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Carmakers gear up for Geneva Motor Show

It'll be the first car show since a German court empowered cities to impose bans on diesel cars, leaving Europe's biggest automakers in a spin. A looming trade war with the US is another worry. Janelle Dumalaon reports.

The Geneva Motor Show is seen as the most neutral of the car shows, taking place in a country that is neither auto industry hub nor make-or-break market.

Absent here is the kind of dominance German carmakers like Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW would have at the Frankfurt Motor Show, or the outsized presence of French manufacturers like Renault and PSA at Paris's own auto salon offering.

They'll be there though, among 180 exhibitors gathered at Geneva's Palexpo Arena from March 8-18. While Tesla, Opel, Chevrolet and a handful of others are not coming this year, Geneva is managing to avoid the gaping absences left by big-brand manufacturers at Europe's last motor show (Frankfurt).

"A lot of manufacturers who would not normally show up to a European event will be there, like say Tata Motors," said Ian Fletcher, an automotive analyst. "There will be new luxury brands backed by Chinese money, there's a lot of ambition around creating supercars, some electrified. It's a bit of a melting pot."

The Geneva Motor Show comes at a moment where European carmakers in particular are seen to be tackling the car industry's future challenges at different speeds, with past miscalculations proving costly in the present.

Fits and starts

Electrification and autonomous driving, as well as an active effort to accelerate the obsolescence of outdated technologies in the face of scandals are dominating discourse in the sector, especially in Germany.

"The Germans' recipe for success has become problematic," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the CAR Center for Automotive Research at Duisburg-Essen University, in a statement. "This is what they'll be discussing in Geneva."

Geneva Motor Show (Reuters/D. Balibouse)

Waiting for the new cars to be unveiled — will the Geneva Motor Show be able to thrill us?

And it doesn't help that US President Donald Trump has European carmakers in his crosshairs. Over the weekend, he threatened to tax car imports from Europe directly, in response to potential retaliation over the steep steel and aluminum tariffs he already said he'd impose.

Be that as it may, it might well be a relief for carmakers to be able to showcase their shiniest vehicles at the sort of event that's billed as the industry's glamor exhibit, the place to flex engineering muscle, to dream big design dreams. In other words — to have a bit of fun at a time when that's getting increasingly difficult.

Best of both worlds

Some carmakers have already made major reveals in the run-up to the show, with several new models to debut publicly at the auto salon. Electric SUVs and crossovers have been especially awaited, at a time where manufacturers are attempting to offer motorheads vehicles possessing both road dominance and futureproof sustainability.

The new Jaguar I-Pace, an electric SUV meant as an answer to Tesla's Model X, has already been revealed, with several car reviews proclaiming it the first real premium contender to Elon Musk's brainchild.  Hyundai has unveiled the Kona EV, saying the long-range version could go about 470 kilometers (292 miles) on a single charge, thereby also nipping at the Model X's heels or, ahem, wheels.

And Volkswagen is expected to present its I.D Vizzion at the motor show, having released teaser photos of the Level 5 autonomous concept — Level 5 meaning no human intervention at all, designed for a passenger-only future world.

Those are just some of the 900 models to be put on display for the 700,000 visitors expected at the fair. But the real world will still be visible in the rear-view mirror.

That's the world filled with environmental regulations becoming more stringent across several markets, growing consumer distrust and a new class of mobility mavericks disrupting the sector by, say, making shooting cars into space the new standard in marketing.

But carmakers will always have Geneva — for now, anyway.

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