A quiet mood of optimism seems to be returning to the German luxury car business. BMW reported a 0.7 per cent increase in September sales compared with the same month last year. And while sales at Mercedes-Benz and Audi were lower during the period, the decline was far less pronounced than it has been over recent months.
For the German premium carmakers this is a clear sign the worst may be over and that sales should start growing again. Sales in emerging markets, especially China, are already buoyant, so much so that China could soon overtake Germany as Audi’s single largest market.
Audi sold 167,000 new cars in Germany in the first nine months of this year and 109,000 in China. Its sales to China grew 20 per cent in the first nine months and by a heady 36.5 per cent in September. BMW and Daimler also reported strong sales in the Chinese market. Although they are still trailing Audi in volume numbers, in percentage terms they have been matching and indeed outperforming their domestic rival. In September, Mercedes’ sales in China leapt almost 60 per cent while BMW’s rose 35 per cent year on year.
This, of course, says an awful lot about the appetite of the wealthy and middle classes in China for German luxury cars. This appetite has helped offset the collapse of demand for luxury cars in Russia as well as the decline in the US.
The European market also appears to be stabilising for premium carmakers.Their gradual recovery is unlikely to be affected by the ending of government incentives for scrapping old cars, which are largely designed to prop up the volume market.
At the same time, all three German luxury carmakers have been scrambling to develop new smaller premium cars commanding strong margins. The example of BMW’s Mini range is a case in point, with the Mini continuing to play a significant role in the Munich group’s recent recovery. BMW is now launching the X1, a smaller 4X4 car it describes as a sport “activity” vehicle.
Daimler is working on new electric Smart cars while trying to improve the attractiveness of its smaller Mercedes A- and B-class models; Audi is developing a Mini-style car dubbed the A1. Even Porsche is considering launching a “baby” Cayenne, and other smaller models.
But the most obvious sign of the increasing confidence of the carmakers is the way all the earlier talk of co-operation, partnership and alliances with other manufacturers seems to have dropped down the agendas of Daimler and BMW.
Earlier this year, at the height of the crisis, there was talk of Daimler and BMW forging close links and even considering cross shareholdings. Apart from some marginal industrial co-operation, these talks have gone nowhere.
If anything, both companies seem more determined than ever to go it alone.
The same applies to all the speculation of a deal, indeed an eventual merger, between BMW and Peugeot-Citroën. The two companies are working together on engines and say they are interested in expanding this co-operation and extending it to other components.
But the ambitious idea of the two sharing a new Mini car platform was rapidly abandoned, while a merger seems most improbable with BMW and its controlling family committed to remaining independent.
Yet both Daimler and BMW may ultimately have to reconsider their independent strategies. Audi has benefited strongly from being part of Volkswagen – and Porsche should now, too – and sharing common platforms with VW. It has given it huge economies of scale and ultimately enabled it to overtake both BMW and Daimler as Europe’s leading premium car brand. It is still lagging third to BMW and Mercedes in the world market, but if the other two fail to react it is likely to steal this crown too.
Lost in La Poste
The French government appears lost in its efforts to modernise the country’s state-owned Post Office ahead of the imminent liberalisation of European postal services. It is even taking out full-page adverts in newspapers to reassure voters that it is not privatising the system.
Opponents of the government’s plans recently staged an unofficial referendum with a large majority of the 2m people taking part voting against any changes to the Post Office. The internal crisis at France Telecom, which was privatised from the original post and telephone group, has further complicated the government’s plans to open up the capital of the Post Office and inject almost €3bn of funds to help it prepare for European Union liberalisation.
The government is insisting the Post Office will remain under full state control. Unfortunately, no one in France seems to believe it.
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