LONDON - Passenger-car sales in western Europe will fall slightly this year, according to a consensus of six auto industry forecasting groups polled by .
On average, the forecasters expect a decline of 0.7 percent this year. But individual opinions are split. Three forecasters (S&P DRI, Marketing Systems and EIU) see a downturn in the market. Another three (CSM, J.D. Power/LMC and Mavel) expect it to grow.
DRI's Colin Couchman, whose 2000 forecast is closest to the average, argues that a modest total market downturn is likely despite strong economic growth across the region.
A healthy economic situation would 'normally be associated with stronger markets, and there is no evidence of car market saturation,' Couchman said. 'But the lack of sustained new-model activity may dampen further growth potential.'
Market trends in several major European countries took the industry by surprise in 1999.
At the start of the year, the forecasters on average expected the 1999 new-car market to decline by 2.5 percent.
By June, the forecasters had revised their estimates and were anticipating a flat full year. Now, they believe the market will grow by about 4.9 percent.
'Two of the threats that loomed at the start of 1999 have failed to materialize: economic weakness in the United Kingdom and the hangover from the incentive scheme in Italy,' said Arthur Maher at J.D. Power/LMC, in Oxford, England.
An exceptionally strong French performance more than compensated for a flat German market, he said.
Smaller markets also performed better than expected, said David Leggett, director of automotive forecasting at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. Benelux and southern Europe have been buoyant, he said, although the Nordic countries have been mixed.
'Norway, in particular, has suffered from a poor economic situation in 1999,' Leggett said.
FRANCE LOOKS POSITIVE
Most forecasters expect France to continue to grow this year. Paris-based Mavel was one of the first of the independent forecasters to recognize the French market was leading European volumes.
New models, such as the Peugeot 206, have created a dynamism in France, said Mavel's Jean-Michel Prillieux. But he pointed out that France will still fall short of its 1990 peak of 2.31 million.
Mavel expects the French market to grow by 1.6 percent in 2000 and then, after a dip in 2001, climb to 2.3 million units by 2003.
However, the German new-car market is not expected to grow in 2000. Ulrich Winzen at Marketing Systems in Essen expects a fall in Germany this year.
'There is no order backlog anymore, and order intakes are running at 3.6 million,' he said.
That compares with Marketing Systems' estimate of German sales of 3.82 million in 1999.
Winzen said stronger consumer demand would have a positive effect on the German market. 'But it will not compensate for the model-cycle position,' he said.
The United Kingdom has been held back by weak demand from private buyers in the past few months. Forecasters expected it to show little change in 2000, as the car industry continues to be the focus of a national investigation into high prices.