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Wild swings in fortune for carmakers last year

There were some pretty wild swings last year in the fortunes of carmakers competing for sales in the shrunken UK car market.

Within a market down just under 5% to a little under two million, several brands managed to lose a third of their business, including Renault, Mazda, Subaru and Smart.

Meanwhile, the Volkswagen Group never missed a beat with its volume brands of VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda all taking a higher share of the market.

Japanese brands had mixed results – the premium pair of Infiniti and Lexus made huge jumps of 65% and 33% respectively while their parent brands had very different results. Toyota fell 16%. Nissan – thanks to Qashqai’s success – rose 7%. The French stablemates, Peugeot and Citroën, slid back by 13% and 6% respectively. Peugeot’s fall was completely contrary to internal forecasts publicised at the start of the year.

The two dominant UK market leaders, Ford and Vauxhall, both lost share – both down by 5% in volume.

What has been extraordinary is the ever-growing German premium segment. Audi burst through 100,000 registrations while BMW grew by 7% relative to 2010, with its Mini subsidiary growing by double that. Mercedes was up by 9%.

But the prize for most exciting revival must go to Alfa Romeo, whose new model programme has created a stronger following, a 31% improvement in market share and a modest offset to the worrying 22% decline of sister brand Fiat.

What has been going on in other segments? The first surprise is that the low-cost small car sector did very badly, and the second is that SUVs did very well. The minis managed to drop by 21%, the superminis by 6% and lower- medium by 12%. The rot only stops when car sticker prices start to rise. Upper-medium/executive sales were 6% higher than in 2010. Luxury did even better and volume went up by 13%.

Sports cars got blown away. That segment was down 6% year-on-year, which is hardly surprising. It is hard to persuade your out-of-work next-door neighbour that a new, 3.0-litre soft-top is an essential purchase.

The most common explanation for the SUVs’ 14% lurch forward was that last year’s winter weather made more people realise they could escape the effects of snow if they had good ground-clearance and all-wheel drive. The final sector, MPV, was not viewed in a similar light and dropped 5%.

Small car winners

Fiat 500 was the small car winner (fleet and retail combined), having had another great year grabbing 15% of its market. Hyundai was just behind with 12% – managing to push its i10 past the aged (and now replaced) Ford Ka. Peugeot and Citroën were fourth and fifth with Citroën making a massive push and doubling fleet sales on the previous year.

Ford’s Fiesta topped the supermini segment. Vauxhall’s Corsa was four percentage points behind at 18%. VW Polo, Peugeot 207 and Renault Clio predictably made up the top five. Renault volume fell the furthest; the company sold 34% fewer cars than last year. Its stablemate, Nissan, took the same direction with its unsatisfactory new Micra. Kia has been charging hard with Rio and more than doubled sales last year.

In the super-competitive, mainstream lower-medium sector, fleet remained reasonably buoyant, but retail was hammered, with a decline of 18%. Ford was the dominant player, but second place was fiercely contested between the two Vs – Vauxhall has been playing a strategic game over the year in order to avoid selling large numbers of Astras at a loss. Volkswagen took advantage with its Golf.

So while segment volume was down 12%, Ford was up 5% with much of that retail sales. At one point in the year, Vauxhall Astra was down 24%, with Golf 11% up. Volkswagen also pushed hard with Jetta, which resulted in a 67% improvement on the same period last year. Citroën weighed in with the C4 and improved retail sales by 61%.

Premium players in the lower medium sector had mixed fortune. The BMW 1 Series was top dog, but was quite a bit down on the previous year losing a couple of points of market share.

Alfa took up slack in a big way. The Giulietta was just behind the Audi A3 having crept past Mercedes A and B Classes and the Volvo C30. It is now taking 9% of the sector. This could be just a brainstorm by the erratic Italian company, now under newish management in the UK.

Battle for Saab market

In the upper-medium premium segment – better known as the home of the BMW 3 Series, there is much to be done by the German premium brands as they battle to command a slice of the demand surrendered by Saab which is sadly reaching the end of its natural life.

Saab 9-3 had been in with a chance of 5% of that segment. With the Swede’s demise, there will be a possibility that BMW can reach 40%, Mercedes 30% with the C-class and Audi 20% with the A4.

Alfa is dependent on the ageing and uncompetitive 159 and will not be capable of much progress against these competitors. New C-Class is going to win the fastest growth, it appears. Sales grew last year by a third.

Mercedes is the current winner with the E-Class in what is described as the premium executive sector. But here at last is a new player to confuse the Germans: Jaguar has driven the XF into fourth place between the Audi A6 and the Mercedes CLS. E-Class and 5 Series still dominate the group with 31% and 27% shares respectively.

What is known as the high premium sector contains super-saloons and is a major mover. It was up 15% over last year.

Ranked by sales volume, Jaguar XJ is at the top and Lexus LS at the bottom. In between are S-Class, A8, 7 Series, Porsche Panamera, Volkswagen Phaeton and the Maserati Quattroporte. Put together, they will do well to pull in 7,000 sales a year.

A8 does well. The UK sales number has doubled in a year to more than 1,000 cars. The new Jaguar XJ has managed to exceed 2,000 cars in its first year. The SMMT has allowed a specialist, Eagle Jaguar, to be included in this sector’s listings. Eagle is a new carmaker and hand-builds an E-Type clone at a rate below one a week. It is a thing of rare beauty.

Premium luxury is an even smaller segment, containing the cream of British specialist carmakers – and only British carmakers.

The fastest-selling is the Bentley Continental, made at a steady rate of a little under 1,000 a year. Then it’s the Rolls-Royce Ghost, which sells around 200. The Aston Martin Rapide comes next at nearer 175 sales.

Porsche heads the home-grown Jaguar XK by just a few sales. The legendary Porsche 911 gets 21% of the premium coupé/roadster market. Jaguar gets 19.5%. Next in the ranking comes BMW 6 Series, then it’s the Audi R8; then the phenomenal Nissan GT-R.

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