Cars drive Brand UK around in a vicious circle

Clydebank-Used-Car-Sales-Finance-GlasgowIt’s often said that car sales are a barometer of the economic climate. But, in the UK at least, they’re not – the booming market of the last five years has been way sunnier than our overcast economic conditions.

However, with a turnover of more than £70bn the retail motor industry is unarguably an indicator of national sentiment – even of our character and values. It’s one of the core elements of UK plc. And in a post-referendum landscape where the nation is redefining itself that makes it important.

The car sales figures for the first half of year show the market at an all-time high. Registrations were a record for any six-month period, up 3.2% on the same period last year, the previous best. March was the biggest ever month since the introduction of the bi-annual plate change. Last year was the best ever. And even post-referendum the indications are that 2016 could still beat it.

If we’re doing these numbers we must be in a pretty good place as we prepare to head up the slip road and off the EU highway – right? Well, no.

The extraordinary, counter-economic motor retail success story is really about the way car companies make their money – and in particular the British attitude to credit.

In the first quarter of this year the growth rate of UK consumer credit stood at almost 10%, Borrow-Money-to-Investthe highest since the banking crisis. Car dealer finance is a big part of this, accounting for £28bn in 2015 – twice what it was just four years earlier. Four out of five new cars are bought using borrowing, and today the car companies are effectively banks which sell cars. Finance is a core profit centre, and the PCP loans which the majority of customers take out to gain usership – not ownership – a brilliant retention tool.

The ultra-low interest rates enjoyed by consumers since 2008 also mean that almost anybody has been able get behind the wheel of a nice new car. Forget the £30,000+ sticker price – £195+vat a month for a Mercedes C Class, anyone? How about a Nissan Micra for £85+vat a month? That’s what you’d spend in a five-minute shop at Waitrose on the way home from work.

With PCPs, customers are becoming used to the notion of cars as mobile phones – something you get on a pay-monthly contract and replace every couple of years or so. When you do that, the man in the dealership will strongly resist any efforts on the customer’s part to pay cash. Even if you take out finance for a 48-month term he’ll be on the phone after 24 months offering something better, with no cost of change.

Some analysts are forecasting that sales could fall by over 5% next year as the UK adjusts to its new economic realities. However, with the near-certainty of even lower interest rates in the coming months, the appetite for new cars in the UK is likely grow – probably most among those who can least afford it.

And if the referendum fallout creates a drop in demand in the second half of 2016 then expect incentives to kick in swiftly to clear stock which was ordered for a market in economic status quo, not shock. The car industry will distress-sell. And the vicious circle keeps turning.

So while we like to view the Eurozone as a basket case, it’s the UK which has raced headlong back to the very conditions which characterised the economy at the time of the 2008 crash, and will probably continue to do so.

Let’s compare ourselves with Germany. While UK car sales rose by 37% between 2011 and 2015, the German market grew by just 1%. The German economy is humming along nicely, but when it does, the Germans don’t reach for their credit cards.

companybannerThe difference between the UK and most European countries is that we’re a finance-driven economy and they’re not. What does that say about Brand UK, our character and values? That we’re a nation of borrowers. That we’re no longer creators but consumers (preferably of German cars – VW, Audi, Mercedes and BMW alone account for almost 30% of the market). That we support our financial services industry more than we do our domestic car industry. That we see our cars, like our homes, as a measure of our success, yet we usually own neither. We just own the debt.

If the UK is redefining itself, this should not be part of our DNA. The EU may not have a clearly defined brand, but the UK’s is in danger of being devalued. British business culture should contain an element of daring, even risk. But not a lack of self-awareness or foresight.

 

Advertisements

MINI at Geneva: not there but showing the way

rocketman3The strongest statement by any company at the Geneva motor show has been made by one which isn’t even there.

By skipping Geneva MINI is underlining that it’s the holy grail for car companies – a generic lifestyle brand rather than merely a car brand.

Yes, it will still appear at motor shows, but they will largely be those held in the most cosmopolitan centres, like New York, not the ones in corporate and financial centres like Geneva.

