PARIS - Automakers in France are changing the way they define new-car segments as the old definitions become less meaningful.
Europe has long divided the high-volume market into four main categories - supermini, lower-medium, upper-medium and full-size. But sales of traditional sedans and hatchbacks are declining, while station wagons, minivans and sport-utilities become more popular.
The French companies have been considering how to categorize the hot-selling Renault Megane Scenic. Is it a lower-medium car, or a minivan?
The French car trade association, CCFA, decided - along with both French carmakers and importers - to count the Scenic with minivans. As a result, minivan sales jumped to 8.4 percent of French registrations in January and February. This compared with 3.8 percent for all of 1996.
To understand what is happening in the market, analysts are going beyond the traditional segments.
'The customer is not aware of segments,' said Ernest Ferrari, Renault marketing manager. 'He looks at various models belonging to different segments.'
Vincent Besson, Citroen marketing manager, said: 'The customer considers a style, a price and a service when he choses a car. The segments were devised by carmakers to classify their models and to make comparisons between each other.'
The concept goes back to the 1970s. Segments in France are defined by several criteria, including length, number of cylinders and number of seats.
But the system is far from perfect. The same segment may also include different body styles, like sedans and wagons.
Price is not usually taken into account, but it has an influence. For instance, the BMW 3 series is considered part of the upper-medium segment in Germany, but is in the luxury segment in France. Automotive News Europe classes the 3 series in Europe's lower-luxury segment.
To cope, Renault and Citroen have devised new tools. Renault devised a scale identifying 21 customer categories.
Marketing executives define the Twingo minicar, for instance, as targeting modern buyers with families, especially working women. They own more than one car and are well educated. They are also sensitive to social issues, like the environment.
Citroen's approach is more quantitative, but the purpose is also to focus on customer desires.
'The so-called classical vehicles like sedans with five or three doors are declining,' said Besson. 'Other kinds of vehicles are emerging, slowly but continuously.'
So Citroen now uses four main categories: sedans, 'leisure-volume,' 'pleasure-sport,' and transportation vehicles, including commercial vans and pickups.
The biggest growth segment in the past five years has been 'leisure-volume' cars. This includes station wagons, minivans, sport-utilities and passenger versions of light commercial vehicles.
'We think that 'leisure-volume' will jump from 16.7 percent in 1995 to 21.7 percent in 2007,' said Besson. 'The big change will be caused by the compact minivans.'
He forecast that sedans would decline from 73 percent to 66 percent. The pleasure-sport and transportation categories would slightly increase their combined market share from 10 percent to 11.3 percent.
'What's going on is not a flash in the pan,' said Besson. 'Over the next 10 years, 5 percent of the European market will have shifted. More customers want cars different from sedans.
'We might reach a stage where the classifications would be doubled, with a classic range on one side and a 'leisure-volume' range made up of more than just minivans on the other side.'