A few weeks ago, I asked autos analyst Max Warburton of Bernstein Research to pin down the 10 most profitable vehicles of modern times.
Warburton explained that were a number of ways to calculate profitability, but that EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes), where the profitability includes the fixed costs of vehicle making as well as the number of vehicles built in a model’s lifetime, was the most accurate.
The analysts told us that, roughly, there are three ways for car makers to make serious money. A vehicle that is mechanically and technically (think a separate chassis) simple, rarely re-engineered and then sold in huge volumes. The vehicles that fit best into this category are US-market, pick-ups such as the Ford F-series.
The second money-making formula is to build Premium-badge German saloons - such as the S-Class, E-Class and 5-series - an opportunity only available to Mercedes and BMW, admittedly.
Thirdly, Bernstein reckons that global Japanese medium-size saloons - such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord - are also a good bet because they are made in large volumes and combine low build costs and reasonable retail prices.
1. Ford F-series 1996-2008 - EBIT $50bn
2. GM GMT-800 Pick-ups - EBIT $40bn
3. Dodge Ram - EBIT $18bn
3. Dodge Ram - EBIT $18bn
5. BMW 5-series (E39/E90) and X5 - EBIT US$24bn
6. BMW 3-series (E36/E46/E90) - EBIT US$17bn
7. Mercedes E-Class W210 - US$13bn.
8. Lexus RX - EBIT US$12bn
9. Honda Accord (1997-2010) EBIT - US$11bn.
10. Jeep Grand Cherokee c.US$7bn.
These calculations are over an entire model line, but there are individual cars that make huge margins. The Range Rover Sport was reputed to be the most profitable vehicle in the Ford portfolio by unit sale, though it was made in far smaller numbers than the F-150 pick-up (which hit volumes of around 1m per year) so made much less profit overall.
The Porsche 911 Turbo also has one of the highest individual profit margins in the industry, as does the Cayenne. The latter is said to be highly profitable because they are effectively ‘bought’ from VW (it is the sister car to the Volkswagen Touareg) for a relatively low ex-factory price and can be sold at a premium.
Even selling premium cars is not a route to riches. According to UK sources, one typical compact German saloon range makes a ‘contribution’ of about £5000 per unit, regarded in the ultra-competitive European market as quite an achievement. To put that in context, the government almost certainly makes more money from the VAT levied on new cars that cost under £30,000 than makers take in profit margins.