Would new models bolster Chevrolet’s tenuous foothold in the European automotive market?
Chevrolet’s 2005 relaunch in Europe was, to say the least, a rather understated affair, with a model range that was composed entirely of rebadged and very mildly facelifted Daewoo models from South Korea. Although the first new Chevrolet model for Europe, the Captiva crossover, had been unveiled at the Paris motor show in September 2004, it did not go on sale until early 2006. Nevertheless, European sales for 2005 came in at 211,737(2) units, representing a modest 1.87% increase over the previous year. This was respectable, but certainly not the step-change that General Motors might have hoped for following the rebranding.
Chevrolet abandoned Daewoo’s unique marketing proposition of fixed price sales and outsourced servicing. Instead, it set about establishing a traditional dealer network, often paired with existing Opel or Vauxhall dealerships. How this was viewed by the dealerships concerned is open to speculation: did it provide potential for increased sales, or simply unwanted internal competition and added complexity and confusion?
The Captiva was a competent offering but was more expensive than its South Korean rivals and priced too close for comfort to its first cousin, the Opel / Vauxhall Antara. Chevrolet’s second new European offering, the Epica large saloon, was a bizarre choice for an automaker attempting to establish itself in a new market. It was certainly excellent value, but fear of the unknown and, more tangibly, the possibility of catastrophic depreciation made it an irrelevance. European sales peaked in 2007 at just 8,087 units.
General Motors was plunged into its own existential calamity in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Despite the turmoil in Detroit, its South Korean offshoot continued to introduce new models to Europe. Next up was the Cruze, a new C-segment contender, launched in August 2008. The Cruze was based on the GM Delta II global platform and was said to have been co-developed by GM Daewoo in South Korea and Opel in Germany. It resolutely followed the norms for the class, with transverse FWD drivetrains and a torsion-beam rear axle. It was to be sold in Europe in saloon, estate and hatchback versions, although the latter was expected to make up the vast majority of sales. The engine range comprised petrol units in 1.6 and 1.8-litre capacities and 1.7 and 2.0-litre turbodiesels.
Autocar tested the Cruze hatchback in February 2012. The reviewers described the appearance as “bland and unadventurous” even compared to its contemporary South Korean rivals, the Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30. That said, it was larger and more spacious than the class average and both the interior and exterior were well finished with tight panel-gaps and mainly good quality plastic mouldings.
The 1.8-litre engine gave adequate performance, with an “unsparkling” 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 10.2 seconds. It was also reluctant to be revved and it was better “to row it along on its torque, even though this is no more than adequate.” The 1.7-litre turbodiesel was better in this regard and the pick of the range. The ride was set up towards “soft absorptive comfort” at the expense of rather dull handling.
The Cruze’s Achilles’ heel was price: “entry-level diesel versions of the class’s elite are only £1,000 more expensive, which is close enough to lure a good portion of customers away. Adjusting the price for the difference in spec, a Focus 1.6 TDCi 115 Edge has a virtually identical price tag.” The Cruze was awarded a middling three stars out of five and was declared to be no real threat to other budget brands such as Škoda, Hyundai or Kia.
At the Geneva motor show in March 2009, Chevrolet unveiled the Spark, a compact city car to replace the by now decade-old(3) and decrepit Matiz. European sales did not, however, commence until the spring of 2010.
The Spark was an entirely conventional contender in its market segment, with a transverse FWD drivetrain featuring 1.0-litre triple or 1.2-litre four-cylinder inline engines. Its most striking (and polarising) feature were enormous headlamps that stretched almost from the car’s front extremities to the base of the windscreen. Chevrolet explained this by saying it wanted to give the Spark a look that was “confident” rather than “cute and cuddly”. Maybe, but what they ended up with was rather more startled or angry looking. The Spark also featured ‘hidden’ rear door handles that fooled nobody into thinking it was a three-door car, much less a coupé. Inside, the Spark attempted to be funky and modern, with a motorbike-inspired instrument cluster and lots of shiny silver plastic trim highlights.
