The shift away from traditional large-ish cars took a permanent and dramatic turn in 2008. Two things happened. The sight of ashen-faced bankers carrying cardboard boxes out of the Lehman Brothers building made people realise that the world was indeed in economic meltdown. Things would change, including our buying habits. At the same time, Nissan had replaced its medium-sized Almera and upper-medium Primera with a single car and consumers were beginning to notice it. The Qashqai had the footprint of the Almera but the interior space of the Primera. It offered the appeal of an urban crossover without the pretenand its owners were buying into a new trend, not an image of company car drudgery.
From a financial point of view people questioned whether they needed a large car. From a lifestyle point of view they questioned what they wanted a car to do. Nissan had invented the popular crossover.
Since 2008 the UK has seen a major shift away from the upper-medium segment to smaller, more efficient and more versatile cars – minis and superminis as well as crossovers, SUVs and MPVs. So, despite that fact that the company car sector – the biggest taker for upper-medium cars – still accounts for over 50% of the market, the segment has dropped by over 45% and is barely a third the size of the lower-medium segment. At the same time minis and superminis, multi-purpose and dual-purpose vehicles have grown, the latter overtaking upper-medium volumes. The only upper-medium car to make it into 2013’s top ten sellers was the BMW 3 Series (at no 7, one place behind the Qashqai).
Which raises the really important issue for Ford. The company was also quoted saying that customers use a manufacturer’s ability to produce an upper-medium model as a measure of brand quality. I don’t think so.
Ford is stuck with the Mondeo. Unlike Nissan with the Primera it has a valuable share of the fleet market. Ford also has a loyal private customer base for whom ‘Ford’ is British. Dagenham. Honest. And of course the company shed its premium brands, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo for a One Ford strategy a few years ago. And now, with the relentless invasion of the mainstream segments by the German premium brands, coupled with the new popularity of the value brands, Ford and the the others in the middle ground are being squeezed. Hard. They have to fight back.
So Ford has announced the Vignale sub-brand to be introduced on high-spec versions of the smart next-generation Mondeo, offering dedicated, premium service. Renault is doing something similar under the Initiale banner. GM has dropped Chevrolet to concentrate on targeting Opel/Vauxhall at the German premium makes. The problem is that it’s easy for Audi, BMW and Mercedes to grow their customer base by extending their range to include smaller, cheaper, more family-friendly models. It’s a different thing altogether for a solidly mainstream brand to try to develop an upscale customer base.
The idea that medium-to-large everyday cars offer a quality marker for a brand is only right if you’re talking about Audi, BMW and Mercedes. They can even sell old-school three-box saloons by the bucketload in the form of the A4 and A6, 3 and 5 Series, and C and E Class. And if consumers want to go off-piste they’ve got Volvo for safety and Scandi design, Lexus for hybrid technology and build quality, VW for those who prefer What Car? to Superbrands. No matter how good a Mondeo is objectively – and it is good – the blue oval is a glass ceiling.
For Ford, providing a better experience and better product will almost certainly serve primarily as a differentiator from other mainstream brands rather than enabling them to compete with premium brands. Especially in the upper-medium segment which is largely responsible for way we aspire to the German badges.