Europe: Go Small, Go Crossover or Go Bust

The new year has come, and with it a slew of freshened up vehicles (yes, I mean facelifts). So that got me thinking about a subject very rarely talked about in depth here and anywhere else for that matter: the non-premium/luxury European market. And I’m not talking about the BMWs and Audis made on the old continent and shipped off to a Mogadishu drug lord, but the Opels, Fiats, Suzukis and Renaults built by Europeans for Europeans.
I really don’t know what’s gotten into me, but I suddenly fell like talking about three-cylinder engines and cars that come with 15-inch stamped wheels. Jokes aside, regular people need regular cars to meet their regular transportation needs. Most Europeans will buy a car depending on how much it costs to tax, how easy it is to park, how many people can fit inside, and much maintenance and insurance costs, and while that’s all a bit boring, cars are also a part of their everyday life, so we can’t ignore them because we have an obsession with V12s.

Now, I’ve said time and time again - cars are not built with metal and plastic, they are put together using money. Automakers go through huge lumps of it to design, develop and engineer our beloved four-wheeled companions, and that’s where the problems start. You see, that money either comes from a big lender like a bank or from you, the average customer.

And that brings me to a very important problem I think is coming - just about every automaker knows a ‘bit’ of a slump is coming next year. I’ve already heard dealers saying cars are increasingly harder to sell in the past two months, and it’s only going to get worse. Getting credit from your bank’s going to be harder if you’re just a regular Jacque, Johan or Jonathan, but you might still need a car.

So autoevolution has to point out the obvious trend for 2012 and beyond in Europe. Forget about the cars of the future, you need the cars of ‘right now’, more specifically the return of the really compact… compact and the new workhorse for young moms and fathers alike.
Currently, the best selling cars in Europe are the hatchbacks like the VW Golf and Polo, Ford’s Fiesta and Focus, Renault Clio or the Peugeot 207. But turn the clock a few years back and you would have found stuff like the bigger BMW 3-Series or Audi A4 in the top 10. Why is that? Why has the average European customer shun away from the sedan and wagon in recent times? I really don’t need to state the answer but I will to make sure we’re on the same page - congested cities, gas prices and insurance costs.

Which brings me to a very important question: what car are you still going to be able to convince your wife you need to buy after your yearly bonuses have been cut? The answer is simple really, a cheap crossover that you like for the rugged looks and she like for the practicality and safety.

The day of the big sedan in Europe has dawned, since automakers have managed to finally blend a bit of soft-roading with looks that will no longer make you shake in disbelief. No longer do you have to look at a Fiat Sedici or Suzuki or Suzuki Jimny and say to yourself “nooooo, I’d be much less boring in a family sedan”. And that’s because there is a huge offering of relatively affordable and good-looking crossovers right now.

I think most automakers in Europe will have to switch from large sedans to average jacked-up hatches in the near future. But what does that have to do with the economic crisis and the increasing price of petrol? Well, families will likely go for the most flexible car that meets most of their needs - the school run, the weekly shopping, the hiking trip in the summer and a visit to the old folks who live in the countryside.

Even though the Ford Focus is more responsive than a Nissan Qashqai, the Japanese crossover model is more of an all-rounder, at least on paper. 2012 will be the year when this and other such vehicles start creeping into the Top 10 sales charts on mass. And there is a whole batch of appealing new city-dwelling crossover as well as new ones coming soon to choose from: the Mitsubishi ASX, Citroen C4 Aircross, Dacia Duster, Ford’s upcoming EcoSport and new Kuga, Hyundai’s ix35, the Skoda Yeti and VW’s Tiguan.

Predicting a clear winner for 2012 between these models is like betting what sort of climate control temperature people like - a battle between comfort and efficiency. But what about those people who don’t kneed a jacked-up suspension in their lives, those folks that gage their lives by how good their coffee tastes.

Back a decade ago, you couldn’t beat a Clio three-door for coolness without sportscar money, but now you just don’t see them all that often. We were all convinced to believe that the Nissan LEAF electric vehicle was the way of the future, but it really isn’t, at least not in 2012. There’s a reason small run-arounds have lost appeal, and that’s because they aren’t small anymore.

But the supermini still has what it takes, and the three-cylinder turbocharged trident is its weapon of choice agains the electric robot-toasters on wheels and hybridized little monster that are so eager to replace it.

Ford is doing the three-pot shuffle with a 1.0-liter engine that it’s probably also going to drop into the Fiesta. Meanwhile, Peugeot is doing a great job that it should be proud of. Not only has it shrank the 207 significantly to make the 208, but it’s also reinvented its design language with floating grilles and crazy swoops

But it’s Renault and Fiat that probably face the biggest hurdles. The French automaker is stuck making too many sedans, and even one of its top UK execs admitted recently that the Laguna might be better of as a crossover. Even though I love the coupe version, it’s true that the nameplate has not much premium image left in it for me. Fiat meanwhile needs a lighter Grande Punto and the competition is closing in on the 500. If they don’t get it right soon, they face layoffs and plant closures.

To conclude, I think that soon the crossover will no longer be the bastardized version of a hatchback, and I’m really looking forward to the really small two-door jacked-up supermini. I find there are plenty of reasons for Europeans to love the small car once again and these two will together revive the old world. Whoever builds the cheapest (and I mean really cheap) crossover that looks good in front of Zara or M&S while still being practical will rule the old world!
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About the author: Mihnea Radu
Mihnea Radu profile photo

Mihnea's favorite cars have already been built, the so-called modern classics from the '80s and '90s. He also loves local car culture from all over the world, so don't be surprised to see him getting excited about weird Japanese imports, low-rider VWs out of Germany, replicas from Russia or LS swaps down in Florida.
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