a parking place."

Yet things could change. As last week's GM/Fiat stock trade suggests, the auto world is becoming a very small place with very big players. With that in mind, a tour of the Big Three's European offerings might be instructive. Could they be coming our way, and if not, why not?

GM--Opel

Speedster: Here's a car to make American sports-car enthusiasts cringe with unrequited desire. A two-seat, mid-engine, open-top roadster based on the Lotus Elise platform, the 1,870-pound Speedster is powered by a 2.2-liter aluminum engine producing 147 hp. That equates to a 0 to 60 mph pace of under six seconds. Think of it as a fervid, raw and elemental version of the Toyota MR2. In America, it would likely sell for about $30,000.

Agila: Billed as the first European-built "microvan," the Agila is actually a joint project with GM-Opel's Japanese partner, Suzuki. Like many Japanese designs, the Agila is a wonder of packaging. Despite being only 11.2 feet long, it is a spacious and comfortable four-seat van--with upright proportions and lots of glass--or it can convert to a two-seater carrying about 25 cubic feet of cargo. With its chipper and friendly face, the Agila--powered by either a 1.0-liter or 1.2-liter ECOTEC engine--would make a great second car for gated community living. Less than $20,000.

Zafira: This is the best-selling minivan in Europe, a twin to the Skoda Alhambra. It is also the safest minivan ever tested in Europe, according to the German Automobile Association, which takes such things very seriously. The Zafira, powered by a 1.8-liter 16-valve four-cylinder, is the first such vehicle to employ Electronic Stability Control, a Bosch-pioneered system that prevents the vehicle from sliding out of control during critical situations. Built on the Astra platform. About $30,000.

Ford

Ford Maverick: Proof that American style is ubiquitous in the rest of the world, the Maverick is a small SUV that will sell in the United States as the Escape and as the Mazda Tribute. This segment is growing in Europe, as demonstrated by the fact that the new Toyota RAV4--slightly larger and more refined--made its world debut here and not the Detroit Auto Show. The Maverick, or the Escape, if you prefer, will be sold with a choice of two engines, including a potent 203 hp V6, and it will have full-time four-wheel-drive with a locking center differential. About $22,000.

Ford Galaxy: Not your father's Galaxy, this vehicle is a trim and beautiful six-passenger minivan (MPV, or multipurpose vehicle, in Euro-speak) with four-hinged doors, a configuration not found in the United States. This facelifted model (it was co-developed by VW in the 1990s) has the patina of Ford's New Edge styling, with elaborate use of prismatic glass, triangular shapes and angled sheetmetal. Inside, premium materials like leather and brushed aluminum highlight its upscale status. Powered at the top end by a 204 hp V6 and sporting such options as flat-screen entertainment monitors in the headrests ($35,000 for the topline Ghia edition), the Galaxy looks like a serious possibility for American distribution.

DaimlerChrysler

Officially, DaimlerChrysler is a borderless company and so retains membership in Detroit's Big Three. But the American company named Chrysler is now merely a brand. The company Walter Chrysler founded was absorbed by the German giant two years ago, while Mercedes-Benz maintains its identity and its product autonomy.

Thus, while Mercedes-Benz products, as the fruit of DaimlerChrysler, can plausibly be called American cars, they are not. Still, they sell a few cars in Europe not available in the United States that are worth a look.

A-Class: One of the reasons small cars are not popular in the United States is that "small" means "cheap and barren." The A-class changes all that. Less than 12 feet long, it is a tiny car by American standards, yet the interior room rivals midsize American sedans. The A190, powered by a 1.9-liter four-cylinder, accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in less than nine seconds, is fully equipped with all manner of power features, airbags and premium stereo system. It is also the only car in its class to feature Electronic Stability Program (ESP), a safety feature that helped the A-class overcome its early problems with rollovers when confronted with Scandinavia's "Moose test." In the A-Class, compact size and fuel economy (38 miles to the gallon) is married to luxury sedan amenities. About $22,000.

"If gas prices go up significantly, should the situation change, we have something on the shelf that is a viable alternative for America," says Boland of Mercedes-Benz.

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