Chicken Or Egg?

Does the Golf have ten engines because VW believes it leads to increased sales (twice as many as the next most popular car)?

A bit of Golf

Or does such huge sales volume mean VW can pamper its clientele like no clientele has been pampered before? To answer this I needed to crunch some numbers. Statistical research of the most basic kind is very dull indeed. It does reveal some interesting things in return however. Such work is the reverse of golf, I think, which sport some say is fun to do but which is clearly boring to look at. In that spirit (“ah, look, the tassles are flying”) I decided to get stuck in and see what it takes to be in the top ten, engineswise. There was no point in hand-waving. Some maths had to be involved.

And if you want to find out more about why I would want to do this then read on. I wanted to know if there was a clear link between the number of engines in a car’s range and the numbers of units sold; and I had the urge to test the hypothesis that below a certain sales volume the number of engines offered diminishes rapidly.

The data: I had a look for details on EU car sales in 2016 Q1. Then I counted engine options for the top ten sellers. The links to the sources are below. On one axis we have number of cars sold. On the other, the number of engines in the range.

What muddies this is that the data for the engines is from a mixture of websites looked at in 2017 Q2 and so the specification data might not precisely match with sales from 2016 Q1 (the Golf and the Astra were in a period of change then). Some uncertainty exists about how to define an engine too. I went for power outputs as this is what the customer is choosing and not arbitrary displacements.

I found that the matching of engine and sales figures is not wholly random, with some surprises, but not as strong as one might have thought in advance. The car which sold less had the lowest number of engines (range: 5 to 10). The car with the most engines sold most. In between the relationship was not direct and was sometimes inverted.

What else explains sales? Engines are not the only parameter involed in what make a car desirable. Other factors weigh in: price, ‘image’ and appearance. There is also the matter of the chicken versus egg. Can VW offer all the engines because they have the market share based on other parameters to justify it? Or does the large range allow them to smother the opposition by offering more vehicles with the performance and running costs better to suit the price sensitive or power-hungry? Or those somewhere in the middle?

Popular but not very popular

This survey does not look at within-class engine choices**. It could be for some models here (lower on the list) that they have fewer engines than one might expect but it could be that within their class they are engine-choice champs. I am thinking here of the Qashqai which gets into the top ten with only five engine variants.

1. VW Golf 130,367 sold, with ten different engines. 

Those are the 1.0 TSI, 1.2 and 1.4 TSI six speed and 1.4 TSI seven speed and 1.6 TDI and two 2.0 TDI engines, and a 2.0 TSI engine with 230 PS and a 2.0 TSI with 310 PS, and 1.4 TSI PHEV. Does offering another gearbox count as an engine choice? I am on shakey ground. The few Golfs I’ve driven have disappointed me.

2. Ford Fiesta 84,150 sold with seven engines

The Festy has a 1.0 litre 80 PS, a 1.0 litre 100 PS, a 1.5 TDCI 75 PS and a 95 PS, a 1.0 litre with 125 PS and 1.0 litre 140 PS. They’re doing a lot with the few core engines they have. It’s as uninspiring as the Golf. I’ve not driven a Fiesta.

Polo. Polo. Polo.

3. VW Polo 81,054 sold and it has five engines:

They are: a 1.0-litre petrol engine with 59bhp and 75 bhp, a TSI 1.0 litre with 108 bhp, a 1.4 Turbo and a 1.8 litre turbo petrol. That is a notable bonus in this class, a proper 1.8 litre four pot. You’ll notice some models have more easily accessed data on engine output. This is one of them. The Polo used to be a range of cars. The estate stood out as did the saloon version. Gone now.

4. Renault Clio 77,762 sold and only three basic engines, and two Eco variants. Which makes five-ish.

Those are the three basic engines, and Renualt offers them with and without an “eco” variant making five choice in all: 1.2 16V, the TCE 90, the TCE 90 ECO, the dCI 90, and the dCI 90 ECO. Something else is driving those sales and one might wonder if another two engines would make a big difference to the final tally of customers. The Clio’s not a bad drive, actually.

