LONDON - Upper-medium and full-size cars were hit hardest by the arrival of new niche models last year.
As traditional segments splintered, sales of core upper-medium models such as the Volkswagen Passat, General Motors' Vectra and the Ford Mondeo fell away sharply. And as buyers switched from traditional vehicles to compact minivans and sport-utilities, full-size cars such as GM's Omega and the Renault Safrane were hit especially hard.
Success stories were here, there and everywhere, though. The Mercedes-Benz M class shook up the sport-utility segment. The Mercedes-Benz A class and Micro Compact Car's Smart did the same in the lower-medium and mini categories, respectively. The VW New Beetle and Audi TT were the star performers in the coupes, roadsters and specialty sector.
But the compact minivan remained Western Europe's hottest segment in 1999, up nearly 55 percent despite a slight decline in sales of the segment-dominating Renault Megane Scenic.
The following is a segment-by-segment rundown of full-year 1999 sales trends in Western Europe:
The Land Rover Freelander was the segment leader last year on sales of nearly 56,000 units, almost 14,000 units ahead of its nearest rival, the Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara. GM's revamped Frontera staged a notable comeback to claim third position, with sales up 65.9 percent over 1998. But the star of the segment was the Mercedes-Benz M class. Its sales climbed 113.2 percent, to 24,298 units.
The VW Golf maintained its slender lead over GM's Astra to remain the No. 1 seller across all segments in Western Europe in 1999. However, GM claims Astra outsold the Golf in the combined territories of Western and Central Europe last year. What is certain is that the rivalry between these two models won't diminish in 2000 - particularly with the Astra Coupe due on sale in the summer.
The VW Lupo, Daewoo Matiz and MCC's Smart made significant inroads in the mini segment. Despite a slight slip in sales, the Renault Twingo claimed the top spot. The aging Fiat Panda was a credible fourth. Lancia Ypsilon sales dipped 21.2 percent to 103,122 units.
The supermini segment grew just 0.4 percent last year and the Renault Clio and Peugeot 206 were the only real success stories. GM's Corsa forced the Fiat Punto into third position, despite sales declines for both cars. However, Punto sales should begin to accelerate now that a new model is on the market.
The upper-medium segment declined almost 10 percent as the top three models - the VW Passat, GM's Vectra and Ford Mondeo - all suffered sales setbacks. In contrast, sales of the Skoda Octavia grew 53.3 percent to 100,114 units. There were less dramatic increases for the Peugeot 406, Renault Laguna and Audi A3.
With the exception of the budget-priced Hyundai Sonata, sales of every full-size model slumped last year. It will be interesting to see whether GM's recently revised Omega can rescue a segment that appears in terminal decline.
The BMW 3 series was the star performer, with sales up 23.2 percent to 283,615 units. The Audi A4, at No. 2, was more than 88,000 units behind its German rival. New lower-luxury contenders, the Rover 75 and Lexus IS 200, were not on sale long enough to make a serious impact last year.
The medium luxury spotlight shifted away from Germany to Sweden and Italy. Segment leaders, the Mercedes-Benz E class and BMW 5 series, declined by 6.3 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively. By contrast, the Volvo S80 soared 575.9 percent to 41,155 units, and the Alfa Romeo 166 climbed 356.9 percent to 26,329 units. Sales of the Saab 9-5 also rose sharply.
The Mercedes-Benz S class single-handedly rescued the upper-luxury segment. While its rivals' sales fell away steeply, S-class sales leaped 164 percent to 33,582 units.
Maserati sales were up more than 200 percent to 1,033 units. Aston Martin also registered a small increase. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce/Bentley all fell.
The success of the VW New Beetle, Audi TT and Ford Cougar helped the coupes, roadsters and specialty segment expand almost 10 percent to 408,189 units. The Mercedes-Benz CLK grabbed the No. 1 spot. Its sales increased 39.3 percent to 57,795 units.
Growth in the minivan segment shifted firmly from full-size models to compact versions. Sales of full-size minivans slowed to 1.4 percent, but compact minivans grew more than 54 percent. Despite a 7 percent fall in sales, the Scenic is still the dominant compact minivan contender. The GM Zafira claimed second position with 96,121 sales.