The crucial upper-medium segment is back on track in western Europe, thanks to the growing popularity of three key models -the Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna.
And with a new Opel/Vauxhall Vectra due next year, there are signs that upper-medium sales could improve still further.
The Passat stayed the No. 1 upper-medium model during January to September, according to estimates by JATO Dynamics and Automotive News Europe. The VW's sales rose 12.6 percent, to 252,315 units.
But the Mondeo and Passat were the real success stories. The new Mondeo rocketed by more than 56 percent to trail the Passat by just 21,447 units. And the Laguna climbed 25.7 percent to achieve sales of 165,688 units.
The upper-medium segment improved by 2.3 percent, to 1.5 million units. Total western European sales fell by 0.5 percent, to 11.6 million units.
Despite talk about segment busters and niche models, the success of the Passat, Mondeo and Laguna proves that Europe's market for traditionally styled vehicles is buoyant - as long as the product is right.
That's also true in the lower-luxury class where three models again dominated: the BMW 3 series, Mercedes-Benz C class and Audi A4. Although the 3 series slipped slightly, C-class sales climbed by 54 percent to 210,967 units. The third most popular model, the A4, saw its sales advance by nearly 22 percent, to 163,445 units.
There was a small decline in the lower-medium class, where sales of core models such as the VW Golf, Renault Megane and Opel/Vauxhall Astra all fell. The Megane registered the biggest decline - its sales of 443,329 units were almost 11 percent lower than last year's. And taking the Scenic compact minivan derivative out of the sales mix, the Megane's decline was even more acute - over 18 percent.
Buyers wait for Fiat Stilo
Charles Young, director of research at J. D. Power-LMC in Oxford, England, said the arrival of the new Fiat Stilo would boost the lower-medium segment. 'The Stilo went on sale in Italy on October 6 and some buyers may have been awaiting its arrival,' he said. The Stilo replaces the Bravo/Brava in the Fiat lineup.
Several segments showed significant sales improvements in the first nine months. The compact minivan and multispace class was up 24.4 percent on 2000 levels. And full-size minivans were 14.5 percent ahead.
Sales of sport-utilities climbed 7 percent thanks to the popularity of the Toyota RAV4 and Mercedes-Benz M class. But Land Rover Freelander sales fell 10 percent.
The biggest rise was in the full-size segment, where the Citroen C5 and Peugeot 607 outperformed their rivals. With sales of 74,512 units, the C5 was more than twice as popular as its nearest competitor, the Opel/Vauxhall Omega. And the third-placed 607 looks poised to overtake the Omega by year end.
Talking about the success of the C5, Citroen spokesman Jean-Pierre Duvivier said: 'There are a number of customers who want a very comfortable, relatively high market, and yet understated car. They dislike anything flashy.'
There's a saying that if something isn't broken, then don't fix it. And there's a lot of truth in that phrase if you look at the success of the Fiat Panda. Launched in 1980 and virtually unchanged since then, the Panda outsold the Opel/Vauxhall Agila, VW Lupo, Daewoo Matiz and Hyundai Atoz/Atos in the mini segment. Indeed, with sales of 71,057, the Panda was only 1,615 units behind the MCC Smart.
But the Renault Twingo remained Europe's most popular mini, selling 127,296 units - 3.5 percent more than last year.
The mini segment as a whole dipped by 1.6 percent to 857,366 units.
Supermini sales improved by 2.8 percent to nearly 3 million units. The Peugeot 206 remained the runaway leader, and there were also strong performances from the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa and Skoda Fabia.
Elsewhere, sales of medium- and upper-luxury models fell, by 16.6 percent and 10.2 percent respectively. The coupe/roadster/specialty segment also declined, by 15.6 percent. Sales of super-luxury models were virtually static.