And of course it will increasingly put itself in non-automotive environments, where fashion and technology coalesce, where other lifestyle brands are present, and where people go to consume and experience rather than go from stand to stand in an exhibition hall.

MINI has moved outside the constraining parameters of everyday carmakers, and in that sense it mirrors its fellow BMW group unit, Rolls-Royce. Where that great brand is the pinnacle of luxury personalisation, MINI has become the pinnacle of popular personalisation.

rocketman03It’s something we all engage with on a daily basis without even registering it – every smartphone is highly personalised, not so much by covers and wallpapers as through the apps we choose. MINI knows this: the car of the future will be personalised through use of technology, not just paint and trim.

Other brands, from Volvo to DS, claim lifestyle status, but these are the ones which have been forced to reinvent themselves. The rest pay lip service or remain wedded to the same old formula, MINI’s parent BMW brand included.

In an era when retail is being transformed by digital, and with the consumption of personal mobility by young and urban populations likely to change radically, MINI is showing the mainstream car brands the way to go.

Where is BMW’s Vision at Geneva?

IMG_0025The traditional positioning of Mercedes and BMW next to one another at the Geneva motor show provides a neat and obvious chance for comparing Germany’s two traditional powerhouses. And as a show of brand strength Mercedes squashes BMW this year.

Yes, Mercedes is a little brash these days. Chrome and polished surfaces are so ubiquitous that they’re in danger of undermining the quality of the fit-and-finish and engineering.

But being Geneva show neighbours does BMW no favours. It looks reticent by comparison. Understatement is a good thing – and BMW has traditionally been a master of managing and exceeding expectations – but the Bavarian company’s stand gives the distinct sense of a lack of new product and vision.

When BMW introduces new generations of it core models it starts with the 7-Series, followed by the smaller 5-Series and then the 3-Series. The 7 has just been launched, and we’re currently awaiting the 5. With the 7 being a notoriously slow-seller against the Mercedes S-Class, and the 5 replacement set to be revealed later this year, BMW is in limbo.

It’s a position made more uncomfortable by the fact that, in the real world, a new, larger 5-Series routinely makes the 7-Series seem rather redundant. When the latest 3-Series is launched it has the same effect on the 5.

The most significant car on BMW’s stand this year is the 330e, a plug-in hybrid offering the same performance as a petrol 330 for the same money. But it’s there only as a single four-door variant, untrumpeted and barely noticed alongside the i3 and i8. It’s also very clear that BMW is painfully aware of the car’s biggest limitation – reduced boot space because of the battery pack – as there are no standard four-door 3-Series models to provide an unfavourable boot capacity comparison.

The i3 and i8, beautifully marketed though they are, pose another issue: what are the next i cars? BMW leaped ahead of the market when it launched these, making EVs desirable and cool. But they’re bookends, one a true EV solution, the other a £100k sports car halo product. Where’s the middle ground, and what is the technical solution? For a company so brilliant at brand-building and engineering, the lack of narrative is puzzling.

IMG_0028Butting right up against the BMW stand is Mercedes’ vision of the future, a concept car with an interior rethought around the autonomous driving capability. It’s backed up by a plethora of plug-in hybrids, a new E-Class (5-Series competitor) and new variants of the C-Class (3-Series competitor).

BMW is celebrating its centenary this month but Mercedes has trumped it even there, with the deliciously poisonous public statement, “We warmly congratulate the globally renowned company BMW on its anniversary and invite all employees of BMW AG to discover the complete history of the automobile at the Mercedes-Benz Museum.”

p90212587-highres-1A week after the Geneva show opened, BMW marked its centenary by announcing the Vision Next 100 autonomous-driving concept car – a step on from the autonomous Mercedes at Geneva. How the Geneva stand could have done with that. BMW should hold the high ground in engineering for the future. If the Vision had been at Europe’s most important motor show it could rightly have claimed that territory. Far better that than a longer history.

The most interesting thing at the Geneva motor show isn’t a car

IMG_2517In a year when the Geneva motor show has seen world premieres of new production cars from Bugatti, Lamborghini, McLaren, Aston Martin, Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes, the most interesting thing there is something rather different.

