GENEVA - A looming war in Iraq is bad news for most automakers -- unless the car you are trying to sell can withstand armor-piercing bullets, grenade blasts and gas attacks.
In a sealed room at the back of BMW's stand at the Geneva auto show, potential buyers are shown around what looks like a standard 7-series executive sedan, distinguishable only to the trained eye by its toughened glass and wider tires.
The car is the latest offering in the exclusive but growing high-security market, whose customers are mostly government officials, high-ranking industrialists and pop stars.
German security officials have rated the car "B6/B7," meaning the vehicle can withstand fire from weapons as powerful as an M16 or Kalashnikov AK47 rifle.
"The ballistic testing is done by the state ballistics department, and then the German Federal Crime Office do their own tests," Michael Gallmann, head of international sales for BMW security cars, told Reuters in an interview.
As the sound of a 7-series being shaken but not destroyed by a 15 kilogram bomb emanates from a television set across the room, Gallmann explains that the car can travel at 80 kph (50 mph) if its tires are burst by rifle fire, and withstand the detonation of two hand grenades under the driver and rear passenger seats.
Drivers of a particularly nervous disposition can start the engine by remote control before they get in to ensure no explosives are wired up to the ignition, while in the event of a tear gas attack, the cabin is hermetically sealed and its passengers supplied with oxygen.
Industry executives say the market for B6/B7-graded cars is probably less than 500 vehicles a year, although as the survival of many of its customers depends on discretion, it is a segment shrouded in secrecy, with no official sales figures.
BMW has been producing high-security cars for more than 30 years, but rival Mercedes, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG, which builds a B6/B7-graded version of its S-Class sedan, can boast of being one of the first to armorplate its cars.
"We started making armored cars in the 1920s. Our first customer was Emperor Hirohito of Japan," said Roland Folger, head of the "Mercedes-Benz Guard" armored vehicle division.
He said the biggest markets for the cars were Brazil, Mexico, Russia and western European governments.
Britain's Land Rover, now a member of Ford's Premier Automotive Group (PAG) which has long supplied armies around the world with beefed-up versions of its Defender off-roader, recently launched a B6-level spin-off of its luxury Range Rover.
"PAG has decided this is a market we are going to get into properly," said Nick Youdan, global armored vehicle sales manager for Land Rover and fellow PAG brand Jaguar. "It's a market that has been dominated by BMW and Mercedes in recent years."
Land Rover is aiming to sell between 30 and 50 B6 Range Rovers this year and is working on a B7 version.
The sense of security from being sealed in a grenade-proof shell does not come cheap.
A basic B6 Range Rover comes with a price tag of 165,000 pounds ($263,100.
BMW and Mercedes also offer B4 versions of their smaller sedans.
"It's not that there's a massive panic, but the world isn't getting any safer," Youdan said, adding that Jaguar too would soon be launching a B6 version of its new XJ saloon.