Tuesday 22 July 2008

Toyota sales plummeting (EU)

Toyota, the company which once seemed to have the Midas touch as far as winning new customers was concerned, must be scratching its head to work out what it is doing wrong just now in Europe, where its sales are tumbling faster than any of its competitors.

Most major players are suffering from the recent economic downturn, which has hit the Italian and Spanish markets particularly hard, but Toyota is the worst-hit of all the major manufacturers, with European sales crashing 19% in June alone.

The company’s premium Lexus division is suffering a similar decline, dipping below troubled Jaguar. It is miles adrift of BMW, Mercedes and Audi and has a big credibility gap to fill.

Despite building the vast majority of its mainstream cars at European plants and trumpeting they are designed by and for Europeans, Toyota’s range doesn’t seem to be top of anyone’s shopping list just at the moment.

The company’s understandable decision not to get involved in price cutting doesn’t help either, in an increasingly cut-throat market.

Toyota’s range starts well enough, with the extremely frugal Aygo hatchback, a Czech-built joint venture with Peugeot-Citroen which has brought some new younger customers to the brand. This minimalist 1.0-litre car, in three-door and five-door versions, manages to look better than its French sisters and is affordable too.

Above the Aygo is the Yaris hatchback, built in Toyota's factory in France. This is another economical choice although it is a little on the expensive side, particularly as it has to compete in one of the most hotly contested sectors of the whole European car market with buyers spolit for choice these days in terms of stylish, good quality bargain buys.

So far, so good - small cars are never going to lack buyers in the current climate. It is further up the range where things begin to look worse.

Toyota’s Auris hatchback, which is built in England, competes head on with the class-leading VW Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall/Opel Astra. Honda’s launch of the very bold new Civic made the Auris look particularly timid by comparison.

Next up in the Toyota pecking order is the ageing Avensis, also British-built and available as a four-door saloon, five-door hatchback and estate car but is getting replaced next year.

This is the classic configuration adopted by rivals like the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall/Opel Vectra, but the whole sector has been shrinking as people switch to cars with premium badges.

The Avensis comes across as perfectly adequate but nothing special. A lot of them seem to end up as taxis, whose drivers appreciate their bullet-proof reputation for reliability.

Toyota has a decent smaller MPV, the Verso, built in Turkey, which is once again competent but not a class-leader. It gains plenty of green kudos from the presence of the hybrid Prius, but rather fewer sales.

Despite some good engines the company hasn’t made the most of its sports models, and the decision to drop the distinctive Celica and MR2 without replacement did little to help Toyota’s image among enthusiasts.

Toyota’s prolonged success with 4x4's, particularly with the class-leading RAV4, also seems to be coming to an end with the arrival of Volkswagen’s newer, funkier Tiguan, and other European rivals. The larger Land Cruiser models, meanwhile, like all big 4x4s, are suffering from the double whammy of fuel prices and hefty new CO2 taxes.

In Germany, one of Europe’s biggest car market, Toyota’s share of the market has declined steeply to a just 3.6 per cent, down from 4.2% in 2007.

Globally, Toyota is now predicting sales of 9.5 million vehicles this year, down from a previous estimate of 9.85 million. As well as Europe, sales are falling in Japan, but expanding in new markets like China, Russia, India and Brazil - in the latter Toyota recently announced it is building a new 150,000-vehicle plant to come on stream by 2011. In Australia, Toyota sold over 25,000 cars in June.

This is all well and good, but Toyota can’t afford to lose its way in Europe, at a time when rival Nissan doing well with its new products, particularly the Qashqai.

Toyota still has a great reputation for reliability, but badly needs attractive new cars that connect with the consumer and are more than just a dependable appliance.

The company’s slogan used to be: “The Car In Front Is A Toyota” but nowadays that certainly doesn’t mean at the front of the pack.

Help will soon be at hand, with the first new Toyota model due to see the light of day being the tiny iQ microcar in January 2009. This should be followed by the Urban Cruiser small SUV in late spring.

However, the competition is far from standing still so let’s hope something interesting can be pulled out of the hat in the middle of the range too, or those sales figures could keep tumbling yet awhile.

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