Despite the economic woes affecting Europe as a whole, automakers still see higher potential for sales growth in the east compared with the region's more mature western markets.
"It's a very dynamic part of Europe that will see a lot of development over next few years," said Hans Schep, Ford of Europe's regional sales director responsible for central and eastern European markets.
Positive factors include low car ownership in many eastern European countries, a huge pool of potential buyers who might swap their used cars for new models when economic growth returns and the likelihood that customers will choose more profitable higher value models as their countries become wealthier.
When the credit crisis hit in 2007-2008, the region was hit hard. Most countries experienced dramatic declines in new-car sales as governments and banks squeezed credit, leaving buyers unable to finance car purchases.
New-car sales fell 41 percent to just over 750,000 last year from 1.3 million in 2008 in the 10 major central and eastern European (CEE) countries, according to market researchers JATO Dynamics. Some markets have rebounded while others will take several years to get back to where they were, Ford's Schep said. Hungary, where new-car sales fell to 61,000 last year from nearly 200,000 in 2007, "will have a relatively slow recovery," he told Automotive News Europe.
Romania was also hard hit, with sales declining to 168,400 last year from 367,000 in 2007, but industry executives see a slow but steady rebound.
"We predict the Romanian market will invigorate," said Jerome Olive, head of Renault's Romania-based Dacia brand. "There are sound economic elements that allow us to make that statement. The growth rate is pretty acceptable and there is only need for a little bit of growth to return to the market level it had in 2006-2007. However I think it going to take some years."
In the first quarter, new-car sales in the region rose 10 percent to nearly 200,000 with many of the region's biggest automakers posting healthy increases, according to JATO. "We can expect to see some positive signs within the next year," said Vassilios Dais, CEE regional sales manager at JATO. "But it'll be some years before we see the record numbers again."