Geneva Motor Show: The squeezed middle

So Europe's best car show, held in glorious early spring sunshine, has come to an end. This year there was no single theme, but a number of conflicting trends.

For most mainstream European brands, the atmosphere was a lot cloudier than the weather, as the irresistible force of European over-production meets the immovable object of slumping demand.
It was not as downbeat as the 2009 show when manufacturers genuinely feared the sky was about to collapse, but it was a lot warier than the last couple of years when things seemed to be on the up.

Nowhere were the conflicts clearer than in the British contingent. Jaguar Land Rover staff were so happy they were practically bouncing off the walls. JLR now has the highest profit margins in the global car industry, and its biggest problem is growing fast enough to keep up with demand for Land Rovers and Range Rovers.

Nissan was full of news about new jobs at Sunderland to build the Note replacement, which will bring its UK production within touching distance of 500,000 cars a year.

However, Vauxhall is under a huge cloud, as the future of its Ellesmere Port plant hangs in the balance. The factory is very productive and comparatively low-cost, but GM has to slash European capacity and British workers are easier to sack than German ones, unfortunately.

In fact, Geneva was all about the success of companies at the premium end of the market and those at the value end. Audi, BMW and Mercedes are all doing very well, as are Skoda, Hyundai and Kia.

The ones that are being hammered are the ones in the middle – Vauxhall, Peugeot, Renault and Fiat.

Ford is doing a bit better (i.e. losing less money at present) thanks to a lot of new product, but the fact that, even with good cars like the Fiesta and Focus, it struggles to make money in Europe right now shows how tough things are.

Not far from the Ford stand was the nemesis of European volume manufacturers: Kia was launching its second-generation cee'd, despite the fact that the first generation model only seemed to arrive about 5 minutes ago. Apart from the Carens, the whole Kia range is now almost brand-new and the company is selling 330,000 cars a year in Europe, compared to under 100,000 10 years ago.

Add in growth at Hyundai and Skoda, and that means there are a lot fewer sales for traditional European brands to share in a falling market – no wonder they are so worried.

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