Back in 2009, it was hard to believe that anybody beside rental agencies and repo men were buying cars. I mean, 10.6 million Great Recession-rocked Americans were driving new cars and trucks that year, even if 3 million or more of those new vehicles belonged to fleets.
The situation is similar in the European Union today. With unemployment at 25.4 percent in Greece and 24.6 percent in Spain, for example, it seems car sales should pretty much non-existent. This fall, the French government offered PSA a $9.1 billion-equivalency bailout, blunting Peugeot Citroen's ability to expand its strategic partnership with General Motors and from finding new partners, such as Sergio Marchionne's Fiat.
Indeed, in Spain, sales were off 19.8 percent in November '12 compared with November '11, according to JATO Dynamics, the source of all statistics in this op/ed. In Greece, car sales looked like Suzuki in the U.S., off 47.2 percent, to just 4162 vehicles sold last month. And yet, in Great Britain, keeper of its own economy, sales rose 11.3 percent in November to a respectable 149,191 units. Sales in Germany fell, but only by 3.5 percent, to 259,846.
"Among the top ten brands," JATO's analysis reads, "only BMW and Mercedes recorded a sales increase in November."
The takeaway, as Western Europe tries to lift itself out of severe economic doldrums is that the automotive market looks much like the U.S.'s. The new Renault Clio, launched in late September at the Paris show, was off 3.2 percent in November. But that drop pales next to the aging Volkswagen Polo's 25.2 percent November drop. The larger VW Golf remains the bestseller in 30 European countries that JATO measures, and was down 6.5 percent, to 35,473 units in November. The Ford Fiesta was second, and up 4.3 percent, to 25,336. Thanks to its slim sales decrease, the Clio moved from fifth place for the old model in November '11 to third-place last month.
The Opel/Vauxhall Corsa fell from fourth-place in November '11, to fifth place last November, at 20,100 units, off 17.1 percent. The larger Opel/Vauxhall Astra remained sixth-bestseller, at 19,392, off 13.2 percent. The Ford Focus was next, at 18,799, off 5.4 percent, though through the first 11 months of '12, it's fifth, ahead of a combo of old and new Clios.
For the first 11 months of '12, through the end of November, car sales in Europe looks like this:
1. VW Golf4 408,412/- 9.8%
2. Ford Fiesta 289,553/-11.2%
3. VW Polo 269,000 /-19.1%
4. Opel Corsa 249,596/-14.6%
5. Ford Focus 226,378/-14.6%
6. Renault Clio 225,287/-18.2%
7. Opel Astra 216,802/-19.8%
8. Nissan Qashqai 193,695/0.0%
9. Renault Megane 184,633/-17.4%
10. VW Passat 182,194/-16.8%
Of the top 10 European brands for the first 11 months, which in order, are VW, Ford, Opel/Vauxhall, Renault, Peugeot, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Citroen and Fiat, only the premium/luxury brands are doing relatively well. Anecdotally, well-off European buyers seem to be willing to spend on subdued Audis, Mercedes and BMWs while shying away from ostentatious Rollers and Ferraris.
Audi was up 4.8 percent for the first 11 months of '12, versus '11, while Mercedes was up 1.1 percent for the same period. BMW sales fell, but only by 0.6 percent, compared with -12.1 percent for Ford, -15 percent for Opel/Vauxhall and -22 percent for Renault. Audi is now the sixth-bestselling brand in Europe, up from eighth this time last year by passing Citroen and Fiat, while BMW and Mercedes are each up one notch, to eighth and ninth, respectively.
So it's not just fleets buying new cars in Europe. Upper-middle class and rich people are supporting the industry, as well. If it becomes anything like post-Great Recession America as Europe slowly starts to recover, leases and new car loans will become harder for the middle-class to procure. Home equity loans, or whatever the middle-class used to buy or lease premium cars in Europe, surely are drying up as well, another indicator that upper classes are taking a larger proportion of new car sales than in the past. The relatively strong German economy doesn't hurt Audi, BMW and Mercedes, either. The upshot is this: that as the European economy re-adjusts itself, brand-new cars seem to be becoming luxury items, again, like in the days before the Ford Model T.