2012: The year of the demise of the mainstream car?

I recently read an article on Autocar on how Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne believes that European mainstream car manufacturers will experience “zero growth” up until 2014. This gloomy outlook rings true if you think about it. The average consumer, who buys the superminis and mid-range level cars will be the one hit hardest by the austerity measures being implemented across the Old Continent, while the average rich fatcat will sail through the recession unhindered. Proof? Stuff like Rolls Royce’s all-time record sales, the largest in their 107-year history.

So yes, things don’t look too bright for small car makers. And this opinion is especially noteworthy since it came from the head of Fiat, who would be in especially deep s**t if they hadn’t merged with Chrysler (as Sergio Marchionne says in his own words). 15 or 20 years ago, Fiat’s small and mid-range cars dominated the markets they were sold in. One out of every three cars I’d see on the road would be an Uno or Tipo or Punto. Today Fiat practically only sells 500’s in any significant number, but I digress. I want to talk about the future of all these brands that depend mostly on more affordable vehicles.

I’ve said before how car interiors get nicer as time goes by, but this recession will see an end to that tendency, because luxury in common items is proportional to the prosperity of the era they’re made in. In time, we’ll go back to the spartan interiors of shoddy plastics and zero trim, like in a Renault super 5 or Fiat Tipo. We’ll be back to two-spoke steering wheels and the absence of a central column, all in the name of making cars more affordable to the recession-stricken populace.

Or not. Early economics theory, which was the reflection of a 19th-century mindset, said that Man was a rational creature and would make economic decisions that would be in his best interest. We know today for a fact that people are incredibly irrational, and make terrible financial decisions all the time, and that’s especially blatant when it comes to cars. As I keep insisting in various instances all posted on this very blog, the average buyer is overly badge-conscious, and will get neck-deep into debt to go round with a 3-series or A4 (the cheapest one possible, of course) rather than spend less on an equally reliable, better-equipped and better-priced S60 or Mazda6. However, the same frame of mind gets people to buy spanking new cars, be it superminis or mid-range saloons, when a cheaper second-hand one would do, which makes me reckon that perhaps the mainstream market won’t be so f**ked after all.

So if you’re planning to buy a new car, get a nice economical mainstream one instead of a status-car. And get a non-German one, the Germans sell far too many cars and are well-off enough as it is. If it were me, I’d get myself a Citroen C3 or DS3, with a 1.6-litre e-Hdi diesel engine. They’re fab.

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