December 2012 management briefing: Review of 2012 (part 1)
Opel Bochum's Zafira line. 2012 saw the threat of capacity closures looming large in Europe.
Like any year in the auto industry, 2012 saw its fair share of company ups and downs, industrial comings and goings, and a fair old sprinkling of corporate drama. It was also a year of economic uncertainty hovering over automotive markets. We covered it all on just-auto. Editor Dave Leggett sifts through the lot and picks out a few highlights from the year just gone, month by month. Part one covers the first half of the year, part two the second. This is part one.
It's a question that never seems to quite go away, but at the Detroit Show, General Motors' international operations head Tim Lee tells us that GM is determined to keep Opel and make it profitable.
Also in Detroit, Chevrolet showed a couple of breezy concepts aimed at 'millennials'. It's about capturing the heart as well as the mind. To illustrate the striving for emotion or the 'X-factor', there's a nice general comparison drawn from a woman who appreciates her car's modern safety features but feels there's something missing: “It's kinda like an ugly boyfriend, you know? It's good to me but, the second something better comes along, it's out the door.”
In an illustration of some of the ongoing pressures on the OEMs, Nissan and Daimler agree joint manufacturing of engines in North America.
It's going to be a tough year ahead for Italy and for Fiat. This comment piece neatly encapsulates some of the broader issues.
The outlook, though not great, is still for growth in 2012. Later in the year, I refer to this as the 'growth paradox' for the global auto industry.
Do you realise just how much BMW is exporting from the US? In 2011, the Spartanburg plant produced 276,065 vehicles for over 130 markets around the world representing a 73% increase versus 2010. But this the killer stat: some 70% of the vehicles produced (192,813) were exported, making BMW the largest automotive exporter to the non-NAFTA countries. Wow. And if the dollar is weak, that helps BMW on the pricing/margin front in those export destinations, of course. So, although it has been doing well in places like China, making plenty of high value cars in relatively cheap North America has also been a positive, even after taking account of shipping costs.
Have you heard of kenaf? It's a renewable plant material related to cotton and a little bit like bambo that Ford is using in the door bolsters on the new Escape. Interesting development I thought. That's kenaf of that.
The European car market becomes pretty cut-throat. Sergio Marchionne has been pretty vocal in lambasting the industry in Europe for not addressing overcapacity. And he is not at all happy about the pricing situation in Europe, either. Others are at fault, naturally.
It perhaps wasn't a huge surprise, but Mitsubishi announced it has no plans to put a new model into its Netherlands plant from 2013. It's a kind of death by default: you can't carry on without a model to produce. But what if someone else needs capacity? Watch that space.
There's yet more chatter – ahead of some serious GM Europe red ink - in the US over GM cutting Opel/Vauxhall loose and filling the gap with Chevrolet.
And the GM full-year financial results, when they do come, aren't pretty. Europe is most definitely the fly in the ointment.
But at least GM can feel the benefit of much more buoyant sales elsewhere, notably in the US and China. Some are very much more dependent on Europe's weak car market and will feel the pain more sharply. Gefco logistics will be heading out of the company later in the year among the measures taken to raise cash.
But really, GM and PSA? Two very different automotive animals and company cultures. You wouldn't put them together would you? Five years ago, absolutely not. Today, in 2012, things are very different – for both of them.
The Datsun Cherry shook up the UK car market in the 1970s. It was the right car in the right place at the right time: compact, loaded with features, inexpensive to purchase and run, and, most important of all, reliable (unlike some local specimens at the time). Datsun spearheaded export market growth for Nissan. But the brand had a 'cheap and cheerful' image that, eventually, Nissan wanted to move on from. The Datsun brand was replaced with Nissan in most markets. But Datsun is coming back.
More details emerged later in March.
At the Geneva Show, the pall of the weak European car market may hang over proceedings, but there are still some interesting models. Ford's B-Max with its absent B-pillar is a model that attracts plenty of attention. 2012 was a tough market to launch a new-segment product in Europe, but I wonder if that B-Segment monospace area is a little crowded now...the 3-cylinder 1-litre engine is an engineering triumph though, and Ford confirms later in the year that it will even find it's way into the Mondeo.
BMW continued to ride the premium wave, helped by the recovery in North America and those Chinese customers who like their cars to be high-spec.
