LONDON - New models and scrapping incentives have caused the mini segment to grow six times faster than the total west European car market. Roadster sales have also shot upward as a result of new participants in the segment.
Mini sales rose 21.0 percent in the first nine months of the year, compared with 3.3 percent for the overall market. Small cars like the Ford Ka, Renault Twingo and Peugeot 106 now account for almost one in 10 sales. Last year they took just one in 16.
Scrapping incentives in Italy have boosted the segment, but the real boost was the addition of models like the Ka and Seat Arosa.
Superminis failed to benefit as much from incentives, even though the Fiat Punto is Europe's top-selling car. The segment declined by 3.6 percent in Europe as a whole.
The lower-medium class was stable. But upper-medium models rose 6.9 percent, boosted by strong sales of the Volkswagen Passat and Fiat Marea. The upper-medium growth appears to come at the expense of premium segments, where new products have yet to make their mark.
Those segments may also be losing sales to minivans and specialty cars - up 32 percent thanks to two key new models. The minivan segment benefited from the arrival of the Opel/Vauxhall Sintra and strong Renault Espace sales.
'Incentives are beginning to change the shape of the market,' said Klaus-Juergen Melzner, auto industry analyst at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in Frankfurt. 'The small sector is growing rapidly due to the incentives in Italy and to some extent in Spain. Elsewhere, the luxury and executive sectors are down and niche segments are rising.
'There is a big customer base in Europe looking for trendy cars,' said Melzner. 'Until recently they were going for powerful 4x4s, but now they seem to be turning to roadsters and sports cars.'
The market has grown spectacularly, thanks to the arrival of the Ford Ka. Demand for older cars was also good, fuelled by scrapping incentives in Italy and Spain. The segment is now Europe's fourth biggest in volume.
The incentives gave unexpected new life to the Fiat Panda. The Fiat Cinquecento also benefited a bit in its final year. The Seicento will replace it in 1998.
The new Ford Ka entered the segment to take third place. Lancia's Ypsilon made big gains, while French carmakers continue to lose out.
The Punto's strong recovery in Italy has pushed it ahead of the Volkswagen Golf as European market leader.
The Volkswagen Polo is now challenging the facelifted GM Corsa for second place in the segment. The strong advance of the Citroen Saxo has been one of the few bright spots for PSA this year.
Sales of the Volkswagen Golf have been affected by the changeover to the new model. They fell 16 percent. The Ford Escort is down 13 percent.
Sales of the Renault Megane, especially the Scenic van version, and Rover 200 have grown. The Opel Astra and Fiat Bravo/Brava have lost ground.
The Volkswagen Passat and Fiat Marea have caused the segment to grow.
The Opel/Vauxhall Vectra narrowly outpaced the market. Ford's Mondeo lagged behind, despite a facelift a year ago.
French manufacturers did badly. The relatively new Peugeot 406 dropped more than 7 percent.
'The Passat would have been even more successful if the wagon version had been available earlier,' said Melzner. 'The wagon made up 80 percent of the sales of the old model, so soon we might see the Passat challenging the Mondeo or even the Vectra.'
The segment has lost market share because of heavy incentives on upper-medium models and a relative lack of new products. Sales of the Audi A4 fell 16 percent. Some were cannibalized by the mechanically similar VW Passat, which rose by 62,000 units.
'It's clear that the A4 has been hit much harder by the Passat than by the A3,' said Melzner.
Mercedes-Benz's E-class lost as many units as the BMW 5 series gained, but the E-class is in little danger of losing segment leadership.
Audi's A6 sales were affected by the changeover to the new model in May. But the new one is already taking sales away from Mercedes and BMW. The GM Omega is fading rapidly like most of the volume-brand models in this segment.
The BMW 7 series continues to outsell its aging Mercedes rival, but both are losing sales. Audi's A8 is the only model with improving sales, edging close to the third-place Jaguar XJ series. Jaguar was down 20 percent.
A sharp fall in the sales of Toyota's RAV-4 has made life easier for the market-leading Suzuki Vitara. Vitara sales rose 7.9 percent. The Land Rover Discovery was down 6.5 percent.
The new Land Rover Freelander, due next year, is likely to make it into the Top 6.
Rising German insurance premiums are a factor holding back the 4x4 market in Europe.
The Volkswagen Sharan is advancing while the Ford Galaxy - from the same factory - is falling behind. Together, the VW-Ford twins control one third of the minivan market, compared with 13.7 percent for the Renault Espace and 11 percent for the Chrysler Voyager.
The Peugeot 806 has already been overtaken by the GM Sintra. With a combined market share of just 13 percent for four editions, the PSA/Fiat vans have now fallen behind the Renault Espace. The segment was increased by the Mercedes-Benz V-class, GM Sintra and Seat Alhambra.
New products have boosted the sports car segment by 32 percent. Roadsters have spearheaded the trend, led by the BMW Z3 and Mercedes SLK. They make the Opel/Vauxhall Tigra's position as market leader look fragile.
'Europeans are keen to buy trendy cars,' said Melzner, 'and roadsters have taken over from 4x4s as the niche that benefits most.'