When Small Gets Big, Bigger, Biggest

March 31, 2008

When the automotive bean-counters weigh in with their latest numbers, on Tuesday, you can be all but certain that the sales reports will trigger panic across the industry. With few exceptions, the analysts are predicting sharp declines, with the industry as a whole likely to barely nudge the 15 million. Considering sales were steadily running around 17 million for much of the last decade, there’s reason for panic and paranoia.

The simple fact is that a daily diet of bad news -- rising unemployment, the housing meltdown, record oil prices, and no clear solution in Iraq – has American consumers pulling back on big-ticket spending, especially when it comes to automobiles. The impact is particularly severe when it comes to large, gas-guzzling work vehicles, such as Ford’s F-Series, Toyota’s Tundra and Chevrolet’s Silverado.

But there appear to be at least a few bright spots, mostly at the other end of the automotive spectrum. If anything, BMW’s Mini and Daimler’s Smart brands are victims of their own success, sales largely limited by production capacity. Smart’s fortwo can’t come close to meeting initial U.S. orders, and will likely remain in backorder for the foreseeable future, according to company officials.

Could it be that the U.S. market is finally getting in sync with the rest of the world? Consider the vehicles that top the sales charts around the world:

In the U.S., Ford sold nearly 600,000 F-Series pickups last year, about a third more than the forecast for all mini- and subcompact sales are expected to total in 2008;

In Europe, small car sales are expected to top four million this year, according to data from the consulting firms Global Insight and the Boston Consulting Group. Last year, the pint-sized Peugeot 207 topped the sales charts, with volumes of 438,000.

In Japan, the Suzuki Wagon R was the top-seller in a crowded, down market, with volumes of 227,000. Small car sales are forecast to top two million this year.

In China, an emerging class of small car buyers is sending sales of micro, mini and subcompacts soaring to a predicted 1.4 million this year. Price is still a critical issue, so it’s no surprise that Wuling, a division of General Motors, topped the sales charts with its stripped-down Minivan. Almost small enough to fit inside an American minivan, Wuling sold nearly a half-million, last year, prices starting as low as $3,500.

India could soon see an explosion of new, small car buyers, with Tata readying its $2,500 Nano. Even now, the higher-priced Maruti Alto was the top-selling car of choice for 225,000 buyers, last year, with the overall Indian small-car market expected to hit 1.2 million in 2008.

The largest emerging market in the Western Hemisphere is also dominated by small, low-priced models, collectively known as “Popular Cars.” Long the Brazilian industry leader, Volkswagen’s Golf was the market’s top seller, in 2007, at nearly 250,000 copies. Overall small car sales should nip the 2 million mark, analysts predict, in 2008.

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