BMW is marching ahead in
with a 38% increase in sales for the first half of
2007. This can be broken down into a 36%
stride forwards for the BMW brands and a
gigantic leap for Minis, up by 131%. With one
plant operating at full capacity there are now
plans to open a second plant. If this makes
it sound like the iron rice bowl is shaped like the
Bavarian propeller badge then a closer look at the
numbers is advised.
Actual sales this year amount to 22,891 BMWs and 776 Minis, and this in the most populated country in the world with one of the fastest growing economies. In 2003, with foreign auto makers confined to forming joint ventures with domestic suppliers, BMW believed that they had pulled off something of a coup in securing the services of Brilliance China Automotive after MG Rover had failed so ignominiously. The Germans believed that local production would provide them with a bridgehead into the fast growing Chinese luxury car market. As things turned out, having escaped the MG Rover frying pan BMW must have thought that it had landed in the Brilliance China fire.
In 2004 the Chinese car market was taking a breather, slowing to a growth rate of 15%, and there were worries that the market had overheated. BMW made 15,138 vehicles but had sold only 8,708 vehicles, leaving thousands in stock. The company went into 2005 expecting the worst and discounted the 3-Series and 5-Series by up to 15% just to get shot of them. In the event, the year turned out better than feared: after an initial downturn the market rose by 27% for the year and BMW sales doubled to 17,582 units. Production, though, fell below 10,000 units as BMW let the joint venture take all the strain of the previous year’s overproduction.
In 2006 the Chinese luxury car market rose by 60% while BMW’s increase was encouraging at 49.6% but still below the overall trend. Furthermore, while production was ramped up it still only rose by 35%, the shortfall being taken up by imports. Rivals meanwhile have been tucking into the feast with Audi, established in
BMW have managed to increase current capacity at the Chinese joint venture plant to 41,000 a year while a proposed second plant will add another 20,000 annual units. The current expansion will involve sourcing parts from another 30 suppliers on top of the current 50 and result in an annual spend of $389m, a rise of 50%. However, only 20 more dealers are sought this year to bring the total up to 90 or so. Behind all the talk of big numbers BMW is not getting carried away.
Fortunately for GM this overshadows shrinking European sales at Saab which dropped by 10.7% to 45,275 vehicles. GM bought the Swedish auto maker in 1990, just a year after Ford snared Jaguar and both marques have struggled to justify the investment made in them ever since. In the
The good news from GM Europe is not enough to counter the losses still being made at home in the States. GM’s sales are down by 21.3% for the year to date, resulting in a market share of 23% for the period. More bad news is sure to come since June’s market share plumbed a record low for the company of 22.3%. Saab was yet again as robust as a walking stick made of jelly as sales drooped by 3.9% for the first half of the year, while Chevrolet was weighed own by its
Despite the detractors, marriage does have its benefits and it seems that Fiat has gone through a quiet little ceremony with Ford in order to produce the new 500. Like the MINI and the Beetle it is a pet car majoring on nostalgia with its retro styling. Yet though it has the cuteness of a toy soldier it has the very grown-up job of reclaiming a corner of the market that Fiat once called its own.
The original 500 had a similar task to such cars as the Citroën 2CV and the ur-Beetle. The 1957 500 cinquecento took the inspiration for its layout from the Beetle with an air-cooled engine installed in the rear. However, the Beetle was designed to accommodate full-size Germans on an autobahn cruise, while the 500 offered cheap transport to light-weight Italian peasants more used to clinging to every protuberance of a Vespa. Its diminutive style and hyperactive engine also managed to convey an impression of sportiness when it could barely pull the crust off a lasagne. Abarth then put enough pep into it to achieve a certain legendary status in racing circles but Fiat made a bigger impact on mobilising the proletariat with such variants as the Giardiniera miniature people carrier.
The new 500 is intended to appeal to what used to be known as yuppies but which are now considered to be bourgeois bohemians. This crowd are young and affluent with a desire to flaunt their success while showing that they have a soft, fun-loving side. It certainly has the charm of the old car, designed by Roberto Giolito and the same Frank Stephenson who did the BMW Mini; it looks cute enough to bounce on your knee. There is scope in the options list for a bit of personal creativity with embellishments in décor and gadgets, up to 549,936 variations being possible. It has a fire in its belly this time, delivering a 100bhp eruption of power from its front-mounted 1.4litre petrol engine. This results in a genuine sprinting ability, discarding the 60mph mark in a little over 10 seconds and is said to have few rivals when scampering across the cobbles. It also offers decent accommodation for modern adults with a reasonable boot in the back.
Unlike its predecessor, it is unlikely that this 500 will become a ubiquitous presence on the streets of
The Mini continues to define the sector, though, and in answer to the Cooper the blue racing stripes will adorn an Abarth version of the 500 next year. This will have a turbocharged version of the 1.4litre engine, producing a piazza pummelling 135bhp. There are even plans for a screaming 900cc turbocharged vertical twin. A soft-top is due and a Giardinetta family car, though it seems more appropriate to translate that directly as “little garden” rather than full-sized estate. Clearly Fiat is in the family way and for the next few years will be enjoying its own little baby boom.