Astra sales were down by 37% in March, the car was even outsold by the Fiat Ducato; meanwhile, Corsa registrations halved last month

Astra sales were down by 37% in March, the car was even outsold by the Fiat Ducato; meanwhile, Corsa registrations halved last month

The German market for new passenger vehicles ended the first quarter at a level not seen since 2000. There are some surprising performances from older models, such as rocketing Ford Focus registrations and a boost for the Volkswagen Passat. Conversely, Opel's ongoing collapse means it may soon be at risk of falling behind an ever-improving Škoda. 

Aside from showing which brands are doing well and which are faltering, market data from the KBA reveals one overall stand-out fact: Germans might love the Volkswagen Tiguan but an overall reluctance to eschew cars in favour of SUVs remains.

During March, sales of the Golf were down by four percent, so one percentage point worse than the dip of the market itself (attributed to fewer selling days compared to 2017). That still meant total deliveries of a combined 22,335 units of the hatchback, estate, Alltrack and Sportsvan. For the three months to the end of March, the total was 59,189. An impressive result for a range whose best selling body style is more than five years old.

The Golf might be showing no sign of being in any danger from rivals yet odd things have been taking place in their ranks. Is Ford supporting the Focus with large incentives? How else to explain the car's extraordinary achievement of being the German market's number three best seller in March, with deliveries of 7,185 cars? That performance was even good enough to lift it into fourth place for the year to date (16,992) ahead of the new Polo (16,239) although the Passat remains in third position (18,198) even with it being out-sold by the Ford last month.

Second place for the year to date (20,419) and also during March (7,332) was taken by Volkswagen's increasingly popular Tiguan. Even though its volume is only a third of the Golf's still it holds the distinction of being the sole SUV in the top ten. Compared to other big-population European countries, especially the UK and France, Germany is still nowhere near being a market where people are flocking to vehicles with elevated driving positions. You have to run your eye down the rankings all the way to 14th position for another SUV to show up. That's the Ford Kuga, which finished Q1 with registrations of 11,235, enough, incidentally, to lift it ahead of the new Fiesta (11,109) which is down by seven per cent for the year to date.

If ever there was a perfect example of how different the preferences of buyers in Europe's larger markets can be, this would be it: in Britain, the Fiesta is head and shoulders above all comers, its deliveries having reached 32,808 units, more than 10,000 vehicles clear of the next-placed Golf. Moreover, the Qashqai, Kuga and Mokka X were also in the UK's March top ten.

If Mercedes-Benz is still a luxury brand, then luxury is well and truly mainstream, both in Britain and Germany. In the first of these two markets, the C-Class and A-Class are amongst the ten most bought models in 2018, while in Germany, the same applies but the C-Class is joined by the E-Class (the A-Class is down in 35th position in its home market, reflecting buyers' knowledge of a new model being due for release in a few months' time). What is especially interesting about the performance of the C, which fell by 21 per cent in Germany during March (due to people awaiting the arrival of a facelifted range), is that its decline was nonetheless typical for its segment.

Is Audi worried by a 16 per cent slide in A4 sales? Or BMW, which saw registrations of the 3 Series dropping by 30 per cent and being only 67 cars above the 3,000 sales mark? What has happened with all those people who used to almost automatically trade one D-premium estate or sedan in for another of the same make and model? Are they now changing not only vehicle brand but body style too? How else to explain the exit of so many from this segment?

So where are these people going? Passat sales shot up by 41 per cent in March, which is all the more unusual as the car is soon to be facelifted, although this is not common knowledge amongst the public. The Tiguan and Tiguan Allspace might have overtaken it to become VW's number two best seller but its year-on-year rise in March was only five per cent. How about other SUVs? The Kuga was up by only three per cent last month, so no, it isn't taking business from the C-Class, A4 and 3er. The answer is more complex.

BMW (26,248) was neck and neck with Ford Deutschland (26,890) in March. While the Focus saw the Blue Oval brand pull into the lead last month, for the year to date, BMW is still ahead, with 64,639 registrations compared to fifth place Ford's 64,535. Above these two, Audi has 70,215, Mercedes 77,912 and Volkswagen 166,666.

The success being experience by BMW is due to the rise of the 2 Series (+21%) and X1 (+22%). Who says MPVs are no longer big business in Europe, not to mention that a range made up mostly by two people carriers* would be BMW's best seller at home? VW managed to sell 14,653 Tourans in March (+2%), which is another model that's due a mid-cycle refresh this year, so its strength in the market is as remarkable as the Passat's.

As families and older buyers turn to MPVs and C/D segment SUVs, this is affecting brand loyalty too. The Qashqai, which by contrast to how it has sold in most of the rest of Europe, has never been a mainstream model in Germany. Yet recently, that has begun to change. During March, deliveries of the Nissan SUV surged by 30 per cent to 3,717 units. And yes, that meant it beat the 3 Series, sales of which, as noted above, dropped by the same percentage.

The brand which just keeps on quietly ratcheting itself up the European sales ladder one small step at a time, is doing especially well in Germany. Could it even be that Škoda is now taking sales from Mercedes, BMW and Audi? The Octavia is more than five years old and yet it becomes ever more successful. German market registrations are a case in point: the car is now the sixth best seller and in March it pulled ahead of the C-Class, second only to the Passat in its segment. The totals were 15,875 versus 18,198. In March, though, the Octavia was fewer than 300 registrations shy of the VW (6,310 versus 6,011).

Škoda's C/D segment hatchback and estate range is being helped along by the popularity of the Fabia (12,024). Underlining the reluctance of buyers to show major interest in SUVs which sell strongly in other countries, the Kodiaq (5,722 YtD) is yet to become a mainstream vehicle in Germany. Still, its contribution is helping with an unspoken goal which its maker surely has, namely the possibility of out-selling a certain German make.

The main problem for Opel is the Astra, which is falling like a stone (and in the UK too, where it now fails to make the top ten). Under Groupe PSA's direction, Opel and Vauxhall are said to be pulling back hard from low-margin fleet deals. While the Insignia is holding up relatively well, in common with the Passat and Octavia - 7,206 sales Ytd and March deliveries down by only eight per cent, the Astra (12,593 Ytd and -37% in March) and Corsa (10,575 Ytd and -50% in March) are taking a beating. For this reason, Opel's year-to-date tally is only 57,729 vehicles. The brand suffered a 23 per cent plunge last month, and Škoda is edging ever closer (51,026 deliveries in March, up four per cent). 

Will two new VWs entice buyers to embrace C-crossovers and B-SUVs?

A strong market and the addition of multiple important new models throughout the remainder of 2018 promise to make for potentially fascinating developments in Germany. There is no question about Volkswagen remaining top dog, nor is Mercedes-Benz in any danger of losing its number two status. Instead, the battle of cars versus SUVs - not forgetting MPVs either - and the rise of certain non-premium brands such as Škoda, Ford and Nissan will be the trends to keep watching.

Can any model ever make a serious dent in Golf sales at home? It's possible, and the attacker may even already lurk within Volkswagen's own model line-up. The T-Roc is so far selling at a mere 10th of the Golf's volume - 5,969 YtD - but its popularity is rising month by month. The Polo-sized T-Cross is due to be added towards year-end too, so Volkswagen might even see two of its best sellers over multiple decades being assailed by a pair of home-grown newcomers. As has started to happen with the rise of the Kuga and Qashqai, this may well tip the balance away from cars and lift interest from buyers in B-, C- and D-segment crossovers and SUVs.

*the KBA classes the F45 Active Tourer, F46 Gran Tourer, F22 Coupé and F23 Convertible as one model range: the BMW 2 Series