And it doesn't get any gloomier than this: passenger car registrations in Europe were down 27 percent in January from a year earlier. In an effort to woo back consumers, European car companies are asking governments to give them billions in soft, low-interest loans to help them build cleaner cars while sales slump during the economic downturn.
Greener technology is taking a prominent place at the show. General Motors Corp.'s European Adam Opel GmbH subsidiary will roll out the new Ampera, the European relative to the North American Volt, a plug-in hybrid with an onboard gas engine to create more electricity on board.
GM envisions getting a 600-mile range with the technology it calls an electric vehicle range extender.
"It is the future not only of the Opel brand but also Opel technology," GM Europe and Opel spokesman Frank Klaas said at the Opel stand. "It is a symbol of how GM can support the Opel brand in the future."
Volvo will unveil the C30, a car that can run with four different kinds of fuel, while the Swiss design firm Protoscar is presenting an electric concept car called Lampo, Italian for "electrical current."
The motor show itself is also dedicating an entire pavilion to greener autos, not just those with lower fuel consumption but newer technologies, from hybrids to battery-operated cars.
"I think it is particularly important for the car industry to show what they are able to do even in financial crisis," said Rolf Studer, general manager of the motor show. The show opens to the public from March 5 through March 16.
"They must show to their customers that they are still here, that they are doing research and that they are making presentations to the market at this very important show."
Geneva, coming after Detroit on the auto show calendar, remains attractive to many automakers, suppliers and design firms because it is held in neutral Switzerland, which does not have an automaker of its own to claim a homefield advantage.
Despite the tough times, Studer said he still has a waiting list to get space in the Palexpo Convention Center even if some exhibitors are cutting back.
Detroit-based General Motors, struggling to stave off bankruptcy back home in the United States, has nearly halved its floor space, from 6,000 square meters to 3,500 square meters. CEO Rick Wagoner was not scheduled to attend the event.
For GM, which will also present the Chevrolet Spark, the emphasis is not on the new models, but on strategy.
"The whole theme of the press conference is on the environment. We'll talk about the aspects that fit that bill. Certainly, the Opel Ampera is a key element," said Opel spokesman Stefan Weinmann.
Fiat will show the convertible version of the hot-selling and award-winning remodeling of the iconic 500 one of the cars it plans to launch in the United States through its partnership with Chrysler.
The Turin-based automaker will also show a prototype of its Alfa Romeo MiTo GTA, a 3-door small car. As it happens, Alfa Romeo is another brand Fiat Group Autos wants to roll out in North America.
There also will be some luxury cars that automakers may have thought better of rolling out in recession-wracked Detroit. Aston Martin is expected to show its DBS Volante convertible and Bentley is coming out with the Continental Supersports, a high-performance two seater that can run on ethanol-based E85 biofuel. Rolls Royce also is said to be showing an experimental car.
Japan's Toyota presented its new Verso at an outside event ahead of the show. The 7-seater minivan, manufactured in Turkey, will compete directly with the Mazda5 and Opel Zafira.