FRANKFURT - More buyers of small- and medium-sized cars are equipping their cars with air conditioning as prices for the option fall.
'Years ago we couldn't imagine the Polo being sold with air conditioning,' said Andreas Petri, Volkswagen's manager for sales strategy in Germany. 'But today the rate is 30 percent of sales.'
The percentage of VW Golfs sold with the feature has risen from about 25 percent in 1995 to 41 percent in 1997. In the future Petri expects 50-60 percent penetration on the Golf.
About 80 percent of Passats are now sold with air conditioning. The 1995 installation rate was 30 percent.
Michael Smith of DRI/McGraw-Hill in the UK, said the installation rate on all cars built in Western Europe rose from 40 percent in 1996 to 49 percent last year. The research firm forecasts 56 percent by the end of 1998, 60 percent in 1999 and 75 percent by 2003.
'The price of air conditioning is not much more than the price of a sunroof,' said Petri. 'Customers tend to pay the difference to get much more comfort.'
Air conditioning has been specified on 75 percent of all Audi A3s ordered this year, compared with 29 percent in 1997. The current rate is 88 percent on the A4, 99 percent on the A6 and A6 Avant and 100 percent on the A8.
BMW has seen a surge in demand for air conditioning from its 3 series customers. On the V-8-powered 5 series and the 7 series, air conditioning is standard equipment.
Horst Winkler, Ford's head of product strategy in Germany, said Escort and Ka buyers now routinely choose air conditioning.
'This is all happening at the cost of sunroofs, which we pity a bit,' said Winkler.
Petri said that Volkswagen's purchasing department ordered 20 percent more sunroofs than it needed for the Polo and Golf in 1997. The shortfall was attributed to air conditioning demand. The sunroof option adds DM1,430 to the price of a Polo or Golf in Germany. But for only DM70 more, Polo buyers can order air conditioning.
The trend toward air conditioning in smaller cars is likely to continue as top suppliers such as Valeo, Visteon, Denso and Behr improve existing systems and work to cut prices further.
'People like more comfort in their vehicles and the air conditioning trend is becoming more stable as systems become more affordable,' said Behr spokesman Ingo Alpheus. 'But at the same time the cost pressure on suppliers from the car manufacturers is growing. We react to this by trying to develop systems of the same efficiency but with fewer parts.'
He said systems will become smaller, lighter, cheaper and lower in emissions. Production costs can be cut by integrating more functions and using fewer switches.
'But the possibility for savings is limited,' said Alpheus, 'particularly because the prices of aluminum and plastic materials have not gone as we would like them to.'
Markus Flik, Behr's head of development, said that the number of parts for air conditioning systems will be reduced by about 30 percent with each new model generation.
'Together with rising productivity this could save about 20 percent of the costs compared with previous generations,' he said.
Push-button systems are mainly offered on lower-segment models, while upper segments usually come with full automatic temperature control systems.
In the future, Flik said air conditioning systems will benefit from increased automation. Solar sensors, outside humidity sensors and four-passenger zone climate regulation systems are now being introduced.
'We will see intelligent systems with sensors regulating the climate inside the car,' said Alpheus. 'But the customer will still have to program the temperature and a convenient direction of the air flow.'
For the more distant future, he said, suppliers and carmakers are developing voice-activated systems.
Mark Cooney contributed