Automotive

Published on September 1st, 2014 | by Daniel Sherman Fernandez

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European Car Companies New Market Offensive

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Among others waging or planning new offensives are Fiat-owned Maserati and Alfa Romeo, Nissan’s Infiniti, and Volvo, a unit of China-based Zhejiang Geely Holding. “Our theory is that there’s room for something visibly different that is styled in a more provocative manner,” said Andy Palmer, the senior Nissan executive charged with achieving a breakthrough for the 25-year-old Infiniti brand. “It’s particularly true for China”. “Chinese consumers will cross-shop and Audi only has the market to lose because they’ve been so dominant.”

For now, the Germans remain firmly on top. Their combined sales amounted to 4.7 million vehicles last year, almost 60% of the global luxury car market, according to consultancy IHS Automotive. That represents a 38% gain since 2007, the eve of the financial crisis, when the big three claimed just over half of the market. Global car sales grew 21% overall, while European demand shrank by a quarter over the period. Superior scale also brings cost advantages from research to production and marketing that are not going away. BMW has led the charge into new niches, launching dozens of models including SUVs in every size category, with Audi close behind.

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Nonetheless, some analysts believe the tide is beginning to turn against the Germans. UBS expects the same group of challengers, plus Tesla’s zippy electric cars and DS models from PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, to grab 30% of global premium sales growth in 2014-2018, raising their current 12.5% market share. Pressured by the increasing competition, the Germans’ return on invested capital will continue falling away from historic peaks of about 30% in 2010-2012, the bank predicts.

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“There’s also an inherent contradiction between premium and concentration,” UBS analyst Philippe Houchois said. “Buyers of premium-branded cars are looking for some degree of exclusivity that will set them apart from less fortunate car owners.” The resulting market fragmentation is “bringing the curtain down on the unprecedented growth that enabled premium auto manufacturers to generate outsized returns,” he said.

A Maserati push is making headway, with first-half shipments quadrupling on new models launched under Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne, who hopes a revived Alfa can also use its pedigree to outrun upstarts such as Infiniti and DS. “Unless you’ve got history, you’re not going to create the brand,” Marchionne told reporters recently.

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