BRUSSELS - Volkswagen is regaining the momentum that it squandered with a bad launch of the new Golf.
Golf registrations have finally begun to climb. VW took back its traditional place as the top seller in the lower medium segment in March, according to industry estimates. In January and February, Golf trailed the Renault Megane, Ford Escort and GM Astra, according to JATO Dynamics, the UK market research firm.
Two years ago GM decided to delay the Astra launch by six months. The delay did not hurt.
Sales of the Astra, the Golf's chief rival in the segment, are off to a flying start in Europe's four biggest markets.
Astra production is expected to reach capacity in May, while Golf production may not reach capacity until June.
Astra's good launch and Golf's poor one 'could have saved Astra owners from switching to VW,' said industry analyst Peter Schmidt of Automotive Industry Data in the UK. 'Because of the Golf delay, the defection has been minimal.'
GM says orders are twice as high as had been expected. In Belgium, where the car is not yet on sale, dealers have already sold out their 1998 allocation, a GM spokesman said.
'We are really amazed at the rate,' said a General Motors spokesman.
The third big rival in the segment, the Ford Focus, won't launch until autumn.
Golf output fell behind schedule because of a decision to reinforce the car's B-pillar. VW built only 70,000 new Golfs last year, less than half the planned production. Output is now up to 2,700 a day at four plants. Full capacity is 3,500 daily.
Capacity is likely to keep the Golf ahead of the Astra this year. Volkswagen plans to build and sell 700,000 Golfs in 1998. GM expects to produce 530,000 Astras this year.
According to industry estimates, Golf registrations fell 1.2 percent in the first quarter to 138,900. But in March, VW sold 59,300 Golfs, up from 52,300, an increase of 13 percent.
Meanwhile, Ford said dealers are optimistic about the Focus, which replaces the Escort in October. But orders won't be taken until prices and technical specifications are announced later this year.
'It is tremendous, an absolutely wonderful car,' said Tom Inglis of Strath Ford Motor Co. in Dumbarton, Scotland, the UK Ford Dealer Council chairman.
Ford said it hasn't decided whether the car will be launched first in Great Britain or Germany.