The Frankfurt show's size can't offset the uncertainty

Jason Stein is editor of Automotive News.Jason Stein is editor of Automotive News.
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From the billboards in the Frankfurt airport advertising the new Fiat Panda, to the Mini displays in the center of town on the weekend, there is no question that Europe's biggest -- and some would argue, greatest -- show is about to hit the gas.

Frankfurt is all about enormity. From the massive automaker evening bashes to the show halls with test tracks stretching seemingly from one side of this city to the other, the IAA is all about size, size and SIZE!

But there's something even larger than the geography of the show at work: The economy.

For many, this week's show, which begins Tuesday, will be oh so reminiscent of 2008 in Paris when the world teetered on the financial edge and banking was a bigger topic than new models. That fall, we couldn't have known how deep the hole really was. But there were at least hints that the European (and global) car market was about to be a victim of Wall Street's problems.

Three years later, it all feels eerily similar. Except this time it originates here.

All the talk in Europe is about debt. They call the bad economies "PIIGS" here -- Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. And, indeed, there is a stench.

Yes, Germany's best -- Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz -- are on a roll with record sales, but primarily because of the strength in emerging markets.

Europe, like the United States, can't seem to find its footing. It is overserved, filled with overproduction and is even expected to contract to 12.8 million units this year -- or 2 million units fewer than the peak in 2007.

The mood here is one of concern and caution.

So, as the industry prepares to open its doors to the world, rolling out some of the most high-tech, innovative, carbon-made, environmentally friendly vehicles, one question hovers over this show that is even larger than the Frankfurt Messe: Will anyone here buy them?

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter

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