Today is Ash Wednesday, when devout Christians wear ashes as a prelude to six weeks of Lenten privation. So as the faithful mortify themselves, we ask is there still a place for austerity in a recovering European car market?
Austerity: The condition of living without unnecessary things and without comfort, withlimited money or goods, or a practice, habit, or experience that is typical of this.
So goes the definition. But surely there’s a difference between offering up your chocolate habit for the holy souls and replacing your over-ambitiously financed automotive indulgence with a penitential Logan?
Frankly, we’ve all probably heard a good deal too much about austerity lately; mostly as a vague-sounding term blanketing some regressive and politically expedient retrenchment over a hitherto vital public service. Since the Eurozone crisis saw car sales collapse, automotive hairshirts have been moving off forecourts in sharply growing numbers – until comparatively recently, anyway.
But austerity motoring has been with us for decades in some shape or other. We all remember the likes of FSO, Lada and Zastava – that’s Yugo to the likes of you. Automotive sackcloth predominantly from Eastern Europe, ironically beginning life as fun-loving Fiats, but repackaged as sensible low-cost transport with an emphasis on rugged durability to mask the lack of comfort or finesse. Because as every Roman Catholic knows, it can’t be a sin if you don’t enjoy the experience.
In latter times, it’s become almost fashionable in affluent circles to shop at retail outlets such as Lidl and Aldi. These days, shopping smart is more of a pragmatic lifestyle choice than the admission of social immobility it once was. Similarly, to be in possession of a Dacia is viewed less as automotive penance as a sound no-frills choice – as endorsed by TV’s James May.
Since Dacia was relaunched by Renault in 2004, it has been one of the auto industry’s biggest success stories and is widely believed to have salved the stinging privations of its parent in the wake of the Euro crisis. Having bet the farm on electric cars, the Franco-Japanese car giant was facing some pretty stark vistas, but Dacia’s growth from 66,174 units to 376,324 over the past decade has underpinned Renault-Nissan’s business at a crucial time; helping it attain third position overall in Europe last year. But now with Dacia’s 2015 European market share falling to 2.67%, there are reasons to suspect the Romanian brand’s growth is slowing.
Dacia’s had the austerity market pretty much to itself, especially since GM’s Korean subsidiary has upped sticks, but this is about to change. The European big names, tired of looking on enviously as Dacia vacuumed volume from their own struggling brands are going on the offensive. Citroen is in the process of repositioning itself entirely on a value proposition – low on cost, big on fun.
Fiat too is moving in a similar direction. In fact it’s moving in two directions simultaneously. A classic Marchionne two-step, since the man seems incapable of taking a position and sticking to it. These offerings major on the value side of the equation. Fiat’s new Tipo for instance offers a lot of car and a decent amount of style and equipment for the money. Couple this with low running costs, and it’s a hairshirt Giacomo, but not as we know it.
There are already signs that as Europe wakes up from its austerity nightmare, the appetite for penitential motoring is paling. VW have been offering the automotive equivalent of burnt toast in the shape of the Seat Toledo/Skoda Rapid twins for some years now; both of which posted sizable sales falls in 2015, which could suggest that with the return of normality, customers may be turning their back on austerity.
And just as the Easter celebration traditionally marks the end of penance and self-denial in an orgy of chocolate smeared consumption, will Europe’s slow and painful re-emergence from fiscal privation see Dacia’s appeal evaporate as quickly as those Lenten promises?
With most signs of lasting economic recovery looking about as dependable as a Takata airbag, it’s far more likely austerity motoring is going to remain a sizable component of our motoring lives for some time yet. And while it’s been said that value never goes out of fashion, something similar could be said for hairshirts.