Rising to the challenge
Ford and Opel are relying on technology upgrades to win back buyers after a year in which both suffered falling sales for their compacts. At the launch of the face-lifted Focus earlier this year, Ford of Europe CEO Stephen Odell told journalists that the new car was now “one of the most sophisticated mass-market vehicles on the planet.” New features include the latest generation of Ford’s Sync touch-sensitive and smartphone-linked infotainment system as well as automatic parking into perpendicular spaces in addition to parallel parking ability.
Future Focus generations will be even more tech focused. Ford’s head of advanced research in Europe, Pim van der Jagt, told Automotive News Europe that within five years the automaker would launch a semi-autonomous driving function that would control the speed of the car and the steering in low-speed traffic situations. “More and more in Germany and the UK, buyers want high-tech content,” he said. “They buy once and then they buy it again.”
Opel meanwhile announced at the Geneva show that it would make parent General Motors’ OnStar infotainment and safety service a standard feature on most new models, including the Astra compact, starting 2015. OnStar offers embedded 4G WiFi capability. IHS analyst Fletcher warned, however, that customers might reject the new technology if it is not intuitive enough. “I think there comes a point where unless it’s very easy and accessible, your average person will get frustrated more often than not by it,” he said.
U.S. and European manufacturers are also coming under pressure in the segment from resurgent Japanese brands. Last year Toyota improved sales of its British-built Auris compact by 75 percent to move into fifth place behind the Renault Megane. This was largely because of strong sales for the hybrid Auris, which accounted for almost half of the model line’s volume. Meanwhile Honda’s frugal new 1.6-liter diesel boosted sales of the Civic by 5 percent to move it into 10th place. To gain even more share in the segment, Toyota and Honda will start offering station wagon versions of their compacts. Among models in the top 10 last year, only the Citroen C4, which ranked ninth, lacks a compact wagon variant. Sister brand Peugeot unveiled its 308 SW model at the Geneva show.
Korean automakers also continue to expand sales in the segment. The Kia Cee’d ranked eighth last year because of a double-digit increase while sales of sister brand Hyundai’s i30 rose 3 percent, which helped the car finish at No. 7 in the segment. The Golf, however, is not expected to be challenged for the segment’s No. 1 spot. Said IHS’s Fletcher: “Rightly or wrongly, it’s what customers demand.”