The motor industry’s squeezed middle - the volume players like Vauxhall, Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Citroen and Fiat - face pressure from the advancing Koreans on the one hand, and the downward march of the premium manufacturers on the other.
They surely need some fresh answers in their fight for survival, and Geneva was a good place to find out whether they had any.
in Ford’s case, felt that they needed any, European sales and marketing boss Roelant de Waard reckoning that while the company is having to scale back its output to suit a shrunken European car market, there are signs that it is successfully taking the fight to the premium players.
His evidence? That a good 50 per cent of buyers choose the relatively highly equipped Titanium versions of its cars, resulting in a rise in average transaction prices and the potential for better profits. For the S-Max, the figure is as high as 75 per cent.
De Waard reckons that by being early to offer high tech features that were once the province of premium makers, it is inducing buyers to pay more for a Ford. Some may even be tempted out of a low specification BMW, for instance, and into a well-kitted Focus. At the other end of the spectrum, he believes that models like VW’s Up, and Ford’s own Ka can challenge the Korean makers.
Renault’s global marketing boss Steve Norman, whose company faces bigger challenges than Ford’s, admits that there is no silver bullet to solve the high pressure plight of the squeezed middle. ‘We’re particularly proud to have spawned the Dacia brand that is a cause of this pincer movement,’ he says, ‘but we need to do something.’ That includes expansion into markets beyond Europe, where ‘we’re installing Renault with great success in Brazil, Iran and Russia, with significant potential in Russia, and we also have our eye on China and Indonesia. So part of the answer is in our international footprint.’
In Europe, Renault continues to do well in Scandinavia and the east, but its problems lie in its big five heartland markets of France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK. Unlike most of its rivals, Renault has an array of electric models now going on sale, not least the stylish Zoe, and Norman is optimistic at the prospects for the next Clio – we’ll see it in early July – and a heap of new models including a new Twingo, Megane, Scenic, Koleos, Laguna – yes, it will be replaced – and a new Espace. There are also small and medium-sized crossovers coming too. But of course, every volume player is renewing its range, and with ever more competitive products.
Which is why there’s a bold strategy to go with them, too. ‘We intend to make Renault THE alternative brand to VW by 2016,’ says Norman, ‘the brand you spontaneously think of when you can’t afford a VW, or don’t want one. We’ve got there in quality, we will get there in design and it’s where we once were before, which gives us some credibility,’ he says.
For all that, Norman is ‘not sure that we will get strong growth in Europe, but it will be enough to stop the erosion.’ And with growing overseas sales, Europe will figure less prominently in Renault’s global sales.
Two views, then, from within Europe’s squeezed middle volume manufacturers. But despite the rays of optimism to be found in both of them, there’s no question that Europe’s mainstream makers face some of the strongest headwinds they’ve battled in decades.