No, it’s not an accessible sports car like the Fiat 124 Spyder. Or a family car which is simultaneously stylish, like the Renault Scenic. It’s not even a vehicle system or component.

The most interesting thing at Geneva International Motor Show 2016 is the VW stand.

Why? This is the first time VW has presented itself to world since it was engulfed by the diesel scandal last September. Since then it has replaced the top tier of management, made big commitments to low-carbon product and gone on a direct marketing charm offensive in the markets.

IMG_2562The company’s presence in Geneva is noticeably more human and warm than the usual giant white car park stuffed full of mundane mainstream models. There are semi-separate sections with constantly morphing mood lighting, Beats Audio listening pods and a giant screen snaking across the stand. Everyday models are displayed in bold colours, not just white, and there are two new concepts which tell us how VW wants us to see the brand: forward-thinking/eco-friendly, and fun/adventurous.

IMG_2519The Budd-e mini people-carrier isn’t as lovable as the Campervan-referencing Microbus of a few years back but it’s electric, clean and modern – what the brand needs to be. It also sits in front of an illuminated backdrop saying ‘Think New’: this is a company which very obviously knows it needs to renew itself for the public gaze. The T-Cross Breeze signals the smallest of three new SUVs, and here it’s in a not-for-production convertible form – this company, they would have you believe, is full of fresh air.

VW has put in some fast work in the last six months. None of it sweeps the diesel mess under the carpet, and customers with “defeat device” cars – me included – have been treated with disdain. But life at VW goes on.

I won’t be buying another VW, yet millions will without wincing. And that is its banana skin. Will VW’s need to change perception make it truly redefine itself and become a real brand again – the one which was founded on the Beetle people’s car? Unlikely. But as a brand professional I’m fascinated to see which wins out – the need to be trusted and valued or the need to stave off the financial cost of the scandal with volumes-driven profit.

Ford’s future: chillout and chocolate or mobility for the masses?

unlearn_homepagewebbannerThings aren’t getting much easier for the mainstream, high-volume car brands.

At the end of the last decade they were savaged by a perfect storm of a territorial invasion by the German premium brands, the economic meltdown, and the opportunism of the value brands seeking to capitalise on it. Ford, GM and the like were left struggling for relevance.

Visitors to the current Geneva motor show are greeted outside the hall by a vast Ford billboard. It features the new generation of the iconic Mustang muscle car, flanked by the GT supercar and the new Edge SUV, and asks us to forget everything we know about the brand. The Mustang hero vehicle doesn’t even wear the Ford blue oval.

It’s not rocket science to work out they’re saying: we make more than just commodity cars, we’ve got the heritage and we’ve got the SUVs everyone wants these days.

Go inside and another layer of icing has been put on the cake. For the first time there’s a real range of Fords adorned by Vignale sub-branding. Vignale is the company’s premium line, also offering concierge-style customer service. And they’ve pulled off a real coup by installing a Vignale lounge in the departure area of the Geneva airport. Chillout music, free massages, coffee, chocolates, water, workstations and wifi will go down very well with the millions going through the airport – and almost certainly be more effective than the show presence.

IMG_2582Yet what do these things say about the Ford brand? “We make great cars. They’re well designed, comfortable, high-quality and handle well. But we can’t persuade private buyers to consider us alongside Audi, BMW Mercedes and Volvo.” And the focus on the Mustang, GT and Edge – which as a large, expensive SUV will remain a niche choice against the premium competition – makes a telling contrast with Renault. The French brand was the most distressed of all after the 2008 crash, but now boasts a confident, all-new range of cars. No halo products, no premium pretensions; just attractive, honest cars people want to buy, including electric vehicles with dedicated designs.

It begs the question of what Ford’s purpose is. The company appears to be hoping to build brand equity from its niche offerings rather than focusing on what makes Ford a real brand – offering excellent quality products at a mainstream pricepoint. Other companies have done this without denigrating their brand – look at the iPhone. And ironically Ford itself has history here.

