Passenger cars sales in Belgium rose by 6.7% in December to 20,839 from 19,531, which took the full year gain to 14.1% at 452,129 from 396,240. For both the month and the year the results were the best for six years. We would love to say how accurate our 1998 forecast had been, but this is one market that we did get wrong, and the market is very difficult to read with regard to prospects for 1999. GDP is expected to fall in Belgium during 1999 and industrial production is already being hit by falling exports to the Far East in particular. As the market stands today the 1999 total could stay quite high, maybe only settling back by a few thousand to 450,000, but there is a nagging suspicion that once the market starts to fall it will be quite a steep decline and so for the moment we will stick with 435,000 in 1999 and 420,000 in 2000.
GM Opel were very notable losers in a field full of winners in 1998, but towards the end of the year they were showing strong signs of a comeback. The Astra is a much better car than its sales in 1998 would suggest, but that fact has now sunk in and that model is beginning to lead the GM Group out of the current doldrums. With the Zafira and Astra Coupé due this year, plus facelifts for the Vectra and Omega, GM Opel can look forward to a much better year in 1999. For years now Opel has been the top selling marque in Europe, but it seems fairly certain that they were overtaken by Volkswagen in 1998, and there is an outside chance that the official figures - when available - could even show that Renault outsold them. So a return to the growth trail will be as much essential as welcome.
The only other losers were Proton of Malaysia and Lancia, who won't complain too much as they were busy mopping up extra sales in other European countries. The biggest individual winner was Renault, with Citroën and Peugeot not too far behind to make it a French hat trick. Renault had a great time in 1998 thanks to burgeoning sales of the Mégane Scenic and Clio in particular. Peugeot charged to the finish line on the back of the new 206, and that little car is set to be a monster hit in 1999. Citroën made their mark with the Xsara, increasing overall sales in Belgium by 22.3% to 32,562 from 26,626. We are due to road test the Xsara next month in order to see what all the fuss is about, but we have to say that of the French trio, Citroën look to have the hardest job on their hands to maintain the momentum in 1999.