The much talked-about emissions scandal that has been plaguing Volkswagen since last September prevented it to claim its very first worldwide sales crown in 2015, ending the year at 9.9 million sales vs. 10.15 for Toyota and 9.8 for General Motors. But First Quarter 2016 results show that the VW crowning may have just been delayed by one year despite the on-going scandal. Thanks to strong demand in China and Western Europe, the Volkswagen Group sees its Q1 sales improve by 0.8% to 2.51 million units. In contrast, Toyota has been hit by a series of production disruptions including earthquakes and an explosion at an affiliate factory which means ther worldwide volumes are down 2.3% to 2.46 million vehicles. In third place, General Motors also declines despite very strong results in China, at -2.5% to 2.36 million units.
This is the illustration of how limited the effect of the scandal has been on VW’s worldwide sales, beyond the mechanical effect of stop-sale orders such as in the U.S. Month after month, market after market we at BSCB have studied in detail the potential sales effect of Volkswagen’s emission scandal as taking the pulse of the auto industry is what we pride ourselves with. It has now been over six months since it came to the world’s knowledge that the company had rigged 11 millions of its vehicles with emissions-cheating devices, and our extensive research across the world has shown that a large majority of markets has responded with either slightly sub-par growth levels such as in Europe, or indifference such as in China where almost no model is affected by the cheating devices.
In select markets the sales effect has been drastic such as in Japan where the Volkswagen brand plunged by as much as 48% last October and has been toppled from the #1 foreign brand throne by Mercedes, and South Korea where VW sales are still down 25% in March. It is to be noted that these markets do not have a large amount of vehicles affected by the rigging device and recalls will be low. By and large, the amount of vehicles affected isn’t in correlation with the drop in sales, indicating that consumers are not overly worried with the technical implications of the emissions scandal. Instead, it’s the overall trust towards the brand that is dented in the markets that have penalised VW. Volkswagen has also particularly suffered in the U.S. with declines larger than the diesel models stop-sale orders should have triggered, but the brand’s position there was already precarious way before the scandal broke. In Germany, customers have rallied behind the brand to limit its decline to 4% so far in 2016 in a market up 4.5%.
Interestingly, it is the Volkswagen brand that has been mainly affected by the scandal, in case there was a visible effect at all. Audi, Porsche, Seat and Skoda, although also involved with cheating devices, have for the most part seen no detrimental sales effect at all (except once again in Japan for Audi). Speaking with many VW Group car owners, BSCB has found that because this device does not pose a life-threatening situation, current vehicle owners do not see the cheat as overly significant, and it doesn’t alter in any notable way their relationship with Volkswagen. This is very important in the long term as VW is working hard to regain the trust they have lost during the past 6 months. In fact, the more dangerous situation coming up for the manufacturer now is the lingering of the scandal and its continuous presence in the press. Even though the population tends to not completely understand what VW has done wrong, a months or years-long litany of negative press will definitely have an impact on the brand image. And VW has not been particularly fast nor cooperative in resolving the crisis in the briefest delays.
The biggest threat Volkswagen is facing is therefore, in our view, not so much the potentially changed perception of the brand by general consumers, but more so the cost of innumerable law suits launched by various governments around the world. By cheating on emissions levels, Volkswagen has committed what is seen in some legislations as a criminal act linked to tax evasion. If you are a regular BSCB reader, you will know that in some countries – such as the Netherlands until last year – the purchase of an eco-friendly car triggers very significant government subsidies that can go as far as reducing the amount of tax a car buyer is paying over the five years following the purchase of a car. This means that dozens of governments around the world have paid Volkswagen extremely large sums of money on the basis of specific emissions figures. Righting this wrong is what is currently endangering Volkswagen: the company lodged a $4.6 billion loss recently solely on the basis of the scandal, and has had to slash its R&D spending in most worldwide markets except China.
As a result, the world map is now much clearer for the Volkswagen Group: the emissions scandal may result in less new models outside China which will handicap the Group in the long term but also an even stronger focus on the Chinese market to retain its dominant and very profitable position there. VW Group recently announced a very ambitious plan for China: the introduction of 10 SUVs and crossovers and 15 EVs and plug-in hybrids by 2020. Volkswagen will also reportedly create a brand to fight GM’s Baojun in the Chinese rural market from 2018 onwards. This low-cost brand has been in the making for quite some time though and most analysts including myself are getting rather impatient. Also, judging by the lack of truly significant new models Volkswagen exhibited at this week’s Beijing Auto Show, these grand plans are all talk for now. More on this in our Beijing coverage shortly.
In the luxury segment, although not really affected by the scandal Audi is gaining less ground worldwide than its two main competitors BMW and Mercedes. Over the First Quarter, Audi sales are up 4% to 455.750 vs. 478.743 for BMW (+6%) and 483.487 for Mercedes (+13%). Mercedes has declared it wants to overtake BMW by 2020, a goal it may hit early due to the popularity of all-new models including the GLC SUV, said Automotive News Europe. However March results showed BMW in the lead: the Munich-based brand topped the 200.000 mark in a single month for the first time in its history at 201.352 units (+3%), distancing Mercedes at 198.921 (+8%) and Audi at 186.100 (+4%). This result was achieved thanks to particularly string sales of the 2 Series (+56% in Q1 to 43.657) and X1 (+68% to 51.002) while the 7 Series flagship was up 20% to 10.588 thanks to the new model.