Paris motor show becomes a brand catwalk

The cars aren’t the stars so much as the narrators at motor shows these days. They tell an interesting story – how car brands are striving, and in may cases struggling – for relevance in an astonishingly competitive, over-crowded market.

The Paris motor show going on right now does this more than any other, because it gives centre stage to France’s own: Renault, Peugeot and Citroen. Three brands which have always struggled on the international stage and were floored by the economic crisis in Europe.

5169344898592298Citroen used Paris to launch the separation of its DS line. DS models offer Mini-like personalisation and high-quality materials, and they’re sold at a premium so there’s more profit. The mother brand’s mainstream products are hugely improved, but for years they’ve been piled as high as the Eiffel Tower and sold as cheaply as a plastic Paris bistro table cloth. Lining one up alongside a DS in either a motor show or show room only distresses the latter – and its profitability. The super-sculpted DS Divine concept in Paris was there to show that DS products are going to have unique styling to ensure greater differentiation. And greater profit.

Fellow PSA brand Peugeot believes that if it offers excellent quality at mainstream prices the numbers will happen. And today’s Peugeots are well-designed, with thoughtful interiors, tactile materials and good build. It’s an impressive turnaround. But there was little new in Paris. Even the Exalt crossover concept had been seen before – at the Beijing show. That betrays its ambitions in China, but for Europe there are only facelifts until the end of next year, and for a company still dependent on Europe that’s a concern.

017E00D707663739-photo-renault-espacePSA has refused the budget-brand route, unlike Renault with Dacia. The Romanian brand has been propping its parent up over the last couple of years, but now Renault has emerged with excellent new product of its own. The Fiat 500-esque Twingo will give some fizz back to the brand, while the styling has a new-found confidence, shown in the Espace revealed in Paris. It’s an MPV with a low, muscular stance and an interior which wouldn’t look out of place in a Range Rover.

It could be a breakthrough for Renault in the large-car market where it’s always struggled, but the company is giving more prominence to its Initiale sub-brand. Unlike DS, Initiale won’t spawn models but a new luxury trim level. Ford is doing something similar with its Vignale line, seen in Paris in the form of a dedicated merchandise and accessory boutique on the stand. The new S-Max and Mondeo models revealed at the show will lend themselves well to the Vignale treatment, and there’s nothing not to like about the concierge-style service offered. But it’s very hard to see Ford conquesting customers from the premium brands without a product as bold and surprising as the Espace.

The approach being taken by Ford’s principal mainstream rival, Opel, is more in line with Peugeot’s: everyday, good value products with increasing quality and sophistication. But GM’s new dawn in Europe after the dropping of the Chevrolet value brand was signaled in Paris by the new Corsa supermini – an everyday car in one of the traditional segments you still have to be in. The new car has been developed from the old one’s architecture, which is fine – VW has done that with the Golf in the recent past – but it’s a mistake for the new Corsa to look so similar to the outgoing car. GM listened to what customers said about the old car, and this is the result. When did Apple last do that?

GM Europe has acquired several senior VW people in the past year or two, so perhaps it’s become a model for the Opel revival. VW keeps doing what it does best – granite-like rationality – and the evolutionary new Passat in Paris could have gone unnoticed.

Paris saw the world debut of Volvo’s XC90. It’s a wholly more convincing way to usher in a new era than Opel’s, but it’s not bang-on. The XC90 is the right car to go with to send the message that Volvo is an upmarket lifestyle brand. And the interior – which is what really matters for a Volvo – is a lovely place to be. But Volvo is now a design-led brand, which has not translated fully to the slightly utilitarian exterior. And the pricing is ambitious – maybe too ambitious. Volvo needs to escape the ‘near-premium’ straitjacket but it will do that more effectively by concentrating on being what it is – a genuine alternative to the premium brands – rather than aligning itself more closely with them on price.

IMG_0974The opportunity for Volvo is clearly there when you look at the established premium market leaders Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Each is intent on offering something for absolutely everyone, which means creating new sub-segments. Volvo is too small do do the same, but that allows for a clearer brand statement. There’s a growing feeling in the industry that fragmentation has its economic limits, but Audi is intent on a 60-model range by 2020, including a family of TT models based around the TT sports coupe, likely to include a TT SUV. Paris saw the unveiling of a five-door TT concept, less of a leap and something of a return to form on the design front. It may not sell as many as a TT SUV but it would serve the brand better.

Over at Daimler, Mercedes’ effort to match Audi’s range was amply demonstrated in Paris by the simultaneous launch of the exotic AMG GT sports car and the smart fortwo and forfour city cars. BMW showed a new version of the unloved X6 coupe crossover which only highlighted the lacklustre design running through its range. Interior materials are on the slide too. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the company’s best people have been working on the game-busting i3 and i8 electric range.

2016-jaguar-xe-parisThis background may help Jaguar. Like Volvo, it’s small and it has to get the segments and products right. The new XE compact executive car – a 3-Series rival – is its most important car ever and was revealed in Paris. Quality seems excellent and, crucially, it’s different from the German premium offerings it has to compete against. It’s visibly a Jaguar, even if the rear-end styling is somewhat generic. But perhaps that’s deliberate: BMW has become a major fleet player with the always-inoffensive 3-Series over the past 10 years.

Jaguar’s sister Land Rover brand showed the Discovery Sport in public for the first time in Paris and, like the XE, it’s a vital model for the business. Its smooth, compact shape contains a cleverly packaged interior with seven seats, but it’s a further step away from Land Rover design and brand values and towards a generic Range Rover/Land Rover look and purpose.

Hyundai and Kia offer a surprisingly relevant viewpoint here: hugely successful as a merged business producing essentially the same products with unique styling, the group is now making a concerted effort to formally differentiate the look and brands further. It’s an enlightened approach from a business which took the original Audi TT designer Peter Schreyer on board and elevated him to president status. Kia’s aggressive-looking new Sorento large SUV, and Hyundai’s sophisticated new i20 small car, both revealed in Paris, articulate the new positioning well.

The Hyundai-Kia group has frightened the life out of the Japanese brands, and in Paris you could see why. Toyota was the most impressive, and is finally concentrating on communicating its pioneering position in low-carbon solutions. It gave a European debut to the the production fuel-cell car which will go on sale in Europe next year, plus a hybrid crossover concept to compete with the Nissan Qashqai crosssover. Toyota may lead on technology but it lags behind on product planning.

Nissan launched its Pulsar hatchback, almost a decade after replacing its conventional offerings with crossovers. It may be a market necessity but it weakens the brand positioning, and suddenly, Nissan’s position in the market is looking weaker than alliance partner Renault’s.

But it’s better off than Honda, which now sells only fractionally more than Mitsubishi in Europe, and is behind Suzuki. It’s way behind Mazda, with its ‘go our own way’ approach, and despite having new cars on the Paris stand Honda looked outdated and lost.

Honda is competing in a market packed with brands which are becoming better defined and more expressive. They’re not all going to succeed. But without investing in the brands the carmakers will lose relevance and ultimately fail. Shows like Paris remind us that modern cars are extraordinarily capable, technical marvels which are a tribute to their engineers and designers. They’ll very soon be driving themselves. But they can’t sell themselves. In a market where high-quality cars and affordable finance come as standard, brand engagement will decide consumers’ purchase decisions.

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