With new compact and subcompact models from Ford and GM enjoying respectable sales, the mainstream media has been indulging in some “feel-good” headlines, like the New York Times’s Detroit’s Rebound Is Built on Smaller Cars, or CBS’s more equivocal Can small cars rebound U.S. auto industry? It’s an understandable instinct, as the media has long battered Detroit’s inability to build competitive compact and subcompact cars, and in the post-bailout atmosphere of redemption, these headlines definitely help reassure Americans about the value of their “investment.” Unfortunately (if unsurprisingly), however, these pieces gloss over the full truth of the situation. Yes, Ford and GM are enjoying improved sales success with small cars. The “U.S. auto industry,” on the other hand, isn’t actually getting all that much out of the situation, beyond some fluffily positive press. Here’s why:
The last ten years have not been kind to Fiat’s Alfa-Romeo brand, as 2009 sales levels fell to about half their 2000 volumes. Having put Alfa on “strategic review” and stuffed it into a “brand channel” with Maserati and Abarth, CEO Sergio Marchionne has had a change of heart, and is now “determined” to build the brand into a “full-line premium carmaker.” According to Automotive News [sub]’s coverage of Fiat’s five year plan presentation, that means committing to a US presence targeting 85,000 annual sales by 2014. For a sense of scale, the Alfa brand sold a grand total of 103,000 units globally last year. And Alfa is going to have to kick ass around the world to meet Sergio’s goals. By the time Marchionne expects American Alfisti to buy 85k units each year, he wants the brand’s global sales to have increased nearly five-fold to half a million units. Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe it…
With the world starting to gain stability economically and economists talking about “bull markets” you’d be forgiven for thinking we can start to be optimistic and why not? Ford are flying high, GM (prodded by the government) are adding third shifts and Chrysler’s sales “only” dropped 3.7% in December. Well, don’t be too sure. CNN Money reports that a survey conducted by KPMG of 200 auto and supplier executive showed that 88% of them believe there is still too much capacity in North American plants. In fact, the survey showed that the executives believe that overcapacity is a bigger problem today than a year ago and when you look at the figures, it’s a bit of a no brainer.
Asiaone Motoring reports that Toyota are now pushing forward on their constructions of plants in the United States and China which had previously been put on hold. It should come as no surprise that part of the reasoning behind this decision is to meet growing demand in China. More importantly, Toyota needs to protect itself from the strong yen, a consideration that now apparently outweighs weakness in the US market. The report says that Toyota is expected to invest and additional 100 billion yen (about $1.1b) to get these plants completed. Although these plants will increase capacity by 200,000 units, Toyota plan on halting production on lines in Japan and the UK, as the firm must still reduce capacity by 1 million units in order for this investment to work. Though the move is a clever one, it highlights the enormous pressure the world’s number one automaker finds itself under: overcapacity is bad enough, but when so much of its production is based in Japan, it deal with reduced production while paying for expansions in cheaper production zones. The upside? This plan could lead to US production of the Prius at the under-construction Mississippi plant sooner than expected.
In a lengthy, wide-ranging interview with Automotive News [sub], Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne got an awkward question from AN’s Luca Ciferri.
Your five-year plan forecasts that Chrysler’s operating margin will peak at 7 to 7.7 percent of revenues in 2014. In November 2006, you predicted that Fiat Group Automobiles’ operating margin would peak at 4.5 to 5.3 percent in 2010. How could Chrysler’s post-global recession peak profitability be 50 percent higher than Fiat Group’s pre-global recession assumptions?