As the German car market turns positive after 2010’s post-scrappage slump, Dave Leggett rakes over some of the 2010 data and considers prospects for Europe’s largest national market in 2011.

As Europe’s largest national market – by a considerable margin – developments in Germany’s vehicle market are of crucial importance to the overall market situation in Europe. And lately it has been something of a roller-coaster ride in Germany as the impact of government measures in response to the international financial crisis of late 2008 played out. Principally, scrappage incentives have distorted the sales figures as they have messed with purchase intentions.

Germany’s car market in 2009 apparently bucked the severe economic recession felt across the world, Europe and Germany: it grew by a staggering 23% to 3.81m units. Small cars, in particular, enjoyed a boom as consumers brought planned new car purchases forward while the ‘temporary’ subsidy was available – the value of the subsidy being a higher proportion of the purchase transaction for cars with lower sticker prices. But there is a rub with ‘pull-forward’ sales. While scrappage schemes do entice some buyers who would not otherwise buy a new car into the market (to yield a net gain), they are also followed by a ‘payback’ period when the market falls, the ‘absent’ customers having purchased earlier. Thus it was in Germany when the scrappage scheme was switched off in late 2009 – some scrappage sales still came through in new registrations in the first half of 2010 but were now rapidly drying up. The market went into strong reverse when compared with the distorted high base of 2009.

In a neat symmetry, the German car market fell by 23% in 2010 to 2.92m units. But crucially, December’s market was up against December 2009. In an encouraging sign for the market, volumes rose in December by 7% to 236,688 units. This was the first time that outright sales volumes have risen in the market in year-on-year comparison since November 2009, when the scrappage incentive effect was beginning to tail off.

At the German automotive trade association, the VDA, the development is viewed positively with a sense that the underlying demand picture is improving. “The German car market is on course for normalisation and is evidently robust. The customers still demand high standards – for them it is not just the price that is crucial, but good value for money, and therefore above all high quality and reliability,” said Matthias Wissmann, VDA President, speaking in Berlin last month.

“The prospects constitute good reason for realistic optimism. Incoming orders from Germany have risen continually and with increasing speed since September. Domestic orders are now at 532,000, which is around 100,000 units higher than the average level from recent years,” Wissmann added.

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For the year 2011 Wissmann expects a ‘stable upward trend’. “We assume that in 2011 the German passenger car market will reach a volume of 3.1 million cars. This would also mean improving on the 2008 figure,” he said.

The VDA prognosis for the German car market in 2011 is shared by the professional forecasters. JD Power Automotive Forecasting also goes with a 3.1m car market forecast.

“We’ll see a picture of gradual improvement,” says Jonathan Poskitt. “Now that the distortion caused by scrappage has worked through, we’re seeing where the market really is in terms of underlying demand – and the improvement to sales in Germany is being underpinned by the strong performance of the German economy, especially the manufacturing sector.”

IHS Automotive also sees a return to organic growth in 2011 and is also forecasting a 3.1m unit car market.

“Moving into 2011 the German passenger car market should be able to look forward to a period of relative stability following the huge volatility of the last two years,” says IHS Automotive analyst Tim Urquhart. And that is something that he believes will be welcomed by the OEMs operating in the German market.

“It will make production planning, distribution and dealership stocking a much simpler task,” he says.

Urquhart also highlights the importance of Germany’s relatively strong economic performance. “The country’s industrial base is currently being buoyed by extremely strong exports which the automotive industry is contributing strongly to, with strong demand particularly form China and the US,” he says.

Economic growth projected at 3.6% for the full year in 2010 is expected to moderate only slightly going forward with a forecast growth rate of 2.5% going into 2011, according to the latest Global Insight data.

There are risks though. The sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone and nervous financial markets spring to mind. There is still a big job ahead with fiscal consolidation across Europe and that constrains economic growth across the region. In the crisis scenarios involving financial speculators, sovereign debt and policy disarray in some countries, prudent and well managed Germany would nevertheless be at the eye of the storm.

And Germany’s strong exports, to the US and China in particular, would suffer if anything went very wrong overseas.

The VDA’s Wissmann cautions that there is no cause for great celebrations. “The risks on the raw materials and financial markets have still not been banished by any means.”
Manufacturer developments

Scrappage distortions played a key part in manufacturer volumes and share movements in the German car market last year. Volkswagen (VW) continued to exhibit the trend of recent months, significantly underperforming the overall market. VW brand sales actually fell by 7.3% during December as the company continued to suffer from the massive pull-forward effect that scrappage had, particularly on sales of the best-selling Golf.

IHS Automotive’s Urquhart says VW will be under pressure in the key lower medium C-segment this year. “The VW Golf is set to come under additional pressure in the market this year as a result of the launch of new C-segment models, especially the third-generation Ford Focus. A reviving Opel is also well-placed with the still young Astra. And the Golf is also experiencing a natural slowing of its sales momentum as it enters the third year of its model cycle since the launch of the current sixth generation model in October 2008.”

For the full year, the VW brand marginally underperformed the overall decline in the market, with sales falling 23.8% year-on-year to 613,808 units.

In December Opel improved its recent position in the German market, having fallen behind the domestic premium carmakers following strong sales during scrappage. In the final month of the year Opel’s sales climbed by 39.9% year-on-year to 23,846 units, a figure buoyed by some extremely keen incentives and the firm’s new ‘lifetime’ warranty scheme which has drawn criticism as a result of the terms and conditions attached, according to Urquhart.

“Opel’s year-to-date sales total fell well behind the likes of Mercedes and BMW,” he points out. “But it was one of the big gainers under scrappage.”

The third largest passenger car brand by sales in December was BMW/Mini which just failed to match Opel’s total with sales of 23,593 units, a significant 16.9% rise on the figure posted in December 2009. This was driven by strong sales of the new 5-Series and X1.

Audi also enjoyed a strong month in December with sales of the new B-segment A1 contributing to a tally of 20,750 units, a 31.7% increase on the brand’s figure during the equivalent point last year. Sixth-place Ford was a big loser during December as its sales volumes contracted by 27.9% during the month to 13,102 units, as sales of the Focus slowed prior to the launch of the new model in the new year.

Data source: KBA