Are Manufacturers Barking up the Wrong Tree with Small Cars in the US?

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Don’t be fooled by the flood of new economical small cars being announced this year, of which those on display at the Detroit Motor Show are only the beginning. Whatever the manufacturers may tell us, they are not really aimed at the US buying public. Led by Ford and Toyota, long the visionary leaders in developing the concept of the world car, a model so ubiquitous it would appeal in its standard form to buyers from Shanghai to Seville to Seattle, manufacturers have poured billions into developing models that can be produced on the same platform in multiple locations around the world and in so doing save them millions in production and duplicated R&D costs. Ford’s new Focus is probably the pinnacle of this trend, widely anticipated to be a huge hit in the US following its release at the show and already a best seller in Europe. While the economics of a one world car are indisputable it raises the question of whether the world is really ready for the concept. The desire for small, medium and large cars varies dramatically around the world and to pour all one’s resources into developing small cars, manufacturers are ignoring a still significant market for medium to large saloons.

In 2009, 89% of cars sold in China were for the compact and sub compact market, stimulated no doubt by the government’s financial incentives to buy sub 1.6ltr engines, but in the US, which was going through the worst recession in 70 years, numbers had only crawled up to 21%. Jim Hall, managing director of motor industry analysis firm 2953 Analytics is quoted in the Telegraph as saying manufacturers are perhaps fooling themselves, as outside of major urban centers like Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco, there is little actual demand for compact cars, especially with petrol prices back at the $3-a-gallon mark compared to the $4-plus peak in the summer of 2008 when oil topped out at $147-a-barrel.

Sales in North America for these small cars are likely to disappoint compared to other parts of the world and a better solution may be to develop more fuel efficient engines to power larger sedans (the route Mercedes and BMW are taking with their E class and 3 & 5 series diesel saloons), some of which are now capable of over 50mpg. Part of the manufacturers need for smaller cars stems from new environmental standards, with cars expected to be able to return 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 under new US guidelines, manufacturers are judged on the average efficiency of their fleet. American buyers are, on the whole, not interested in small cars or in paying high upfront costs even if the long term economics are more attractive. Witness the hybrid market. After 10 years of availability in America – the most affluent major car market in the world only 2.8% of US cars are hybrids.

This has implications for the metal supply industry. Where during the recession the temporary trend to smaller car sales exacerbated the decline in steel and aluminum consumption, the migration back to larger saloons likely to result from a gradual improvement in the economy will see a larger per vehicle metal consumption adding incrementally to metals consumption in the reverse of the demand destruction we saw last year. All this hype about a new generation Prius, the Nissan Leaf and GM’s Chevy Volt will amount to nothing in metal consumption terms. At a likely sales price of $30k, even after a $7,500 per car green technology rebate, sales of the Volt will be a dismally small part of the anticipated 11.5 to 12.5 million production units predicted by the industry for this year. And what does Mr. Hall think sales will be for 2010? He is expecting a double dip due to the heavily indebted commercial property market and says sales as a result will be just 10.9m. Let’s hope he’s not right on that one.

–Stuart Burns

Comment (1)

  1. They might have course have saved a few more jobs if they hadn´t walked off with 40 million quid, or if they had followed a fundamental principle of capitalism, that of reinvestment

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