FRANKFURT -- The vibe at this week's auto show has been much like that of the Detroit show -- circa 2010.
European auto executives expressed cautious optimism that the gut-wrenching, five-year sales decline has reached a nadir. But there also was skepticism about the future pace and shape of any recovery, with little confidence that it would resemble the flourishing rebound that the U.S. market has enjoyed over the last four years.
"We've seen the first little lights at the end of the tunnel, with the situation stabilizing," Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann told reporters. "So we hope -- we don't know -- but we think and like to hope that it's going to go up slowly."
European executives have been spotting "green shoots" for a few months now. There have been positive sales blips, like July's 5 percent rise in new-car registrations. Some economic indicators are finally pointing up, too: The eurozone economy grew 1.2 percent in the second quarter to end a two-year recession.
Dealers are more optimistic than they've been in a long time when queried about their six-month sales forecasts, according to Citigroup's August survey of hundreds of European auto dealers.
But several factors point to the market dragging along the bottom for some time, unlike the V-shaped rebound seen in the United States -- a sharp decline followed by a sharp rise. Bank lending remains weak. An aging population weighs on growth prospects. Unemployment rates, while stabilizing, are higher than they were during the U.S. financial crisis, topping 25 percent in countries such as Greece and Spain.
Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst David Leiker, in a note to clients, reached this conclusion after a day of roaming Frankfurt's sprawling auto show: "There is no concrete evidence that a sustainable European recovery in demand is under way. We continue to believe demand is bottoming, with a longer, flatter recovery path than seen in the United States 2009-2012."
Leiker points to stagnant employment and income levels and tepid consumer confidence -- all key drivers of auto sales -- as the main reasons for the gray outlook.
Auto executives seem to be preparing accordingly. Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said that he expects Renault's growth to come from emerging markets outside of Europe.
"Europe is a fighting ground," Ghosn said. "It's not a growth ground, but it's a fighting ground."
Ford of Europe CEO Stephen Odell isn't factoring in a snapback either, even though he sees positive signs in recent business-purchasing data and the improved ability of hard-hit southern European countries to borrow.
Ford is predicting 13.5 million vehicle sales in the 19 western European countries this year, a far cry from the 18 million sold in 2007.
"I'll get excited by signs of recovery," he told reporters. "But I do think we have to recognize how far it's fallen."
Dave Guilford contributed to this report.