GENEVA – American car brands, from Chevrolet, Ford (F) and Dodge to Cadillac, are turning up the heat in the European marketplace with redesigned models and all-new launches, some of which marks their entry in new vehicle segments.
Charging ahead is DaimlerChrysler AG's (DCX) Chrysler Group with its all-American Dodge brand. It made a debut with two vehicles — the Dodge Caliber hatchback, expected to hit European showrooms this summer, and Dodge Nitro SUV, which will be sold as a 2007 model-year vehicle.
Chrysler executives said at the Geneva auto show that there are many who liked bold American styling.
"The problems that Chrysler had was that we did not offer diesel engine or right hand drive," Chrysler Chief Executive Tom LaSorda told Reuters at the show.
Now that Chrysler vehicles in Europe offers the options, it will able to compete better, he said.
Dodge will offer right-hand-drive Calibers for the British market and several models, including a diesel car.
Chrysler plans to target consumers it describes as masculine and expressive, comprised mostly of males averaging 39 years of age, who are likely to earn an average income of about $50,000.
The U.S.-based group is hoping the new vehicles will double its share in Western Europe to 1.4 percent by 2009 from the current 0.7 percent. It wants Dodge vehicles to account for about 20 percent to 30 percent of Chrysler's global sales by 2009 from 5 percent now.
Chrysler sold 180,000 units outside of North America last year, up 9 percent from last year.
General Motors Corp.'s (GM) Chevrolet nameplate is also expanding its European line-up with the Captiva medium SUV and Epica large car.
EYES ON EUROPE
GM's chief of European operations Carl-Peter Forster said during the auto show that Eastern Europe, particularly, is a growth region of Chevrolet.
"Chevrolet most probably is up for another year of strong growth," he said.
GM's premium Cadillac brand will start selling the new Escalade SUV in Europe this year, which will go head-to head with Europe's high-end models, including the Mercedes Benz GL class and Audi Q7 premium SUV.
"This is a wealthy market and it is clear there are some consumers who are interested in a Cadillac type product but...we don't want to force feed it," GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said at the show. "There is no need to do that."
The crossover sport utility segment is the fastest growing segment in Europe, said Walt Madeira, European sales forecast manager at CSM Worldwide. "Especially the compact ones and also the premium SUVs."
Ford Motor Co. is pinning its hopes for a sales boost on two niche vehicles — Focus-based coupe and a five or seven-seater van called S-Max.
The S-Max would appeal to people who wanted a vehicle that could take five to seven people or five people with lots of luggage, said John Fleming, president and chief executive of Ford of Europe.
Western Europe is American brands' largest market outside of North America. But the market has its challenges, ranging from stiff competition and a price war to a weak dollar.
The new launches would help U.S. brand slightly increase their collective market share in Europe this year, Madeira said.
But it will not be a huge difference, he cautioned.