Volkswagen also produced some decent 2011 financials, boosted by its global footprint of sales and production. In an industry where scale is vital, VW is a relatively strong performer. There was some further joy for the workers.
If, over at GM, they're wondering about a potential buyer for Opel/Vauxhall, it would appear that Magna will not be stepping up again after getting its fingers burnt before.
These are challenging times for suppliers too, and Visteon decided to rein itself in, focus on core activities and divest lighting.
2012 proves to be a great year for Jaguar Land Rover (especially the 'LR' part of 'JLR'), with strong growth of sales and production driven by new product and strong overseas demand. Some Land Rover Freelanders are being assembled in India. Jaguars, it seems, will also be made there eventually.
In Europe, speculation mounts that General Motors is planning capacity reductions. Eventually, it turns out that Bochum is to be shut. But, is that removal of capacity sufficient to return GM's European operations to profitability in the medium-term?
Daimler/Mercedes-Benz may be benefiting from relatively strong global premium segment demand, but it is also looking at cost reduction wherever possible. There's the collaboration with Renault-Nissan Alliance and also a plant in Hungary that is now making the relatively low-margin B-Class. The Hungarian plant is also building a local parts supply base.
A curious issue blows up at the New York Show with an anti-Iran lobby group targeting automakers who have connections with the country. It's potentially especially embarrassing for PSA, which is supposed to be getting closer to General Motors.
The Mercedes-Benz Citan light commercial? It's a rebodied Renault Kangoo. Next time you are out and about and stumble across the lesser spotted Citan, be sure to enlighten those you are with. Whatever happened to the horrendously named 'Vaneo'?
We also learned a bit more about Great Wall's tentative steps into the European vehicle market.
Nissan confirmed it will build Infiniti models in China from 2014.
An explosion at a critical supply facility introduces us to 'Nylon 12'. No, it's not that punk band you saw in your uni days that was eighth in the line-up at that all-dayer in the park. Put the cider away. Some very pertinent questions are raised about fragile automotive supply chains.
Over in the east, the Beijing Auto Show confirms its status as a top show.
BMW adds a China stretch variant to the 3 Series. They do like their leg room in the back.
But there is a slowdown in China, too.
We carried an interview with GM's 'autonomous car guy' (well, that's not his title, but you get the point). 'Super Cruise' is coming, but the autonomous car is some way off. I liked this quote though, which turns some of the caution expressed in this area on its head: “I personally believe there will be a time when people will feel insecure actually driving on the road and will go to special ‘driving ranges’ to practice driving themselves for fun. But if you have your family with you, you’ll say ‘I’ll let the car take care of this.’”
Asia is not just about China and India when it comes to emerging markets and adding capacity. Ford announces a new facility in Thailand which comes with a very high degree of flexibility in terms of what it can build.
There was good news for Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant as it emerged that it has secured the next generation Astra model. Productivity agreements negotiated with the local labour union (Unite) have certainly helped the plant in GM Europe's internal competition. Alas, things look bleaker for Bochum.
The Saab embers continue to be raked over. This is desperate sounding stuff, akin to a letter to Santa perhaps? That or a good PR stunt. I wonder if they ever got a response?
The auto industry is peppered with so many selective collaborations, it's hard to keep track of them all. Here's a new one that raises a few eyebrows.
Over in peaceful, rural Norfolk, some HR drama suddenly erupts. The ambitious project to turn Lotus into a 'British Porsche' seems to have come off the rails as the Malaysian owners suspend CEO Dany Bahar pending an investigation into his conduct. It doesn't look like there is a way back for him (and there isn't – he's eventually dismissed and it's still in the hands of lawyers).
Battery specialist A123 Systems may have financial management issues, heading for bankruptcy, but it also claims a technical breakthrough before it goes bump.
And BMW started getting ready for its new 'i' hybrid and EV brand.
BMW and Toyota announced their collaboration in high-tech areas where they could see significant synergies.
The UK car market may be growing this year, but Toyota GB's bos tells us that's not the whole story.
Mazda's revered but thirsty rotary engine apparently bites the dust. But don't completely rule out a reprise.
As the summer solstice comes around, Skoda gets into the spirit.
And as a European football tournament gets underway with the customary England team under-achievement, here's a nice thought: Forget the football, check out Hyundai's Zombie skewering car.
Forget the football, check out Hyundai's Zombie skewering car
Next up: Part 2 (July-December)