Geneva - it looks like it will be back to basics at this year's Geneva Motor Show.

Unlike last year's event, dominated - as so many motor shows are these days - by multipurpose vehicles and station wagon-sport/utility hybrids, this year's exhibition (open to the public March 5-15) will feature the type of small cars and performance sedans and coupes native to European roads.

Sure to get attention is BMW AG's revamped 3 series. Known internally as the E46, the 3 series is an all-new design, built over an all-new platform, using a variety of new engines. For all this change, however, it remains patently a BMW.

The conservative approach to the restyling is understandable: BMW sells close to a staggering 400,000 of the cars each year, and the 3 series has become a prime target of many rivals from Germany, Italy and, soon, Japan.

The E46 is slightly bigger in every important dimension than the outgoing car, and has a wider track that gives it a more aggressive stance.

At first glance, the interior looks to be a clone of the current 5 series, but there are differences. The dashboard of the 3 series is significantly wider and flows into recesses in the doors for a high-quality finish.

Engines have been heavily modified for improved performance and fuel economy. The 1.6L has been dropped and improvements to the 1.9L help cut noise, vibration and harshness levels in the base engine. It debuts in 118-hp form, but a 103-hp version will bow when the 316 badge is revived a year later.

A new 2L direct-injection diesel replaces all the diesels in the line, and boasts performance that's a match for the old 143-hp 6-cyl. but with improved fuel economy.

BMW also will play a role in another introduction here, that of the new Rolls-Royce. Due out for the '99 model year, the new Rolls features more rounded sheet metal and a BMW V-12 engine under the hood.

Also taking some of the limelight at Geneva will be Renault SA's new Clio, a car analysts say should help bring the automaker a step closer to its $3.36 billion cost-cutting goal by 2000. Renault spent $1.2 billion on the new small car, set to hit the European market in April. It will be produced at a rate of 500,000 units annually at three different plants (Flint, France; Valladolid, Spain; and Novo Mesto in Slovenia).

The new Clio is slightly longer and offers more front and rear seat headroom than its predecessor. Even though the car's wheelbase is unchanged, interior space has been increased via the forward movement of the powertrain. The engine range is virtually carried over from the previous Clio, first introduced in 1990, and the current Megane family. It consists of four 4-cyl. gas engines ranging from a 1.1L 4-cyl. to a 107-hp 16-valve 1.6L. A high-performance 2L will come later. A notchback version of the Clio is being developed for markets such as Latin America, Turkey and perhaps Russia. Renault also plans to build the Clio in Brazil and Turkey and is studying the possibility of a project in Russia.

French rival Peugeot SA is expected to have a concept version of its upcoming 207 coupe and cabriolet (likely to replace the 205). And the automaker also will show off its first common rail diesel engine.

Also sharing center stage will be the new Porsche 911 cabrio and Audi AG's new A6 wagon due out later this year.

Mercedes-Benz is expected to have a pair of new production models as well, the SLC - a hardtop version of the SLK roadster - and the CLR - a convertible version of the CLK coupe.

Rumored a contender for a surprise visit to the show is Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s SSX roadster, a high-performance 2-seater to challenge the Mazda Miata.

Chrysler Corp. will make a rare appearance with its first concept car introduction at a European show in 10 years. The Chrysler Pronto Cruizer (see AutoTalk, p.32) is a 3-door coupe with exaggerated grille and wings that hearken back to 1940s designs. The car uses the 1.6L 115-hp 4-cyl. Chrysler will build with BMW AG in Brazil.

TATA, India's biggest truckmaker and new entrant to the passenger car business, will show off the Safari sport/utility and the Mint small car, developed with the IDEA Institute. The Safari goes on sale in Europe soon, and the Mint is expected to bow there in second-half 1999.

Not expected to make it to Geneva is Ford of Europe's new Escort replacement, which will bow in five body styles - and likely with a new name - in the fall at the Paris auto show instead.

Also likely no-shows are the Audi TT sports car and Porsche Boxster S, a high-performance version of the roadster. A spate of models from the Fiat Group, including the new Seicento (Cinquecento replacement), Maserati Mistral, Alfa 166 and a new Lancia likely will bow at the Turin Motor Show in April. - David E. Zoia, with Peter Robinson and Giancarlo Perini in Europe.