Over 100 years ago Ford revolutionised motoring with a commodity product, the Model T. Today, in an age when mobility will alter radically, it should not be beyond Ford to help drive that change for today’s masses, be an enabler, and build an everyman brand which is also a valued one.

Give the Blue Oval back its meaning, Mr Ford, and wear it with pride.

VW – volumes over values

VW Group’s announcement yesterday of its first financial losses in 15 years is not as significant as the loss of brand equity.

volkswagen-scandalThe emissions scandal isn’t ultimately about emissions, diesel or money. It’s about brand. The revelations could be a catalyst to redeveloping the VW brand by focusing the business on a new purpose. And a brand is nothing without a purpose.

The management of VW Group has been giving an object lesson in bad brand stewardship for a long time. As I said here last year (http://wp.me/p3xo5H-6d), in assembling a vast passenger car brand portfolio of SEAT, Skoda, VW, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti, it created a self-cannibalising mess. Skoda and SEAT have progressively been entering the VW brand’s space. VW has been intruding on Audi, while Audi’s aggressive entry into every market segment meant that it was stealing sales from the other three. And with the R8 supercar Audi was even competing with Porsche and Lamborghini.

The obsession with volumes meant that each of the brands was being devalued. At one end of the scale, Skoda – which has experienced serious growth as a value brand – recently stated an intention to start selling on quality, while at the other end the Lamborghini supercar and Bentley super-luxury brands were being commoditised with announcements of SUVs. And the flagship Audi premium brand has become utterly ubiquitous.

3500In the centre of all this there was the core VW brand, squeezed from above and below – just as the likes of Ford, Opel and Renault have been by the premium and value brands – but in VW’s case by its own siblings. It was pushed into the no-man’s land of the car industry, the sub-premium territory which crippled Volvo, SAAB, Lexus and Infiniti for two decades. And at the same time VW was introducing the Phaeton luxury car which offered more quality than the Audi A8, was a credible alternative to a Bentley Mulsanne, and was a car no-one wanted. How on earth did that represent VW brand values?

The reasons for VW doing these things? Greed and arrogance. It was about chasing the global number one status and doing things because it could. It was a case of volumes over values, a perilous trajectory for a brand. And it resulted in the emissions scandal.

Nobody should be surprised that the cheating happened. Car manufacturers are inherently conservative and inward-looking, VW more than any other: these are businesses driven not by customer requirements – and even less by vision and values – but by legislation and sales figures. They routinely cheat the monthly sales figures by self-registering cars, and the EU’s over-ambitious and poorly conceived CO2 emissions reduction targets have inevitably been met with equally expedient and poorly conceived ‘solutions’.

Add to this that VW Group has a toxic cocktail of a structure which lends itself to corruption. Management is too close to the unions, and the company is 20% owned by the state of Lower Saxony, with two of its management board coming from the regional government. 5396a-ferdinand_piech_a_70_ansIt has also been dominated by the Porsche and Piech families, and the comically evil-looking Mr Burns-alike Ferdinand Piech personally sponsored the Phaeton and the 1200bhp, $2.25m Bugatti Veyron vanity product. The latter is only slightly more garish than the vast sums spent by VW managers on their union colleagues on partying with prostitutes like Spring-break teenagers, activities which were revealed in 2005.

pg-48-VW-epaBut legislation and structure aren’t excuses: they’re reasons for better cultural and strategic governance. Even if VW’s now departed CEO Martin Winterkorn were completely unaware of the cheat devices, he is as culpable as Piech for the corporate hubris. It was he who declared an intention to be the global number one by 2018. It was under him that Audi has been boasting of growing from an already overblown 50-plus model lines to 60. And don’t forget that after his accession in 2007 four further brands were added to the group’s massive portfolio.

The good which can come from this is that it raises the fundamental question of what the carmakers’ purpose is, and may prompt them to redefine their brands through that spectrum. Is that purpose simply to grow, or is to make people’s lives better, even transform them? Think of Ford with the Model T, mobilising the masses.