5. Opel / Vauxhall Corsa 74,049 sold. Nine engines, madame.

Opel’s Corsa has a huge range of model and trim variants, dramatically more than the others. Who is surprised? Nine flavours of engine in all make up part of that variety. This is the car that bucks the trend (in a bad way) as Renault is shifting more with fewer engine units and Opel fewer with more. But the Corsa is fundamentally an older car, with a platform dating back eleven years and counting. How well would it perform with a newer body? Answer: much better.

Those Corsa engines are: a 1.4 litre with 75 PS, 95 PS and 100 PS , 115 PS and 150 PS,  a 1.3 CDTi with 75 and 95 PS, and a 1.0 litre turbo with 90 PS or 115 PS. This is Car Buyer’s summary: “The 1.3-litre diesel is a little noisy, while the smaller petrol engines need to be revved hard to keep up with traffic. Only the 1.0-litre can really compete with the best of the Corsa’s rivals.” 

2013 Peugeot 208 with chrome

6. Peugeot 208 68,900 – seven variants based on three basic engines. 

The  208’s petrol engines: 67bhp and 81 bhp 1.2-litre petrol, a 1.2 litre “PureTech” shoving out 110 bhp, a 1.6 litre turbo with 208 bhp (ha ha).  And in diesel: 75 HDI, 82 HDI and a 118bhp BlueHDi diesel. This is something of a surprise as I imagined this car sold very busily, better than this volume at any rate. They don’t offer them as rentals around here.

7. Nissan Qashqai 66,238 sold with a mere five engine variants and boy, it does well.

A 1.2 litre 115 bhp petrol, 1.6 petrol with 130 PS and 163 PS, a 1.5 litre 110 bhp diesel and a 1.5 dCI 130 PS is what they have. No more.


8. Opel / Vauxhall Astra with 61,478 sold to happy customers.

It has eight engine variants as far as I could tell from the long pull-down menu at Vauxhall UK. Their smallest motor is a 1.0 litre unit with 105 PS at the other end is a 1.6 CDTi Turbo with 160 PS. Opel are selling half as many Astras as VW does the Golf. That VW has two more engines in its range is not sufficient to explain 100% of that difference. The Astra was on a run out or transition phase in early 2016. I’ve come to accept the new Astra’s looks. It could have been a Citroen.

9. Turning to number nine, the good old Ford Focus – 60,348 units sold last year in Q1. 

There are six engine variants for the Ford loyalist. As ever, most of them are small displacement turbos with just one 2.0 litre diesel doing heavy hitting duty. I have not listed them here. Sorry. They once had five-cylinder engines for the ST  cars.

10. Finally, the Skoda Octavia shifted 58,609 units in 2016 Q1

And it makes do with five variants: a 1.0 Tsi, with 115 PS, a 1.6 TDI with 105 PS, our old friend the 1.4 TSI with 140 PS, a 1.6 TDI and a 2.0 TDI with 150 PS and all of those come with a DSG option which makes no difference to power.

Let’s put those figures into a pretty graph and see how they relate to one another. It’s a free statistics package from the web so it looks awful.

Who is offering too much choice?

I ran out patience around about here. What’d we find?

If we leave out the Golf, the outlier, the Fiesta, Polo and Corsa sell above average numbers of cars. The Polo is then the worst relative performer and has the fewest engines. The Corsa is near the average on both counts. The Focus and Astra are both over-engined and selling below average.

These then are my findings: something else is driving VW Golf sales. The Corsa is dead average and extra engines might be helping the Fiesta. The Clio does very well on three basic units – what is the success of its secret?

The next research question is what is the best-sellingest car with only one engine available? It’s not in the top twenty. How far is it down the list?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

16 thoughts on “Chicken Or Egg?”

  1. I think there is a relevant parallel here with TV broadcasting. Back in Oz, the dominant commercial broadcaster was, for decades, Kerry Packer’s Nine Network. As the undisputed market leader, owned by the country’s richest man, it could afford indulgences that its second-string rivals could not. Of course, it was quite happy to broadcast lowest-common-denominator stuff for the masses, but its market position and its commitment to maintaining that status meant a meaningful commitment to newscaff resources beyond those of its competitors (including top-shelf investigative journalism), high-brow cultural programs, and a willingness to cover other niches. The logic was that, while broadcasting is a mass medium, audiences are made up on individuals, and individuals have very different preferences – so by offering a wide diversity of programming, you can attract many more eyeballs than simply showing the highest-rating shows, with (presumably) positive knock-on effects for demographic spread, channel loyalty, and so on, which could then be sold to advertisers in the form of a more expensive rate card.

