It's one of the most curious, long-running anomalies of the international motor industry. Switzerland, a country with a negligible history of car-making, hosts what is still probably the most fashionable motor show in the world, Geneva's Salon International de l'Auto. It's the show of choice for industry executives, but for all its glamour, it's a relatively cheap day out for British car fans too. It's just a short flight away to the Palexpo exhibition centre, directly attached to Geneva airport, and the compact layout makes it easy to navigate in an afternoon. This year's show, which opens to the public on 3 March, is already shaping up as one of the most interesting of recent years.
BMW will tease buyers with two interesting cars that won't go on sale for some time, if at all. The first is a concept study, the BMW Vision ConnectedDrive. This features a striking roadster body, but its real significance lies in its role in show-casing a large number of comfort, entertainment and safety systems that could make it into some of the company's future vehicles. The second car is the ActiveE, based on the BMW 1 Series coupe, which is described as the first vehicle "to combine the space and comfort of a traditionally powered BMW with a fully electric drivetrain". With 168 hp and evenly distributed weight, that claim doesn't seem to be in much doubt, although the company is rather more vague on the subject of the ActiveE's range, the biggest problem with most electric vehicles. A test fleet of 1,000 BMW ActiveEs are planned to gather knowledge that will feed into the development of future electric cars.
Meanwhile, Mercedes will be using the Geneva show to introduce its new C-Class coupe to European buyers. There's also a new version of the SLK roadster in the offing, so it will be interesting to see whether that puts in an appearance as well.
Jaguar and Land Rover are currently riding a wave of enthusiasm generated by hot new models such as the XJ and the forthcoming Range Rover Evoque, but this year Jaguar will also be relaunching one of the most famous cars from its back-catalogue, the iconic E-Type, first seen at Geneva half a century ago. Land Rover will show the new Range Rover Autobiography Ultimate Edition, a super-luxurious version of its top model featuring iPads for rear seat passengers and a teak load-space floor. Only 500 of them will be made. Land Rover will also unveil its electric Range_e development vehicle, which uses diesel-hybrid plug-in technology emitting 89g/km of carbon dioxide.
Aston Martin is likely to concentrate on the recently announced, more powerful S version of its V8 Vantage, as well as the production version of the Cygnet, the £30,000 luxury city car it is building on the basis of the Toyota iQ.
Swedish manufacturers Saab and Volvo will both be looking to make their mark as they attempt to reassert their identities after escaping years of ownership by General Motors and Ford respectively. Saab will unveil the SportWagon estate version of its big 9-5, which goes on sale in September. It's also possible that it will show its 9-4X crossover, which has just gone into production in Mexico, but this model is aimed mainly at the US, rather than Europe. Volvo will be giving prominence to its V60 plug-in hybrid, which combines a diesel engine driving the front wheels with an electrically powered rear axle. Cars with this drivetrain will go on sale in 2012, and Volvo claims the V60 version will produce carbon dioxide emissions of less than 50g/km. It will be able to travel 32 miles in electric-only mode.
Among the French manufacturers' products, Citroen's DS4 was first seen at the Paris Motor Show last year but, with sales now imminent, it can also be expected to feature prominently on Citroen's stand at Geneva, bolstered by a recent international online vote that named it the most-beautiful car of the year. Peugeot will have its recently revised 308, which gets a sharper nose similar to that of the new 508 saloon and estate.
Renault will show a sportier Gordini version of its little Wind roadster, although the changes will mainly be cosmetic. More radical will be the company's Captur concept car, which builds on the direction set by the DeZir design study. The Captur, described by Renault as a "fun and sporty crossover", is supposed to provide a guide to the curvy muscular shapes expected to characterise its future cars.
Renault's Japanese partner, Nissan, fresh from the warm reception accorded to its Leaf electric car, will be showing the ESFLOW sports car concept, which is also designed around an electric drivetrain. Nissan's luxury brand, Infiniti, will launch the M35h, its first hybrid model, based on the large M saloon. Infiniti will also be showing its Etherea concept car, a sort of cross between a saloon, hatch and coupe, that looks a lot better than most of the company's current efforts, which conceal their superbly engineered oily bits beneath some distinctly odd bodywork.
Geneva will also see the world premiere of a revised version of Toyota's FT-86 concept car, which apparently gives the best indication so far of what the final production version will look like. Also on the Toyota stand will be an electric version of the company's tiny iQ city car, the seven-seat hybrid Prius+, and a hybrid version of the Yaris.
Meanwhile, Honda will emphasise eco themes. Alongside the FCX Clarity, the world's first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the company will be showing an electric Jazz concept and a new plug-in hybrid drivetrain destined for use in a mid-range saloon. Revised Accord saloons and estates, and the newly introduced hybrid version of the Jazz will also be on display.
Volkswagen will be showing a mildly revised version of its small Tiguan sports-utility vehicle (SUV) with slightly sharper styling. VW chose the Qatar motor show in January to debut its radically streamlined XL1 fuel-saving plug-in hybrid, but may be tempted to give it another outing in Geneva.
Ford is promising to launch a "groundbreaking all-new vehicle" but hasn't provided any specifics. However, it has said it will show its Vertrek compact SUV concept, which shows the design direction likely to be adopted by the next Kuga, an electric version of the new Focus and a plug-in hybrid version of the C-Max.
Fiat will have an interesting new development, the Freemont, a Fiat-badged adaptation of the Dodge Journey, one of the first concrete results of the tie-up between Fiat and Chrysler. It will be produced in Mexico alongside Fiat 500s destined for the US market.
As usual, the Korean manufacturers will have plenty to talk about as well. Kia will have replacements for its two smallest cars, the Rio and the Picanto. The current Rio is the last of the dowdy old-school Kias and the new model takes a dramatic visual leap forward. The smaller Picanto is a replacement for the popular original, one of the big winners under the last government's scrappage scheme. The new version will be available in both three and five-door forms.
Kia's sister brand Hyundai will unveil its new i40, a sleeker replacement for the rather staid Sonata saloon, which should do a better job of competing with the class leaders, such as the Ford Mondeo. Hyundai will also display its Veloster coupe, first shown at Detroit last month, the most distinctive feature of which is its 1+2 (one on the off-side, two on the nearside) door configuration. The i40 and Veloster will be sharing the Hyundai stand with the Curb concept car; the company says the Curb, which it describes as an "urban activity vehicle", will showcase new telematics technology and "next generation fluidic sculpture styling". Hyundai's Blue Drive eco programme will be represented by its i10-based BlueOn compact electric car and the hydrogen-powered FCEV prototype version of its ix35 SUV.
Also a part of the Korean invasion, despite the American name, is Chevrolet. Cars sold under that badge in Europe are mainly produced in Korea by General Motors' former Daewoo operations. The main development is a new hatchback version of the Golf-sized Cruze, which had previously only been available with a four-door saloon body, reflecting preferences in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Americas.
But the pull of Geneva is not entirely universal. The organisers of the established big European motor shows are used to strong competition from car-related events in rich emerging markets, but this year a new threat has emerged from a completely different direction. Ford chief executive officer Alan Mulally has chosen to give his big European address on the SYNC and MyFord Touch in-car systems at this year's CeBIT IT trade show in Germany – although he will also be seen in Geneva via video link. The big manufacturers are already worried that members of the iPod generation are unexcited by the traditional dimensions of car performance and are only interested in connectivity for their various gadgets. Ford's enthusiasm for CeBIT could be a sign of things to come.