6a00d83452989a69e200e5503ce7028833-800wiBut think even more of VW with the Beetle: how ironic that the company named after the reason for its very existence, the ‘people’s car’, should lose focus so catastrophically. And even more ironic that it then has to redefine itself and so perhaps become a real brand again, even a potential totem for the automotive industry.

Back in July 2014 when I wrote the piece with the link above, Volkswagen was admitting an urgent need for better profits. That VW’s profits are suffering is not surprising,’ I said.’ That’s what happens when a goal defined by volumes is set. If the goal were instead to define and differentiate the brands more clearly, with each given the objective of becoming the most desired among consumers, then the volumes would follow. They would do so more slowly but they would do it sustainably.’

Fifteen months on, I’m standing by that.

Tesla: disruptive world-changer or mainstream wannabe?

tesla-model-s-logo-628Tesla said last week that deliveries of a second model in its all-electric line-up, the Model X, would start late in October. It’s a big moment.

The company has done a remarkable job in leading the established carmakers down the road towards mass acceptance of electric vehicles with its Model S luxury car. There’s a lot to love about it. But the acid test is coming in the form of the follow-up products, starting with the Model X, for which it’s forecast sales of 55,000 before the end of 2015. Even though the X will occupy a lower price point and will be a crossover – the fastest-growing model type globally – that’s a tough call when Model S sales are currently running at an annualised rate of only about 40,000.

But that’s not the biggest issue. Tesla’s key problem is that its model range plans will see it entering the mainstream and taking on the big players – which have the muscle to stamp on the new boy who’s tested the market for them.

2013-tesla-model-s-front-three-quarter-1Tesla’s product strategy has been compromised by conservatism from the start. The Model S is a huge achievement, offering a viable range of well over 200 miles in an EV for the first time. It goes like stink and can move a large family in serenely hushed comfort. But it’s anonymous looking. EVs don’t have to shout their technical or eco credentials but nothing in its design tells you that the car is a ground-breaker, a catalyst for an entire industry. It’s pleasing but anodyne. It could be a large Mazda. Or anything designed around a traditional ICE (combustion engine) drivetrain.

teaser@2xNow, with the Model X, Tesla is taking its offering into more commoditised territory. And the smaller Model 3, which will follow, will further expand the range but do so by lowering the price point again. That opens it up to a far wider customer base but also far tighter margins and massive competition. A crossover the size of the Model 3 will be up against Chevrolet’s forthcoming and very keenly priced Bolt, and the major carmakers like Chevrolet’s GM parent can chevrolet-bolt-ev-conceptoperate at miniscule margins offset by far higher volumes, global footprints, larger product ranges and sales of financial services: most of the carmakers are now effectively banks which also make cars. Tesla is not, in spite of its founder Elon Musk’s billionaire status.

Put it another way: Tesla – despite controversial and vocal Musk – could have been disruptive but has not. Musk touts a disruptor tag and wants to challenge the established brands. His balls are as big as his bank account. But there is no mass following for Teslas or any other EVs at the moment, and when the demand rises the big players will exploit it quickly – there has been no first-mover advantage. Audi has recently announced that it will be revealing a prototype all-electric luxury car with a Model S-beating range at the Frankfurt motor show in September, and Jaguar is planning an all-electric luxury car. Both should be on sale by 2018.

gm-allelectric-chevrolet-bolt-not-a-threat-to-tesla-motors-inc-says-elon-muWhy such a slow response? First because the demand for EVs is still insignificant, and second because the Model S has been in a niche. The real competitive response will start as Tesla enters the more affordable market segments – which it will do with the Model X and Model 3 – and crucially when the demand for EVs can’t be ignored. And when that happens the established carmakers will be ready. Tesla isn’t doing anything the other carmakers cannot, and when it matters Tesla won’t be doing anything they are not actually doing.

Tesla simply can’t challenge the existing major carmakers head-on. Top-down disruption hardly ever occurs. Instead it would be better off continuing to target niches the major players don’t want to enter, or can’t enter quickly and easily, and engaging in innovative business models – like short-term leasing and car sharing. That’s what true disruptors do.

