Cast your eye down the long list of manufacturers on ACEA's monthly tally of sales in 28 European markets as I do, and you start to notice trends. One I have been watching for some time is the decline of Toyota. Lately, its Lexus division has rocketed up from its Jaguar-low levels so the rise, while being an impressive 34.5% thanks to the arrival of the CT 200h, still only gave it 2,055 new registrations in all of Europe during May. But, the improvement must be acknowledged: Europeans are at last opening their minds to hybrids and in particular to one such Lexus car, at least.

The opposite seems to be happening to the Toyota brand. The decline is affecting all models and to such an extent that in an overall market that rose by 7.6% year-on-year in May, Japan's largest brand nearly wasn't. Yes, that's right: Toyota sales last month across 28 European markets numbered only 39,571 units. That was a mere 99 units ahead of Nissan.

For the year to date, the totals are 245,254 for Toyota and 206,314 for its rival. Note also, that the tally for Mercedes-Benz is 243,258. As the German brand sold 15,756 more passenger cars across Europe than did Toyota in May, Mercedes-Benz is, as you read this, now a more popular brand in Europe than Toyota. Luckily for TME, the third generation Yaris is now only a few months from reaching dealerships continent-wide.

Other facts that can be gleaned from the ACEA numbers are the relentless rise of Audi and the continued slide of Fiat. The German premium brands are of course all being helped enormously by the recovery in their home market but that Audi sold 64,040 vehicles (+15.8%) Europe-wide in May compared to the Fiat brand's 68,139 (-6.7%) should be a major concern to Fiat SpA, especially when the Italian market has stabilised.

The recent hubbub over a supposed potential sale of Opel and Vauxhall should also be kept to one side when considering the performance of GM's main European brands: not only is the Insignia continuing to do well in the UK, its largest market, with 20,021 cars sold over the first five months, but the Corsa and Astra were also each in the German top ten last month, something that wasn't necessarily the case throughout 2009 and 2010.

If you are inclined towards allowing Opel-Vauxhall to be considered one brand, then its year on year rise of 18.8% in May to 95,005 sales also placed it way ahead of Peugeot's 90,547 and Renault's 89,776 registrations as the European number three. Ford, with 99,884 (+9.7%) was in second place. The Volkswagen brand remained untouchable with 160,281 registrations in May and a whopping 738,396 overall for the first five months.

One other point to note. It is good to see Volvo Cars at long last staging a comeback, after the extended wait that the company's employees endured while Ford secured a sale to a new owner. Registrations shot up by 34% in May to 23,580 thanks to the success of the S60 and XC60, with the V60 also now selling strongly in Sweden where wagons are traditionally popular.

To give some perspective to the Volvo numbers, in May 2010, its tally of 17,596 had fallen to not too far ahead of Chevrolet's 15,183, and that brand has no manufacturing plant in Europe versus three for VCC. For the year to date (and Chevy sales, incidentally, were stable in May 2011 at 15,073), 111,616 Volvos have been registered, versus 111,747 Kias.

Speaking of the Korean brand, adding its numbers to those of its shareholder Hyundai (171,759) for the year to the end of May, it is 4,172 units ahead of Daimler. That makes Hyundai-Kia Europe's eighth largest OEM. The total of 283,506 is a long way behind next placed BMW Group's 340,724, however.

Finally, spare a thought for Honda Europe. It sold fewer cars last month (10,057, -33.4%)  than Mazda (11,223, -25.9%) or Mitsubishi Motors (11,061). MMC's numbers were up a staggering 56% thanks to the success of the Outlander Sport and a revival of the Lancer and perhaps even more suprisingly of the Shogun (Montero/Pajero) in the UK market (brand sales up 82% there).

Hopefully for Honda, the recent production restart at its HUM plant at Swindon in the south of England will aid a much-needed revival. With only 69,144 vehicles sold in all of Europe in the year to the end of May, things can only get better. In May alone, the sales total for the Honda brand in the USA, a market comparable in size to ACEA's EU+EFTA 28 countries, and one where American Honda had big product supply issues, tallied up to 81,773. It's borderline irrelevant to make this comparison but the point is to show just how unusual it is to see a company as globally successful as Honda underperforming in a major region.

Honda makes the Jazz, Civic hatchbacks and the CR-V at HUM as well as the Civic sedan in Turkey. The parent company in Japan must have had great difficulties in justifying the investments needed for UK build of the new generations of the Civic hatchback and CR-V that are due within the next 6-12 months.

Honda, like Toyota, built its success in the US, Japan and now China by looking 5, 10 and 15 years ahead and learning quickly from any major errors. So even now, the correct strategy for the future might well already have been quietly put into place by Honda Europe. But it's looking like being a long haul for the brand in the region should it be intending to launch a fight-back against Nissan, Hyundai, Kia and others that have muscled in to the segments where it once competed so strongly.

Author: Glenn Brooks

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