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COMMENT: 2004 was a year of change and transition

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

What are we going to remember about 2004? The warning strikes at Opel? The wage negotiations at DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen?

Maybe we'll remember the many new models that were launched during the past few months, and the relatively small impact they had on the German market.

In many ways, 2004 was a year of change and transition.

Eckhard Cordes' appointment as chief of DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes Car Group opened a new chapter in the company's history. The appointment of almost-Mercedes-chief Wolfgang Bernhard to the Volkswagen management board did the same there.

General Motors took over Opel 75 years ago, but only now is the German unit coming to terms with the fact that it cannot act on its own authority when it is financially dependent on the parent company in the US. Opel is undergoing a drastic and painful makeover because earlier efforts to strengthen the company weren't successful.

There also are significant changes in other areas. Increasing fuel prices resulted in a growing interest in alternative propulsion concepts such as hydrogen, natural gas or hybrid technologies. The oil age appears to be drawing to a close, and automakers know that it is time to prepare for production-ready replacement technologies (or at least interim solutions).

This development is spurred on by the immense increase in demand for energy and individual mobility in China.

The takeovers of MG Rover and SsangYong by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. show that Chinese automakers no longer are content to play the role of junior partner. They have collected a lot of know-how during several years of joint ventures with Western companies. Enough, in fact, to develop their own vehicles for both the home market and for export.

Managers already are looking around in Germany for sales partners for Chinese-made off-road vehicles. They're also looking to invest money in financially weak German suppliers.

Who knows, the future heart of the auto industry may well be beating in Shanghai or Changchun instead of Detroit.

With this in mind, German car bosses -- including those at perennial winners BMW and Porsche -- should keep their foot on the accelerator and glance in the rearview mirror from time to time. The passing lane no longer is reserved for cars made in Germany. And we all know that pride is usually followed by a fall.

VW group Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder was well-advised to slow down Volkswagen's metamorphosis into a luxury brand and to remember the brand's core values: solidity and practicality at affordable prices. Audi can take aim of Mercedes and BMW. VW's competitors should be PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, Renault, Toyota, Ford and Opel.

The task of future VW brand director Bernhard will be to reorient Germany's largest carmaker accordingly. If he is successful, some sales promotions might no longer be necessary.

From that perspective, 2005 should become an exciting year for the industry. Let's look forward to it.

Tags: Automakers

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