Autocar magazine tested the Spark in March 2012. The reviewers found the 1.2-litre engine to be “both loud and coarse, damaging overall refinement” and the 1.0-litre triple to “have just enough power and torque to be adequate” with a claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 15.5 seconds. Thanks to a long wheelbase and relatively tall build, the Spark was more spacious than many rivals, but the interior trim looked like “it had been put together from an Airfix(4) kit”, such was its brittleness.
The temptingly cheap entry-level car came without air conditioning or even a radio. As one progressed up the range, prices rose to levels uncomfortably close to more mainstream and competent offerings such as the Mazda 2. Overall, Autocar rated the Spark a disappointing two stars out of five.
Chevrolet’s next European offering was the Aveo, a B-segment supermini that replaced the former Daewoo Kalos. The Aveo was launched at the Paris motor show in October 2010 and went on sale in the summer of 2011. It featured 1.2 and 1.4-litre inline four-cylinder petrol engines and a 1.3-litre turbodiesel, mounted transversely and driving the front wheels. The Aveo’s most distinctive features were its exposed twin circular head and tail lamps, although the effect was rather diminished by the cheap looking black plastic surrounds into which they were set.
Like the Spark, it was larger than the class average in both wheelbase and overall length, the latter a touch over four metres, and was taller too, giving it a spacious and airy interior. Autocar tested the Aveo in January 2012 and found it to be much more class-competitive than its smaller sibling, with a “smooth ride, excellent economy, roomy interior” and “fine value for money” to commend it. The only demerits were, again, the “unimpressive interior plastics” and the fact that it was “relatively heavy” and “a touch dull to drive”. Overall, the Aveo was rated at four stars out of five and was Chevrolet’s most convincing European offering to date.
If the Spark, Aveo and Cruze were ‘me too’ cars, aimed directly at established rivals, Chevrolet did at least offer something a bit different and even forward-looking with the Orlando, launched in 2011. This was nominally a mid-size seven-seat (only) MPV and was based on the same GM Delta II platform as the Cruze, but instead of the usual monobox shape with a low nose sweeping up into a steeply inclined windscreen, it was a rather bluff two-box design with an upright front end, flat bonnet and big-squared-off wheel arches. In this regard it anticipated the shift away from MPVs in favour of crossovers and SUV-style vehicles. All it lacked was that SUV trademark, high ground clearance.
There was more to the Orlando than its style, too. Autocar tested it in March 2012 and applauded its practicality, interior quality and value. The reviewers summarised by stating that “Chevrolet still has work to do in the UK to convince the buying public that its vehicles are up to European standards, and we don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Orlando is the first that truly is.” The Orlando was duly awarded a respectable 3½ stars out of five.
So, it seemed to be the case that Chevrolet was gradually improving the competitiveness of its range with each new offering. Did this help it to grow sales in Europe? Sadly, not at all. The cars were simply not cheap enough and there was little or no room for them to sit beneath General Motors established European marques, Opel and Vauxhall. South Korea was no longer a low-wage economy in which to build budget cars, especially if you then have to export them half way around the world to sell them. The 2005 peak of over 200,000 sales was never seen again and a sharp decline set in from 2011 onwards.
Here are the European sales data from 2006 to 2014:
In 2013, General Motors decided to pull the plug on its European misadventure, announcing the end(5) of Chevrolet sales with the exception of the Corvette and Camaro. These specialist (in European terms) vehicles had sold in steady if modest numbers throughout, typically no more than a couple of thousand a year, and continue to do so to the present day.
(1) The tag-line used in Dawwoo’s UK advertising was ‘That’ll be the Daewoo’.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(3) The 1998 Matiz had been reskinned in 2005 but was little changed mechanically.
(4) Airfix was a UK manufacturer of self-assembly plastic models of aircraft and other machinery.
(5) Sales in Russia and other CIS (former Soviet Union) countries continued until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
36 thoughts on “That’ll be the, er…Chevrolet? (Part Two)”
Daniel. Thanks for reminding me of cars I was never really aware of. Hidden door handles, hidden performance, hidden quality, hidden price advantage. How could it go wrong? Maybe it was the names. I could willingly have owned a car called a Ka, but I don’t think I could ever have owned a car called a Cruze.
