10 things to watch in 2013
Bye-bye block exemption, hello stricter CO2 rules; CEOs on the hot seat
No one expects the European car market to be a source of good news this year, especially for volume brands. Optimists predict flat sales while pessimists foresee a decline of up to 5 percent. How the European automotive industry responds to a potential sixth-straight year of decreasing sales will be a major story this year, but it won't be the only headline grabber. Automotive News Europe editors identified 10 stories to watch in 2013. The stories are listed in alphabetical order.
PSA/Peugeot-Citroen CEO Philippe Varin's contract expires in June and Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche's ends in December. The renewal of both contracts is far from being guaranteed. PSA is performing well below its domestic rival Renault and Daimler-owned Mercedes-Benz continues to lose ground to BMW and Audi.
In July, the EU approved a proposal to lower automotive carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 to an average of 95 grams per kilometer (equivalent to fuel consumption of 3.6 liters per 100km or 65 U.S. mpg). That is a significant decline from the industry goal of 130g/km by 2015. Since the 2020 goal was set, German automakers have been clashing with their French and Italian rivals on how the proposed standard should be enforced across the European fleet as each brand will have to hit a pre-determined target.
German manufacturers have been lobbying to revise the current calculation mechanism, which is based on a car's weight, so that they can make a smaller contribution. Makers of lighter cars, notably in France and Italy, have been strenuously defending the current mechanism and reject any change that would force them to have to do more. This year we can expect to hear more about the "slope of the curve," which will determine how the reduction is distributed amongst the brands.
The "slope of the curve" was a subject of debate five years ago. Back then, it took summit talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to forge a deal. In 2008, Germany won and France lost. If the leaders of the countries have to close the deal again, Merkel might not be as successful as in the past because new French President Francois Hollande is more closely aligned with PSA and Renault than Sarkozy was.
Starting June 1, 2013, car retailing will be governed by the EU's general competition rules instead of the block exemption regime that was introduced in 2002 and offered the motor industry a "safe harbor" from normal competition rules.
Automakers are using the expiry of the EU's block exemption regulations for new-car sales to eliminate underperforming dealers and shrink dealer networks in countries where vehicle sales are falling sharply.
Automakers are also gaining power from the new rules, experts say. Steve Young, managing director of UK-based dealer analysts ICDP, said the change in the rules "eliminates the right for the dealer to sell on his franchise; gives the manufacturer more right to terminate; and also gives them the opportunity to ban multi-branding."
Ironically, encouraging the creation of multibrand dealers was at the heart of the block exemption. Former EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti pushed to allow dealers to offer more than one brand "to put the consumer in the driving seat." Time will tell whether consumers – and dealers – will feel they're now in the backseat.
This year, we'll see whether there is any real appetite for electric vehicles in Europe. Renault will begin deliveries of the Zoe, the region's first volume EV. The Zoe is not a re-work of a fuel-powered car because Renault wanted the model to stand on its own, much like Toyota did with the Prius. Europeans bought about 10,000 EVs in 2011 and almost 8,000 in the first half of last year so volume is rising from a very low base. The Zoe has the potential to create a true niche for the EV in Europe, or it could flop, which would be a blow to Renault as it has capacity to make 150,000 units of the EV a year.
Another dynamic worth watching is how people react to Renault's plan to sell the car but lease the battery. In France, the Zoe retails for 13,700 euros after a 7,000-euro state subsidy. It costs 79 euros a month to lease the battery.
The hybrid race is about to pick up some serious speed as Ferrari and Porsche launch supercars with gasoline-electric powertrains. Ferrari's first hybrid system will be in the unnamed successor to the Enzo supercar. The new, limited-edition Ferrari will provide more than 900hp. Ferrari has not revealed the price of the car. Porsche's hybrid system will go into the 918 Spyder. Limited to just 918 units, the new Porsche will offer nearly 800hp and start at 645,000 euros plus taxes in Europe and $845,000 in the United States.
A debate is raging over the safety of a new air-conditioning refrigerant. When testing HFO-1234yf last summer in simulated crash tests, Daimler found that a mixture of the refrigerant and air-conditioning compressor oil released under the hood of a car could ignite on the hot surface of an engine, releasing a deadly gas.
SAE International, an influential automotive engineering association, says that HFO-1234yf is safe, according to preliminary test results released last month. U.S. conglomerates Honeywell International Inc. and DuPont Co. both make the new refrigerant, which also happens to be the only product of its kind that meets the new European Union climate guidelines that take effect this month.
Daimler's discovery sent the industry, and Brussels, scrambling to find out whether years of tests that showed the product was safe were, in fact, flawed.HFO-1234yf already costs five times more the coolant currently used in cars. If supplies of the coolant run short because of the safety controversy, the price of keeping a car cool will be make a lot of people very hot.
Europe ended 2012 with almost 4 million unsold vehicles, estimates Morgan Stanley. "We are surprised that a wide range of extended shutdowns have not been announced in Europe in December. We fear some automakers may have prioritized free cash flow over channel cleansing into year-end, leaving an 'inventory hangover' in the new year," Morgan Stanley warned in a note to investors last month.
Europe has an estimated 84 days of sales piled up on car lots. This compares with about 70 days in the United States, 44 days in Brazil and about 40 days in China. The analyst also believes that the glut of cars could force automakers to reduce European production by 13 percent in the first quarter. The double-digit decline is expected to contribute to a 4 percent decrease in global first-half production, resulting in the first worldwide drop in vehicle output since the second quarter of 2011.
Koreans cool off
Hyundai and Kia continue to defy the European downturn – both brands had double-digit growth through November in a total European market that fell 7 percent. But even the fast-growing South Korean automakers are being forced to adjust their ambitious plans.
Last September Hyundai said it would need until 2016 rather than 2015 to boost its European market share to 5 percent from 3.4 percent. Kia has pushed back its deadline twice for achieving a 3 percent market in Europe. The first target year was 2013, then 2015 and now Kia thinks it will take until 2015 or 2016 to hit the target. Last year, Kia had 2.7 percent share in Europe.
In order to address chronic overcapacity and slow the escalation of a profit-killing price war in Europe, three automakers announced plans last year to close a combined five plants in the region. The problem is that none of the closures will happen this year. That means PSA, Ford and Opel will struggle to keep their losses under control in 2013, if not longer. PSA's plant in the Paris suburb of Aulnay is set to close in 2014, but the company faces a long negotiations. Ford will shut a plant in Belgium and two in the UK starting in 2014 at the earliest. Opel won't close its Bochum, Germany, plant until 2016.
The bottom line is that Europe will get no relief from overcapacity this year. Because of this, analysts at Polk estimate that Europe's car plant capacity utilization will slip to 75 percent in 2013 from 77 percent last year. A plant should use between 75 percent and 80 percent of its installed capacity to break even, industry watchers say.
Strangely, the two automakers that Polk estimates had the worst utilization level in 2012 – Fiat (51 percent) and Toyota (58 percent) – have not announced any plant closures yet.
It will be interesting to see whether the new Volkswagen Golf will be able to buck the downward sales trend in Europe and somehow give the entire market a bit of a boost. That is a lot to expect, but we're not talking about a niche car, we're talking about Europe's best-selling model. Positive signs were already visible late last year as November sales of the sixth- and seventh-generation Golfs were off just 4.4 percent in a total market that dipped 8.8 percent during the month. It is a safe bet that the new Golf will be one of the few bright spots for the European auto industry this year.
Nick Gibbs and Reuters contributed to this report
You can reach Luca Ciferri at firstname.lastname@example.org.