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Market trends: Product becomes more important than the name when it comes to car choice

 Despite a pretty stagnant year in terms of overall sales (down 4.4% to 1.94 million), there were some dramatic changes for individual manufacturers last year.

Indeed 2011 raised questions over the traditional division between mainstream and niche brands. For example, Skoda (historically seen as a niche value brand) overtook Fiat (always previously counted as mainstream – once upon a time it was even fighting for the position of top import brand in the UK). And Land Rover overtook Fiat in the final quarter.

Similarly, Hyundai closed to within 10% of Renault’s sales, and man-aged to outsell the French company in two of the last four months.
Hyundai and sibling Kia managed together 115,000 sales in the UK – 105,000 more than 20 years ago.

So is the message that niche is good and mainstream is bad? No, it is that product is becoming ever more important. Nissan, a mainstream brand which saw market share tumble from 5.3% in 1990 to 3.8% in 2000 bounced back to 5.0% in 2011, thanks to the huge success of the Qashqai and the Juke.

In the days of the Almera and the last Primera, few would have backed Nissan as a recovery prospect. The fact is that any car company that does not have a German premium brand name to fall back on is only as good as its current line-up.

Buyers are now better informed and more promiscuous than they have ever been. How else can one explain the fact that Skoda can sell more Superbs than Renault can sell Lagunas or Citroën can sell C5s? The Superb is a better product, but 10 or more years ago that would have counted for very little – buyers of large cars did not buy one with a value badge (as the Kia Magentis proved, even at £9,995).

Overall, this has to be a good thing. Better cars are rewarded with higher sales and me-too products have the life expectancy of fish in
a barrel.

The days when Ford could expect to fob us off with something as cheaply engineered as a 1990s Escort are gone forever. Ford learned that lesson over a decade ago, when it started to make very well engineered models, but some of the European brands appear to be slow learners.

Like European politicians denying the seriousness of the Euro crisis, some of the European car bosses need to become far more radical in their response.

Effectively, there are no loyal buyers any more and a mediocre new model can see sales fall off
a cliff.

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