March 5, 2021

At Frankfurt Show, German Auto Firms Hope to Rise Above the Gloom

So it is all too fitting that the biannual Frankfurt Motor Show, which opens its doors this week, is defying the euro crisis with dozens of new models, including the latest incarnation of the Porsche 911.

But even as BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and others boast new sales records and roll out important new models, car executives are looking warily in the rearview mirror. They are wondering whether they, too, will be overtaken by the same forces that are pushing down growth on the Continent and raising fears about the future of the euro.

Makers of luxury cars, a category that also includes VW’s highly profitable Audi unit, may be particularly vulnerable to the side effects of global financial turmoil.

“What we learned in the last crisis in 2008 is that the customers of premium carmakers react much faster than other customers,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “They lose money in stock markets and they will be cautious about buying new products.”

There is likely to be little overt sign of such worries at the Frankfurt show, which opens to the public Thursday and runs through Sept. 25. Set on vast exhibition grounds just a short drive from the sovereign debt crisis response center — also known as the European Central Bank — the show will offer a visual antidote to the gloom that permeates nearby bank office buildings.

Because of its size, and because it is held only every other year, the Frankfurt show is an especially big event for the German companies, and they can be expected to stage lavish displays.

Despite the slack U.S. economy and a marked slowdown in the pace of European growth in recent months, carmakers continue to report sales records. Porsche said Monday that it recorded its best August ever, delivering more than 9,000 vehicles, a 43 percent increase compared with August 2010.

Ford, which has its European headquarters and a major factory in Cologne, said Monday that it had its best August in Europe since 1998, with sales up 19 percent from a year earlier, to 72,200 vehicles. Ford sales from January through August, however, are down 2 percent in Europe, and the company hinted at the risk of a slowdown.

“The economy remains very challenging and consumers are jittery — particularly in the euro zone,” Stephen Odell, chief executive of Ford of Europe, said in a statement. He added, “We remain optimistic.”

As Mr. Odell suggested, one of the ways the debt crisis can spread to the auto industry is via consumer confidence. If people are afraid of losing their jobs, they are unlikely to make major purchases.

“There is huge anxiety about job security and people have less money in their pockets,” said Tim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Automotive.

Another way that the debt crisis can infect the car market is through banks. They are under pressure from investors and regulators to preserve cash so that they can absorb losses on their holdings of government bonds. The retrenchment could make it more difficult for some potential buyers to get car loans.

During the recession of 2009, carmakers recovered quickly because of extraordinary demand from newly affluent Chinese. Some manufacturers saw sales in China nearly double, and China became Volkswagen’s largest market. But growth there is slowing, and will probably not shield the companies from declines in the United States and Europe again.

“You’re not going to get the massive 20 to 30 percent increases we were getting last year, that can’t happen indefinitely,” Mr. Urquhart said.

Nor will debt-challenged governments be able to repeat the cash-for-clunkers programs and other stimulus measures they provided to keep car factories open. Those programs preserved jobs but also meant that Europe avoided a reduction in carmaking capacity that some analysts say is overdue.

This time, the reckoning will be harder to avoid. Particularly vulnerable will be mass-market carmakers like Renault, PSA Peugeot Citroën and Fiat, which are dependent on their domestic European markets. Fiat faces the added problem that in its home market, Italy, the government is drastically cutting spending to restore confidence in its ability to repay its debt.

Car executives, not wanting to spoil the mood in Frankfurt, would rather talk about their stylish new models than about economic peril. But there is even a hint of austerity in the new products. Lightweight construction and fuel economy are big themes this year, partly for environmental and regulatory reasons but also because of high fuel prices.

Fuel efficiency, combined with style and a little bit of fun, is a main selling point for some of the most closely watched new models, including the VW Up; the Fiat Panda (a popular four-door hatchback); and a coupe version of the BMW Mini.

Even the 911 guzzles markedly less fuel than its predecessors. The new 911 is 45 kilograms, or 100 pounds, lighter than the previous version, because of increased use of aluminum in place of steel in the body. It uses a third as much fuel than the original 911 from 1963, yet has more than double the horsepower, according to Mr. Dudenhöffer of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Having just gone through one financial crisis, the carmakers may avoid some of the mistakes they made last time. For example, Mr. Dudenhöffer said, companies have followed more prudent leasing policies. If drivers return their leased vehicles en masse like they did several years ago, companies like BMW and Mercedes should not be stuck with lots full of cars that can only be sold at a loss.

But the downturn is coming on more quickly than expected, and there has not been much time to get ready.

Said Mr. Urquhart of IHS Automotive, “I don’t see anyone who is invulnerable.”

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