The best parties should have had a far Eastern theme: in terms of growth rates, no fewer than six of the top 10 companies were Korean or Japanese. All three Korean carmakers made the top 10, while the Japanese contributed three more.
But, proving Britain can be a law unto itself, two of the biggest winners last year were companies in danger of closing altogether. Saab is the problem child of GM: as Bob Lutz, GM’s product czar, put it, “it can’t live off 45,000 university professors with tweed jackets and leather patches.”
Similarly, Mitsubishi is suffering collapsing sales in Asia and the USA, while Britain was the star performer, outselling even Germany. One apparent winner turns out be nothing of the sort: Jaguar sales rose by 11% but, as a return on three new models (the new XJ, the X-type diesel and the X-type estate), that’s dreadful – hence the staggering £601m loss last year.
At the other end of the table, there were some surprises. MG Rover was not the worst performer – it was kept off bottom spot by Alfa Romeo.
When the 156 was new and lots of new models were still in the pipeline, it seemed Alfa might re-establish itself in the UK as a semi-premium brand. However, a cold reception for the 166 and dismal customer satisfaction scores led to another downward spiral.
Another surprising loser of 2004 was Jeep – such a success in the mid 1990s.
However, just making off-roaders is not enough: they do need to be the right off-roaders. When the neatly-styled Cherokee first appeared in the UK in 1991, it hit the market dead-centre in size and value, backed by an excellent ad campaign.
Now there are a squillion off-roaders, most of which make the Cherokee feel a bit too American: a little clumsy, not as good looking and not as good value (not since the Korean off-roaders appeared) as it seemed 10 years ago.
The other real surprise was Nissan, globally more profitable than any Western volume manufacturer, but who finds it difficult to make an impact here.
Even the Micra is now outsold by Mini, while the Almera and Primera have little prospect of recovery. If it weren’t for the X-Trail and 350Z, the company would be even further down the table.
Among other losers, most can point to troughs that will be addressed in 2005 (e.g. Citroen with the C4), although Mercedes’ poor performance points to more than just a cyclical drop before the new A-class. Its JD Power scores led it to admit that rushed model introductions and too many gadgets equal poor quality.
Model cycles also don’t justify Subaru’s performance. Rarely have cars praised so highly failed to grow market share – is it really not possible to sell more than 2,400 Foresters a year when Hyundai can shift over 7,600 off-roaders?