Europe’s Best Sellers

Volkswagen’s Golf is on top of the sales charts again, where it has been for all of the 1990s — except for 1997.

Stoic Germans can handle an unlucky year, I suppose. Volkswagen’s bosses never wavered, never showed a sign of worry when their favorite fell from grace.

They didn’t even flinch when the Italian government tilted the scales against them. In 1997, Rome offered a bonus to anyone trading in a 10-year-old car on a new one. The idea was to take dirty cars off the road and boost sales of new ones. The bonus of about $1,500 made a big difference for inexpensive, locally made cars like the Fiat Punto.

While sales of that model rocketed in Italy, Volkswagen was running out the string on its former Golf model, the Golf III, and changing factories to produce the new Golf IV. Customers waited for the new one patiently, but some couldn’t pass up a deal.

Finally, the new Golf IV started arriving at dealerships in fall 1997, built on the same platform as the Skoda Octavia and the Audi A3, both of which were well-received. The Golf factories were slow to reach full production, though. Volkswagen didn’t like the way the car handled, and engineers made some running changes to the chassis. Sales stayed low. 1998 came. Sales stayed low. The Punto started to fade as the end of incentives arrived, but a new challenger appeared.
Fiat Punto
Fiat’s Punto stole some of the Golf’s sales thunder.

Renault, the French innovation expert, had done it again. The Renault Megane Scenic wasn’t new, but it was catching on like crazy in other markets than France. The Scenic is a minivan version of a car the size of the Golf, and the halo effect of the Scenic helped all Megane sales. For the first half, Renault’s Megane was the champion.

Finally, however, the Golf was cranked up. Volkswagen has more capacity to build Golfs than Renault has for Meganes. And sales started piling up. When Dec.31 arrived, Golf had 672,465 units, well ahead of the Megane. And somewhere in Wolfsburg, Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech could light up a cigar, knowing that things were normal again.

The final tally? Here are Europe’s 10 best sellers, from last year and 1997, with percent change from year to year:

Top 10 cars in Europe
Car 1998 1997 Change
VW Golf 672,465 500,848 34.30%
Renault Megane 580,028 481,753 20.40%
Fiat Punto 560,554 581,070 -3.50%
GM Astra 558,542 498,753 12.00%
GM Corsa 498,254 503,623 -1.10%
VW Polo 426,341 456,363 -6.60%
Renault Clio 418,608 345,903 21.00%
Ford Fiesta 384,085 423,936 -9.40%
Ford Escort 371,389 419,374 -11.40%
GM Vectra 365,920 384,885 -4.90%
Source: JATO Dynamics
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