When Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn starts reaching for a pen and napkin to explain something, the conversation always gets interesting. VW Group currently has 12 convertibles in its stable. "Does there have to be a replacement for each of these cars?" he asks the people around him.
Winterkorn's napkin hit list includes models such as the retractable hardtop VW Eos and softtop versions of the Golf, Beetle, Audi A3 and A5. "Surely just two convertibles are enough for the Volkswagen brand?" he said.
The problem is that demand for convertibles has plummeted in recent years as buyers switch to SUVs and crossovers.
According to Autofacts, a unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers, in 2007 about 827,000 convertibles were built in the two key convertible regions, North America and Europe. In 2013, the figure was roughly 444,000.
Convertibles accounted for about 5.4 percent of auto sales in the first half of 2007 but just 3.3 percent in the same period in 2014, according to the AID information service.
This decline has hit suppliers of convertible roof systems such as Valmet. The Finnish company, which took over the roof manufacturing operations of Germany’s Karmann in 2010, intends to close its softtop roof operations in Osnabrueck, Germany, by 2017.
Webasto, the world’s biggest supplier of roof systems with a market share that Autofacts estimated at 49 percent, also has closed facilities in recent years to cope with the downturn in demand.
CEO Holger Engelmann said he does not believe there is enough business in the sector to sustain three companies. If he is right that may not be good news for either Valmet, the world’s third-largest supplier with an estimated 15 percent share, or even Magna International’s unit Magna CTS, which is global No. 2 with a 34 percent share.
Once valued as a highly profitable vehicle niche, buyers have turned away from convertibles. That’s why Peugeot wants to kill the 207CC. It is not just the automaker’s need to economize that is driving the brand to trim its range of models.
Even in boom times convertible fever was limited to certain markets. In Europe these included Germany, England, Denmark and Sweden. In North America it was the sunny U.S. states of California and Florida. In the latter two, convertibles are frequently driven by people “who previously spent their lives in rainy or cold industrial areas such as Detroit or Boston, and they now want to take advantage of the sun,” PwC analyst Christoph Stuermer said.
There are hardly any convertibles in the Arab states or China or Singapore. “It would not occur to these people, even in their wildest dreams, to let the sun shine down on their heads,” Stuermer said.
Trend researcher and futurist Sven Gabor Janszky is skeptical about a possible resurgence for cabriolets. In the heyday of the convertible people bought the body style “because they wanted to show that they belonged to a certain community,” he said. This was a community of people who knew how to enjoy life and had the money to drive this kind of car.
“Today, people would rather show that they are something special or that ecology is very important to them by buying an electric car such as the Tesla or the BMW i3,” Janszky said. Nor are convertible makers able to revive the market through innovation. “Another folding mechanism for the roof won’t do the trick.”