My first day at the Geneva motor show consisted of almost back-to-back interviews. One of them was with Susan Docherty, the new President and CEO of Chevrolet Europe.
While fellow General Motors brands Opel and Vauxhall suffered huge losses of £475m in 2011, Chevrolet is humming along very nicely. It shifted a healthy 206,000 cars in 2011, even though sales were badly hampered by a lack of diesel engines, after supply was disrupted by the Japanese earthquake. The best-selling model was the Spark (66,000) followed by the Aveo (51,000) and the Cruze (39,000).
OK, that figure is just 1.24 per cent of the overall European market, but with the diesel engine supply back on stream at the beginning of the year, sales jumped 17 per cent in a market that was down six per cent. In the UK, Chevy sales went into reverse in 2011, but as the derv tap was turned back on, UK sales jumped 123 per cent in January and 53 per cent in February.
Critically, Chevrolet sells overwhelmingly to private buyers (63 per cent in the UK), traditionally the most profitable transaction for the manufacturer.
Docherty and the other Chevy suits were wearing large ‘Car of The Year’ badges on their lapels, after the unexpected Volt/Ampera COTY win. ‘This is a big deal [for Chevrolet]’ said Docherty. ‘It’s a game changer. Our moon shot.’
One of the things that the COTY win will change is Chevy’s brand recognition in Europe. When asked, unprompted, to name mainstream car brands the percentage of Europeans who came up the US marque varied between two and ten per cent, depending on the market.
Looking further down the road, Chevrolet’s rise in Europe looks set to be very fair. The arrival of the Cruze estate at Geneva (and the 1.7-litre diesel engine) completes the three-model range and a greater supply of diesel engines will boost the Aveo.
By 2016, when the Opel-Vauxhall-Peugeot-Citroen alliance will be producing the first production models, Chevrolet could profitably sell over 400,000 cars per year.
What, I wonder, would be the point of GM keeping Opel and Vauxhall for the market share, if it was an unprofitable market share? If Chevrolet, partly thanks to a fresh, unblemished, brand succeeds in Europe, surely it would be time for GM to offer Opel/Vauxhall to PSA and then to concentrate on Chevrolet?
If I worked at Ellesmere Port, over the medium term, I’d be a lot happier building Cruzes than Astras which, because they use the same basic production line, is not impossible to imagine.