If Tesla’s aim was not to disrupt it should have created highly distinctive products, especially where it cannot avoid direct competition with the establishment. And it should have invested more in its brand. The simplicity of EVs mean that the barriers to entry for new carmakers are far lower than for new entrants in the ICE era. Making a car is the (relatively) easy bit; creating a relevant and differentiated brand is the hard part, and Tesla has not yet done that. To most consumers Tesla means ‘electric’, early mover’ and ‘Musk’ but little else. It may be one of the most tweeted, followed, liked and posted brands but it has effectively outsourced its brand development to the vagaries of cyberspace.

saab_92_black_1947When we see other new entrants into the EV sector they are likely to be less beholden to a traditional product profile, and more focused on brand, than Tesla. The next one may well be Nevs, the business which acquired the assets of SAAB, is rebuilding as an EV company and has just announced alliances with two Chinese state-owned firms. It knows the value of the SAAB brand legacy and my bet is that it will be thinking hard about new business models and the different requirements of Asian and Western markets.

To be successful, Nevs and other EV brands have to offer something different but which can exist alongside the establishment – in the market, in consumers’ minds and probably on their driveways. Challenging them head-on isn’t a sustainable option.

Changing the way to buy a new car: it’s 1995 (and Daewoo) all over again

daewoo-mirrorsTwenty years ago today, a company called Daewoo Cars was launched in the UK. It’s since disappeared and yet it’s becoming more and more current.

Car companies are only now beginning to explore new ways of engaging customers, of unravelling themselves from the restrictive dealer model and exploiting the internet – virtual showrooms, pop-ups, and shops in malls; service like you get at an Apple store. Tesla’s first UK outlet opened 18 months ago in the upmarket Westfield shopping centre in London. And now Hyundai has launched a joint venture giving it an outlet at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, staffed by plain-speaking, plimsoll-wearing people who are not trained to sell and are not paid commission.

New Hyundai store in Bluewater Shopping CentreHyundai’s partner Rockar claims that the end-to-end web process you can access at the outlet is a world first. It’s not. Fiat abortively launched a near-identical initiative, Fiat Click, in 2011. And if you take the website out of the equation, the business model is Daewoo’s – launch date 1995.

I was part of the Daewoo launch team. We knew that the world didn’t need another cheap Asian car brand, another Proton. But we didn’t want to be a Proton. And we had a clean sheet of paper.

So we tore up the rule book. Then burned it and stamped on it. No dealers; no third-party sales. In an industry bound to the archaic, unfit-for-purpose dealer network distribution model, that made us pariahs. It made us notorious. Which was great for our awareness but it was also smart. The message was that when you dealt with Daewoo you weren’t sold to but advised, by Daewoo employees who were not on commission. We could become number one for customer service, which we did. Overnight.

The result was record share for a new market entrant in the UK – immediately ahead of not only Korean arch-rival Hyundai but also mature brands including Volvo and Mazda – with almost 95% awareness, and the ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with M&S as a customer-focused high-street brand.

The Hyundai Rockar model gives a great brand message: we’re modern, we do things the way you want them done, we come to you. That’s part of it of course, but there’s a far more pragmatic driver. Car companies want to go to where there’s high footfall, but city centre land is prohibitively expensive. So let’s adjust the thinking and go to where there’s both footfall and people in a buying frame of mind. And let’s have just one car on display so it feels more like a lifestyle retail outlet.

EE_Daewoo_1_webBut remove the web element – like sat nav, Sky+ and Simon Cowell, Sky+ it didn’t exist back then – and Daewoo was doing all that and more. Showrooms exclusively at retail parks, with interactive touch-screen info pods (yes, in 1995), free coffee and children’s play areas. Smaller outlets at Sainsbury’s superstores with test-drives from the car parks. And more customer touchpoints at the Halfords service centres.