Could it be a reference to 1 Kings 17:7-16?
Original King James Version, of course.
Possibly going Old Testament on the brand with “neither shall the Cruze of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth” would have made all the difference to those sales charts.
GM was saving money by recycling an old Holden model name, which was a silly name then. The 2002-06 Cruze was a rebadged Suzuki Ignis, of all things.
Robertas, as a retired minister I like your picking up on the 1 Kings reference.
Bristow, that would be okay until the extreme Greenies reckoned it would stop raining and our dams would never be full again. Then your Cruze would fail of oil starvation, I guess. 🙂
Excellent article Daniel thank you. It’s your last paragraph that sums up what GM should have done with Chevrolet in Europe; make it a niche brand selling unquestionably American cars for people just wanting to have a laugh.
The Camaro, Suburban and Corvette together would have made a fine line up. And they might have even been able to charge a premium for them because they’re so ‘different’ and dare I say it, desirable, for the right kind of person?
I had forgotten about most of the cars mentioned here. At the time, I quite liked the look of the Cruze (stupid name aside) and it clearly looked related to its Vauxhall relations. Their introduction and marketing always seemed less than half-hearted, like even those responsible for selling them weren’t that keen. I don’t think they are particularly missed by anyone.
Airfix is still around and kicking!
Maybe GM had the chance to create Opel and Chevrolet together as a strong european player, like Hyundai and Kia. Therefore they had to leave the old pathes and think a lot more strategical and in long time-periods than before.
But Detroit (and probably Rüsselsheim too) were not convinced of such a plan.
Detroit did not want to take the risk of loosing more money in Europe if this plan turns out to be too ambitious. And Opel did not want to have a strong second GM-brand in Europe.
So without plans, leadership and money, the result is what it is. The withdraw of GM from Europe.
Problem is that Chevrolet was not a strong brand in Europe, at least not in most Continental countries.
Some markets like UK, Sweden and remarkably Switzerland had followers of US cars but in Germany in particular Chevrolet was linked with Corvettes and Camaros and their customer base was in pimps and gangsters from Reeperbahn or other red light districts all over the country.
Definitely not an image on which to build a strong brand.
Apart from the clientele you described I think in The Netherlands Chevrolet had a small customer base for the Caprice. It was used by a few taxi firms here and the estate was so long that with only few conversions it would make a hearse. And then there were a few individuals who would only drive American. A very small customer base indeed.
Around the time of the GM chapter 11 I had the idea they should’ve spun off Saab/Opel/Saturn as an entity of its own, it should’ve had reach both in Europe and in the US market. Come to think of it, they should’ve added the Daewoo outfit and produced the cheap cars in Korea, the Opel/Saturn cars in Germany, and Saab in Sweden for a global empire. Like Stellantis but on a more manageble level.
Ingvar – yes, that would’ve been good. I thought that Opel was saved when Merkel offered a deal (ditto Saab with the Chinese offer which was blocked by GM).
I looked up the company who took over Saab’s assets (NEVS) and it seems the production of the 9-3 EV ended last year.
I had forgotten that Chevrolet was the first brand introduced by GM to Europe in the ‘20s (Denmark and Belgium), before they bought Opel and Vauxhall.
Proceeding with the modern Chevrolet strategy made no sense as the vehicles cost too much to build and were priced too closely to Opel/Vauxhall. Did they not realise that, early on? All very frustrating.
Ingvar, that makes sense to me too. What a shame GM was so America-centric, and didn’t allow their overseas operations more independence when it came to planning like this. Much better than just closing down companies because the American business model they enforced wasn’t producing the desired results in a different cultural context.
Ingvar, I had a similar idea at the time but with Saab-Saturn-Subaru as the combination. Flat-four and -six power trains, available awd, space frame construction w/ dent free plastic panels; such a mix, plus Saab’s ability to craft a left of center form of “premium-ness” could have been a compelling proposition.