    The Golf’s ten engines (and multiple body styles) are the equivalent in automotive industry terms. Doubtless, one or two are not strictly necessary and could be rationalised without much sales pain. But VAG probably views the maintenance of choice and the accompanying range complexity as a price worth paying to mop up potential sales from competitors and effectively invest in maintaining/increasing market share from rivals that can’t offer such breadth. It’s a luxury that is afforded only to companies that are clearly dominant in their industries and – crucially – run by single-minded heads who tend to appoint like-minded people at senior management level. The test will be whether that sort of breadth is maintained in the post-Piech era.

  2. This survey should have looked at within-class engine range too. That said, ten of these ten cars are five-door hatchbacks of some type so by default it is almost a within-class comparison, that of small to medium sized five door cars.

  3. Richard – fascinating! (But should you get out more?). For what its worth, I don’t think the auto option counts as another engine ….. unless it has a different power output to the manual version.

  4. I suspect the Renault Clio’s success may be down to its styling along with the option of a very nice metallic red.
    I’m now wasting valuable time trying to think of a car sold in the EU with no engine options. Can’t think of any, even Ferraris and Paganis come with different states of tune.

    1. Then there must be a minimum. Lexus and Infiniti are good contenders or a sportscar oddity like the Toyota roadster that was also Subaru.

  5. Number 1 seller in the US last year was the Toyota Camry at 388,618 units and did so while having only offered 2 engines. The Golf moved 61,687 and offered 3 engine choices.

    1. I believe those US Camry sales include the Hybrid version, so that would make 3 engine options.

    2. Yes, they do include the hybrid (~6% of sales) so that’s 3 for the Camry. Also, the Golf sales included the all e-Golf “compliance” version sold only in a few states in 2016 the Gold numbers on the 3 ICE offerings are 57,750. Should the e-Golf count as a 4th engine variant? I would argue that it should not as the drive-train of a fully electrified car is so wildly different that it surpasses a mere engine difference of say a 1.2 vs. 1.4. Not to mention the change in lifestyle one must make to live with the truncated range (83 miles for the 2016 e-Golf) and elongated refueling times that come with electrification.

  6. The Golf would also have a much longer options list also? Two types and colours of leather, enough trim levels to give you a headache (slightly different in each country) and a much bigger selection of wheels than the others. All the arguments you made about the engines Richard would probably hold true for the options list also.

    1. I’ll take a look and I would not bet against you though nine shades of grey cloth is not much choice. In contrast they have the sales volume to offer a good colour range but don’t.

  7. A mostly European phenomenon, all these engine choices, redolent of regional taste and customs. And added expense keeping them all up-to-date. The Nissan Rogue, a butched up long wheelbase Qashqai with special el cheapo interior sold 370,000 vehicles in Canada and the US combined in 2016, with only one engine and transmission choice – a 2.5 litre petrol c/w CVT. It is now at the top of the crossover heap, and sold 45,000 in the month of March 2017 alone. No point in boring anyone with a list of the typical two petrol engine choices many models have over here, but to mention that the standout in the European direction is the Ford Fusion with four engines – a 2.5 l ex-Mazda L engine, a 1.5 turbo, a 2.0 l turbo and a 2.7 l V6 twin turbo. It languishes some distance behind the Camry, Accord and Altima sales (roughly 380,000, 350,000, 300,000 and 265,000 in 2016)

    1. It is odd. Back in the 60s I was in awe of all the engine choices offered in American cars compared to our paltry 1200 or 1500cc options, with maybe a GT version with a bigger carb. But it seems to have reversed. If I’m buying a Golf I can readily dismiss anything with a ‘D’ in it, but then I’d have to plow through all the rest. Too much choice. Actually, my inclination is to extremes, so I’d probably either chooose the least or most powerful.

    2. That’s a difference I wasn’t aware of. It’s a profound one too. Is it possible the high price and indeed regionally variable price of it and engine displacement taxes favours the firm who has a mix of options to best target the markets?

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