We reassured customers about buying a car from a new name with messages about the then-mighty Daewoo Corporation. When I took journalists to Korea we would arrive in a 747, parts of which were made by the company. We transferred in Daewoo coaches to the Seoul Hilton, built and managed by Daewoo, where we went in Daewoo lifts to rooms with Daewoo TVs. We flew to factories in Daewoo-built helicopters, visited Daewoo shipyards with towering Daewoo cranes, and even watched demonstrations of Daewoo military tanks.

080129-sea-slugThe car operations became healthily Europe-centric. Headed by Ulrich Bez, previously at Porsche and BMW (and later Aston Martin), the company established R&D centres in the UK and Germany. The UK retail model was exported back to Korea and I was asked to advise the global Chairman Kim Woo-Choong’s office on communications strategy – I recall sharing a meal of sea slug with him and Bez in his Hilton penthouse, discussing a plan to establish a manufacturing base in the UK. Strange days but good days.

money-graphics-2005_954555aSo why did Daewoo disappear? Not because the UK model didn’t work but because the Korean economy and Daewoo Corp imploded. The Korean car industry had to be rationalised, so Kia was absorbed into Hyundai, and Daewoo sold off into the old-school homogeneity of General Motors. Oh, and Chairman Kim fled the country in 1999 to avoid charges for his part in the bankruptcy of a conglomerate ranked 18th in the Fortune 500 only two years earlier…

GM rebranded Daewoo as Chevrolet in 2005 before dropping the latter from Europe 15 months ago. And with that the last vestiges of the Daewoo we created appeared to be gone. Dead and buried.

Yet its influence and the trail we blazed in the UK are in the here and now, the new retail motor industry landscape – ironically being championed by Hyundai’s ‘innovative’ approach. So if you hear something strange beating at the heart of the new retail motor industry landscape, remember – that really will be the Daewoo.

F1 – Manor more important than Mercedes

Formula 1 is in trouble – not because of the quality of the racing but because of its extraordinary ability to shoot itself, and its stakeholders, in the foot.

456910034Amid the inquest into the meaningless parade around the streets of Melbourne last weekend, out came Bernie Ecclestone to declare that the beleaguered Manor team would pay dearly for getting to the event but not making it out onto the track. Manor, a victim of the massive and escalating costs of competing in F1, collapsed at the end of last year along with the Caterham team, but was rescued late on and faced a race against time to be ready for the Australian race. By going there the team would become eligible for a £30m prize-money payout; Ecclestone suspects that it knew it wouldn’t be ready to compete and turned up only to collect the cash.

11015058_794633723925784_4037542306530199874_nBut the details aren’t important. The issue is that F1 needs tail-enders, and it needs Manor even more now that the other tail-end team, Caterham, has gone. Without these outfits, major teams with the backing of major car brands come last. To not win in the global spotlight of F1 is hard one thing; to come last is another, and not acceptable. Put in this position, the big stakeholders will leave, and others will not replace them.

It’s hard enough when the times are good. BMW, Toyota, Renault and Honda have all retired hurt from running factory teams in the last few years.

And now the times are hard. As well as Manor and Caterham’s problems, Force India, Lotus and Sauber face possible extinction, and were reportedly advanced the start money so they could make it to Melbourne. Take away those teams and you’re left with Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, McLaren (which thanks to the lack of tail-enders came last on the debut of its new relationship with Honda), Red Bull and its junior team, Torro Rosso. That’s just 12 cars, four of which come courtesy of Red Bull, which is threatening to leave F1.

Sauber’s lack of budget meant that it also nearly failed to make it onto the track in Melbourne. Having agreed to give 2015 a race seat to one driver, it had subsequently signed another two with bigger bundles of cash, so the first driver had them in court until well into the Grand Prix weekend.

A last-minute agreement saw Sauber make it onto the circuit, but there were just 15 starters – the lowest in a season-opener for over 50 years – and only two possible winners: the Mercedes cars, which are so dominant that they cruised to take the flag 40 seconds ahead of Ferrari.

In the same way that this paucity of competition diminishes the achievements of the championship-winning driver – the more he wins, the more, paradoxically, it devalues those wins – the corporations involved need competition. I launched Michelin back into F1 in 2001, and we only did it because there was another tyre manufacturer to beat.