Thanks Daniel. The lack of conviction of GM’s European Chevy adventure is remarkable. I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised that they decided to withdraw from Europe entirely when they eventually did. The lack of brand awareness is quite something as well: Opel/Vauxhall didn’t have the most convincing image during the era that this plays out.
I cannot help but think that – apart from the obvious: producing in South Korea was too expensive for a budget brand – GM’s lacklustre marketing did nothing to address the cognitive dissonance they were creating. At least: I think Chevy means loud and brash for many Europeans, for better or worse (and both are distinct possibilities, I don’t mean to be dismissive). Slapping the name onto adequate but unprepossessing Korean cars made little sense. They tried to put a variation of Chevy’s grille treatment on them, but even that looks half-hearted.
So many questions arise from this, mainly along the lines of: “what were they thinking?” or “did they really think this would work?”. The answers are probably about as myriad as the number of people involved in planning and executing this, given GM’s rather bureaucratic make up.
Opel Australia was a similarly confusing & unconfident misadventure that was terminated around the same time as Chevrolet Europe.
Hello Jack. Opel Australia seems to make no sense at all when you had Holden as the indigenous GM brand. It reminds me of the era when Opels were sold in the UK in direct competition with Vauxhall, with a largely identical model range.
Then there’s also the small matter of GM signing an 8-year sponsorship deal with Manchester United FC in 2012, to have the Chevy bowtie on their shirts. Only 1 year later, they pulled the plug on Chevrolet Europe…
“Welcome to the GM Management School of Excellence! Today, our first lesson. You will find a gun on your desk, please take it, stand up and aim it at your foot – left or right doesn’t really matter.”
I actually saw an Opel in my town last week – one of only 1200 sold in Australia, I believe. Just an ordinary Astra hatchback except for the Opel badging and rear window sticker.
Having done a quick bit of research, it looks like GM’s plan was to sell Opel/Vauxhall to Magna in 2009 and launch Chevrolet as GM’s brand in Europe. However, the EU encouraged GM to keep Opel/Vauxhall and they ended up changing their minds. Hey presto – Chevrolet no longer really needed.
It looks like there are plans for GM to return to Europe with EVs.
“Chevrolet is a global brand, Cadillac is a global brand, Hummer is a global brand, so we have global brands that are fit for purpose.
“What’s so beautiful about transitioning to EVs is the flexibility that we can deliver with those platforms. It will be fit for purpose in Europe.”
What could possibly…
Hummer is a global brand if you happen to live in a country the US of A decide to raid like Iraq. I doubt that this will make people want to buy a Hummer.
GM’s trouble is that their American brand names have little traction outside of America. They operated different brand names in different countries, compared to (say) Ford which is a Ford everywhere. A European Ford might not look like an American Ford, but it’s still a Ford, it’s not called by a specific local name. And Ford still operates in most countries, GM doesn’t. They shut down or sold their foreign operations. They retreated to America to sort themselves out. GM is not a global company.
GM might like to think they have global brands, but if they spend some time mixing with ordinary people from other countries, they’ll find a totally different perception of their brands than what they imagine from inside the company. The way I see it, Chevrolet is ‘big American car or pickup’. Cadillac, if the brand is known at all, is ‘American flash’. Hummer is ‘all that’s worst about America’. They might need to rethink…..
It wasn’t just GM brand names that had little traction outside the US, it was the product itself that didn’t fit other markets outside the US and therefore didn’t sell.
A typical example of GM’s mentality was shown in the late Eighties/early Nineties when they complained about trade barriers in Japan that supposedly prevented them from selling any significant numbers there. A closer inspection showed that the smallest car on offer from them was an Impala with 5.7 engine when the average Japanese car had about 1.0 litre engine capacity (the large number of Kei cars brings down the average) and was about half the size of their barges, GM’s offerings were available only in LHD form and the few cars they sold mainly went to the Yakuza community.
The strategy of offering Chevrolet as budget/mainstream, and moving Opel-Vauxhall upmarket, might have made more sense if they hadn’t re-introduced the Cadillac brand around the same time.
This was also the exciting time that Daimler-Chrysler offered Dodge vehicles as well as some Chryslers. Perhaps amazing that nothing offered by any of them was particularly troubling to the better-established brands.
