x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Audi aims to tackle BMW and Daimler overseas as 4x4s roar back

With the boom in shale oil the fear of the precious resource running out seems to have faded. And that is making itself felt in a resurgence in the popularity of the once-derided gas-guzzling 4x4.

A worker drives a new Nissan Qashqai SUV aboard the Le Mans Express ship at Barcelona port. David Ramos / Bloomberg
A worker drives a new Nissan Qashqai SUV aboard the Le Mans Express ship at Barcelona port. David Ramos / Bloomberg

A few years ago, as oil prices climbed, there seemed to be a backlash against gas-guzzling 4x4s among the chattering classes of Europe's major cities.

Frankly, it was embarrassing to be seen in your huge off-roader in certain parts of London and social death to drop the children off at school in one.

In other space-constrained cities, in France and Germany, smaller cars have soared in popularity, in keeping with the austere times.

However, the 4x4 backlash has receded - perhaps as the prospect of oil running out has faded, as shale gas has come into the equation.

Sales of 4x4s are the one bright spot in a moribund European car sales market - sales were down 8 per cent last year to a 17-year low.

But the premium car makers of Germany - BMW, Audi and Daimler - are no longer banking solely on Europe. They are looking to Asian and Middle East buyers to replace the falling sales in their homeland.

In the fast-growing emerging markets of India and China there are no such ethical concerns about driving 4x4s. Increasingly, nor are there any affordability issues as the Chinese middle class is set to number 600 million people by 2020, according to a government think tank.

The Chinese car market is the largest in the world and growing at 26 per cent a year, according to a report last year by McKinsey. However, the premium car market is growing even faster still - at 36 per cent a year, with sales of high-end cars reaching 1.25 million vehicles a year last year.

Audi, which is owned by Volkswagen, Europe's largest car maker, is focusing its considerable energies on the Chinese market, where it has benefited from an association with Chinese bureaucrats. It has a stronger base to build on there than in India, where it is a distant third to Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

But in China, if you are a party official you drive an Audi. The Chinese government spends about £8 billion (Dh44.48bn) a year on cars and half of the world's Audi A6s are sold in mainland China.

Audi believes its popularity in the Far East will help it to topple its national rival BMW and become the biggest maker of luxury vehicles in the world by the end of the decade. BMW still has a narrow 407-vehicle sales lead globally over Audi this year, with Mercedes - the Daimler manufacturer - lagging 37,229 vehicles behind BMW.

Audi is banking on the 4x4 to drive it into the top spot, expanding its range of luxury off-roaders.

"Every fourth premium automobile is a [4x4] these days," the Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler said last month at the company's headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany.

"That's why we're creating a broad offering: more sportiness, more diversity, more profile, less fuel consumption."

Audi plans to double its offering of 4x4s by 2020, when Mr Stadler says sales of such vehicles will account for 33 per cent of high-end deliveries.

The Volkswagen unit is developing the Audi Q2, Q4 and Q6 as sportier alternatives to its current range of three 4x4s.

It is not only customer demand that makes such models so important for car makers. Profit margins on the 4x4s are also much higher. The cars cost about the same as a traditional small hatchback to make but they command a much higher retail price.

Audi plans to invest €11bn (Dh51.82bn) by 2015 to increase production and widen its model line up in pursuit of BMW.

The expansion will also involve Audi opening a new factory this year in Foshan, China. "We will grow further in 2013," Mr Stadler says.

"We will reach the mark of 1.5 million car sales earlier than planned."

The world's three biggest makers of premium vehicles all posted fresh sales records last year and expect demand to rise further this year as growth in China and North America more than offsets the shrinking demand in Europe.

Audi has benefited from its image as the car of choice for China's political elite by targeting state-owned company bosses and business executives. That has helped the car maker cement its position as the top premium brand in China, with a market share of 29.6 per cent.

However, just as Audi wants to make its final push, the Chinese government has started to tell bureaucrats that they should be driving domestic brands.

"We should try to use Chinese cars when possible and actively advocate our officials to use them," Guo Gengmao, the governor of central Henan province, has said.

Local car makers could use the help. The combined market share for Chinese saloons and compact cars fell to a four-year low of 28.4 per cent last year and no Chinese brand was among the top 10 selling passenger-vehicle models last year.

Luxury car sales in China are forecast to surpass those in the United States as early as 2016 and equal that of western Europe by 2020, driven by rising incomes, McKinsey & Co said in a report last week.

But Audi is fighting back, saying nine out of 10 of its sales are to private individuals rather than to the Chinese government.

The car maker has also embraced new technology to reach younger web-savvy shoppers. It opened its first interactive digital showroom in Asia in a Beijing shopping mall. Its 4x4s and TTs and R8s are designed to appeal to younger drivers.

Audi is also expecting a sales surge in the Middle East in the next seven years. It intends to double its Middle East sales to at least 20,000 a year by 2020 and is investing in showrooms and service centres to facilitate this.

"It is the minimum target. You have to have buildings, you have to have capacity," says Trevor Hill, the managing director of Audi Middle East.

The Volkswagen division expects luxury car sales to climb by between 12 and 15 per cent in the Middle East this year, while the total car market could rise 6 to 8 per cent from an estimated 1.1 to 1.2 million vehicles sold last year, Mr Hill says.

Emerging markets provide a huge new opportunity for Europe's premium car brands.

The only danger is that their huge popularity may start to jeopardise the cachet of owning such a vehicle and the premium price car makers can charge.