Lewis-Hamilton-Mercedes-F1-2015-Australian-Grand-PRixMercedes is now the sole car manufacturer team apart from Ferrari. For Mercedes, it’s better to win with a fight. For Ferrari and the engine suppliers, Renault and Honda, they can’t be seen to be among the tail-end. F1 is still watched by millions, and these brands need to have private teams finishing behind them if they’re to remain in it.

If not, they will copy BMW and Toyota and withdraw completely. Perhaps move into sports car racing alongside Toyota, Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Aston Martin and Nissan – a place where the carmakers compete among themselves and a large, healthy entry of private teams.

One final thing: right now it seems that the German GP will be scrubbed from this year’s calendar, and the Italian GP is in danger. F1 needs car manufacturer involvement, Germany is Europe’s biggest car market, Italy the home of the sports car, and F1’s only two manufacturer teams are Mercedes and Ferrari. How on earth can the people who run F1 allow these two companies’ home races to be replaced by automotive nonentity nations?

If I were in charge of a car manufacturer brand I’d be doing my best to protect that brand. Which currently means not being part of F1.

Viva Geneva: Karl kicks out the concierge

If the underlying importance of the high-performance cars at the 2015 Geneva motor show was to point the way for electric powertrains, the fundamental theme of the show as a whole was even more real-world: how the mainstream brands are re-emerging.

Whereas a year ago the brands in the squeezed middle were focusing on countering the the premium brands with their own premium strategies, they’ve instead rightly addressed the fundamentals. In today’s market that means confident, well-designed, well-executed product in the right segments, giving them relevance in a market turned upside down by the explosion of the German premium brands over the past few years. Cars people want, not brand-stretching super-deluxe specifications, quilted leather and VIP concierge services.

Renault-Kadjar-Live-Geneva-2015-00Renault, which had a desperate few years, now looks one of the most convincing mainstream brands. Geneva saw the launch of its Kadjar crossover, effectively a version of the massively successful Nissan Qashqai cloaked in Renault’s latest and very agreeable design language. Alongside the smaller Captur crossover, Clio hatchback and Twingo mini car, it’s got the important mainstream market segments covered – and with attractive new product.

Renault’s alliance partner Nissan is also looking very healthy. It Geneva-2015-Nissan-Sway-Concept-03showed a mini concept, Sway, which is the basis of a replacement for the dowdy Micra and would complete a range differentiated by characterful design. Like the latest Qashqai, it’s a distinctive rather than disturbing like the Juke, but it still clearly says Nissan.

Nissan’s struggling upmarket brand Infiniti also looks rejuvenated, with two production-ready-looking concepts – the Q60 coupe and the more important Q30 compact crossover. That’s a model for a segment every volume carmaker needs to be in, and could be the car to finally give the company some meaning and a foothold in Europe.

maxresdefault-3SEAT has had a tough time since 2008, with an over-reliance on a bankrupt domestic Spanish market and a newly inherited position as VW Group’s bottom-rung brand thanks to the gains made by Skoda. But it’s got decent product again, and the sharply styled 20V20 SUV concept signals a wave of new SUVs which will add vital volumes. Like the Sway, it takes its brand’s existing design language and moves it on to give a clear and confident brand statement. That’s good design. Skoda’s new Superb, also revealed in Geneva, does exactly the same.

This is about having confidence in the brand: understand what you are, understand your strengths, and set about developing products which reflect that and a design language to articulate it.

Geneva2-Viva-1_3217646cThe star of the show? In this context, no contest: Opel’s new mini, Karl (Vauxhall Viva in in the UK). Opel has got a bigger job than most in re-setting itself and defining its mission. It can’t be premium but it mustn’t become merely a producer of commodities. The Karl/Viva is punchy looking, has an excellent interior, the equipment list of a £20,000 Audi, high-tech low-emissions engines, good quality and an impossible-to-ignore base price of about €9500.

But it’s not a cheap car. It’s a statement of the new Opel brand: excellent engineering, emotional design and high technology for everybody.

A car for the real world. A car with confidence.