Possibly the Cruze helps demonstrate some of the confusion: despite the hatchback easily predicted to be the most popular bodystyle in Europe, I’m pretty certain that the saloon actually arrived first, at least in the UK. Interesting that the GM hybrid, despite the success of the Prius, failed to make much impact as the Chevrolet Volt or Opel/Vauxhall Ampera.
Another unusual appearance of the Chevrolet brand in Europe is as ambulances, at least in Sweden and Norway – this one appears to be from 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHlNZlIkrOk
The ambulance makes perfect sense for a nordic county, in that sort of cold-short trip- environment you would probably have to disassemble the particulate filter of a modern diesel after a few thousand km, as it would be never be able to regenerate on its own.
A US style heavy duty pickup chassis with a classic petrol V8 would probably end up being cheaper to run, especially if converted to CNG operation
I was wrong. They use the Duramax 6.6 Diesel for the ambulances
Honestly, none of these cars were good enough, or failing that cheap enough in Europe. These were competing with established European makes that drove better, and Japanese makes that were better built. Why would punters bother with them? Maybe something different to the other makers, like a Corvette on the show room floor might have pulled in some customers…
The same with Opel in Australia- there was nothing in them that would tempt you away from a Mazda dealer for example.
Ironically, the Euro Chevrolets did quite well as competitive priced cars in the well established Holden dealer network .
Yes – Captiva, Trax, Barina (Aveo), Spark and Cruze were all modest sales successes in Australia & New Zealand, and mainstays on the roads today in spite of the awful reputation some of them have. The common theory back then, amongst car fanatics on websites like CarAdvice, was that the Aussie public believed most of those cars were still built in Australia…
It does amply demonstrate the power of established branding. The Antara was a damp squib in Europe under the Opel banner, but the later Mokka (Korean sibling of the Chevy Trax) seemed to do well.
Exactly, Glen. As something of a welded-on Mazda nut, nothing GM sold as a Holden was remotely tempting to me. Show me something better than the brand I know and trust. Something that won’t break down. Something that won’t need recalls. Something that will go and go between routine services, and be positively enjoyable to drive. And introducing Opel as a separate brand with the real European cars like Holden used to sell – that was an interesting strategy, but who buys a car from a new brand in the market? Let them get established first, and – oops!
Other Opel RHD markets? From a quick trawl: Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Cyprus, Malta.
Good morning all and apologies for my inattentiveness here yesterday. Thanks for your comments, and to Charles for alerting us to the exciting prospect of GM’s return to Europe. GM ultimately couldn’t sustain their two well established indigenous brands, Opel and Vauxhall, so what’s the likelihood of success for their next (mis)adventure? Einstein’s definition of insanity comes to mind in this context.
As for the South Korean sourced Chevrolets, they were by and large okay (Spark excepted) but offered nothing distinctive and weren’t cheap enough, so it’s entirely understandable why the venture failed.
I liked the Cruze when it came out and figured that being based on the then new Astra would make it a decent drive.
My favorite aspect of the Cruze was its cloth-trimmed dashboard (only on high-spec versions, I suppose):
I think the decision to rebrand the Matiz and other Daewoos as Chevrolets was confusing to the buying public. And of course, the rampant badge engineering going on within GM throughout the world didn’t help – as was noted elsewhere. Ask your average Italian or Spaniard about Holden, and chances are they won’t know what it is. In several European markets, especially ones where engine displacement was/is taken into account to determine one’s income tax (I kid you not), Chevrolet had mostly faded from memory, save for the Corvette and the Camaro – at least in the pre-SUV days.
Was there more than one opportunity for Chevrolet as a marque to gain a foothold earlier on in Europe as was the case with Ford?
Vaguely recall reading GM were not sure whether to shut down its German sub-division, make it a satellite of Vauxhall or heavily invest in helping get Opel back on its feet in Ian Coomber’s Vauxhall: Britain’s Oldest Car Maker. Seems that was but one potential opportunity to establish Chevrolet in Europe, before using the later integration with Vauxhall as a vehicle to rename the later followed by Holden.