LONDON -- New-car sales numbers from across Europe for 2004 confirm once more that there is no such thing as a uniform car buyer in the region.
There are extensive country differences in what customers want. What appeals in Berlin does not necessarily fly in Barcelona. And certainly not in Budapest.
Overall, the Volkswagen Golf last year regained its status as western Europe's best-seller, a position
sporadically occupied in recent years by the Peugeot 206, Fiat Punto and Renault Megane.
But what makes a best seller?
"It's a car that makes an emotional connection with consumers," said Geoff Polities, Ford Europe vice president sales and marketing.
Ford has been a bit short of best sellers in Europe in recent years, but the company hopes that is about to change. Polities says the SAV concept it debuted at this month's Geneva auto show heralds a new design direction at Ford. "We spent the 1990s refining car driving dynamics," he says. "Now it's time to put some emotion into our products."
Similar sentiments are heard at Toyota, which has promised to give future models more design flair. Historically, the corporation's products looked dull, but sold well because of the carmaker's reputation for quality, reliability and value.
A perfect example is the Corolla, which was the top selling new car in Ireland, Finland and Estonia last year despite not being restyled since 2001.
But product originality is emerging as the key to commercial success. Patrick Le Quement, Renault senior vice president in charge of corporate design, notes that all automakers use the same suppliers. That means a technology improvement pioneered by one is a commercial advantage only for a matter of months before it is embraced by others.
Separation by design
"There are no bad cars today," Le Quement said. That's why he believes design now plays a more important role than it did 15 years ago.
Renault under Le Quement and BMW under Chris Bangle have made radical changes to their products' designs. Despite frequent media criticism, though, both automakers' products sell well. Several BMWs and Renaults are best sellers in their segments.
Kevin Wale, chairman of General Motors' UK subsidiary Vauxhall, previously worked for GM in Australia, Singapore and the US. He was in charge of sales and marketing at Holden when the Commodore large-segment car became Australia's best seller.
"The Commodore's style was widely accepted in that market," Wale recalls. "It had the full set of sensory requirements."
The ingredients of a best seller, says Wale, are good looks, ready availability and an ability to offer something different.