For those of you on the other side of the country, the New York Auto Show opens today.
From the other side of the world, we've got a report from the Belgrade Auto Show, first held eighty years ago, in March 1938.
80 years ago, this was one of just nine registered motor shows in Europe. Belgrade welcomed 107 companies, who brought with them 375 vehicles. There would have been more, historians recall, but for the limited space. 117 potential exhibitors were turned away.
Today, there's room at the 2018 show for more than 350 exhibitors. More than 130,000 people are expected to visit.
Although European auto sales, at fifteen-and-a-half million last year, are roughly similar to America's seventeen million in number, the two markets are very different. Sales in Europe are broken down into more than thirty countries, each more often than not with very distinct preferences. More than seventy brands fight it out for each hundredth of a potential point in market share.
In Serbia, Fiat was the best-selling automaker in 2017, followed by Škoda, Volkswagen, Renault, and Ford. Across the river, Croatia preferred Volkswagen, followed by Škoda, Opel, Renault, and Ford.
Serbia contributed almost thirty thousand vehicles to the European total last year. Croatia added roughly fifty thousand, and Bosnia, ten thousand. All three countries, once part of Yugoslavia, speak effectively the same language, called Serbo/ Croatian but sometimes divided by politics into "Bosnian," "Croatian," and "Serbian."
If you were cruel, you'd call Italian Alfa Romeo Fiat's perpetually underperforming brand. It's never done more than 250,000 units a year since Fiat bought it in 1986. But emotion-driven Alfa is outselling its Fiat parent in America so far this year, so there's life in this niche brand yet. The rear- and all-wheel-drive Giulia and Stelvio are in Europe joined by the older Giulietta.
There's a first look at the new Audi A8. The big German sedan is due in the 'States later this year, and its must-have tech is mostly related to autonomous driving. Audi is expanding its range at home and abroad, recently adding the A3 compact sedan to its American line-up, and the Q2 city crossover in Europe. Volkswagen's premium brand from Ingolstadt, Germany, cracked 800,000 units for the first time in Europe in 2015, and 200,000 in America that year.
BMW may be a premium brand, but it sells more than three quarters of a million cars in Europe each year. A new 5 series arrived last year, helping it beat Japanese Lexus to #2 in America by just five hundred cars, and the M5 has now debuted as well — zero to sixty in under three-and-a-half seconds, although the all-wheel drive, however switchable, will be controversial with rear-drive enthusiasts. The new X2, confusingly enough similar in size to the X1, was shown in Belgrade for the first time, as was the i8 electric roadster. There's also a new X3.
French Citroën hasn't been seen in America for almost forty-five years, a few grey imports apart. Back then, Citroën was as known for its large, comfortable cruisers as for its cheerful and quirky small cars. These days, for now at least, only the small cars remain. There's the recently revised C4 Cactus, with thoughtful air pockets in the doors to resist parking-lot dings and the beginnings of a return to the hydraulic suspension which made Citroën great. We think Citroën needs a luxury car again, for context. The brand struggled to do much better than half a million cars in Europe last year.
Dacia, the Romanian budget brand owned by Renault, profited from the economic crisis about a decade ago. At the show, there's a revised Duster, for the past eight years a very capable SUV for under $20,000. Dacia cars are built around the globe, in Romania, Morocco, India, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Algeria, Colombia, Argentina, and Iran.
What would a car show be without Ferrari and Lamborghini? Maranello was represented by the all-wheel-drive GTC4 Lusso, capable of zero-to-sixty in 3.4 seconds, while Modena sent the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 which does the deed in a breathtaking 2.6. The Lamborghini will be driven by Serbian racing driver Miloš Pavlović this year, in several races including the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Italy's Fiat sells twice as many cars in Europe in a month as it does in the 'States, in an entire year. Among its newest cars is the 124 Spider, which recalls the '70s Fiat roadster of the same name. It's based on the Japanese Mazda MX-5 Miata. Most of the rest of Fiat's cars wear the face of the little 500. These include the 500L, which is assembled in Serbia, in a plant which used to build the Yugo and other Yugoslav cars under the “Zastava” brand. Fiat was given Zastava by the Serbian government in 2008. Interestingly, the Yugo, more than thirty years ago, sold twice as well as Fiat in America.
Ford's European volume is half its American sales, although with many of Ford of Europe's cars available in the U.S., there's less difference between the two ranges than ever before. There's the new Fiesta ST-line — similar to the old car, but that's no bad thing. Fiesta has been one of the best subcompacts to drive for the better part of the last decade.
The Honda Civic is a rather more flamboyant car than it was at launch forty-five years ago, in time for the 1973 gas crisis. Look at the gloriously bewinged Type R, which in Germany last year set a Nürburgring record for front-wheel-drive cars. And here's a quick fact: the Japanese brand's sales in Europe are a tenth of what they are in the United States. The Accord, among America's best-selling cars, isn't offered in Europe at all.
Korean Hyundai outsells Honda in Europe. It has had a steady march upward over the past ten years, albeit slightly more slowly in Europe than in America. The new Kona, a small SUV with a Citroën-like front end, gives it an entry in a burgeoning new segment. Hyundai design is led by people such as Peter Schreyer, of the original Audi TT, and Luc Donckerwolke, who came from Bentley, Lamborghini, and Audi. There's still some work to do in getting a common theme together, though.
Infiniti has been making half-hearted attempts at the European market almost since the turn of the Millennium, but Nissan's luxury brand finally got serious a few years ago, with a more complete line-up. At twelve-and-a-half thousand cars sold last year, it's no threat to its crosstown Japanese counterpart, Lexus, which did four times as well — but it beat Cadillac in Europe by a considerable margin.
Isuzu no longer bothers with SUVs like the Trooper and Rodeo. It is confined to the D-Max pick-up truck. The Japanese company has been building diesels for more than eighty years. It's very good at them and can't be happy about Europe's upcoming anti-diesel regulations.
The Jaguar E-Pace is the only Jag to offer only four-cylinder engines. It's Jaguar's second crossover, on the heels of the F-Pace of two years ago. Jaguar designer Ian Callum once said that a Jaguar SUV was the car he never wanted to create, but the challenge has been good for the brand. Once trapped in its past, Jaguar has over the past decade again become forward-looking. There's a fly in the ointment, though. The vast majority of Jaguar's European sales come from Britain.
Kia has tracked the rise of Hyundai in Europe, and the two Korean brands have in the past several years begun to more successfully diverge in style if not quite intent. The new, rear- and all-wheel-drive Kia Stinger, in twin-turbo form capable of zero to sixty in four-and-a-half seconds, is a dramatic shot across the bow of German performance-car stalwarts. Its lines are said to have been inspired by the Coca-Cola bottle.
The Russian Lada was never sold in America. Most European sales are in Germany, where the Niva - a forty-year old design which still cuts the mustard when the going gets tough - enjoys cult status. Renault has invested in Lada, and although the brand remains a minor player, its newer models espouse a common design theme and good equipment for the money. These are some very affordable cars, with prices starting at just nine thousand dollars.
Land Rover sold more than twice as many vehicles in Europe last year as it did in the United States. In both markets, its sales have doubled since 2010, with investment from India's TATA (which also owns Jaguar) and new models like the Range Rover Evoque and Discovery Sport. Like Jaguar, Land Rover remains heavily dependent on its British home market.
Mazda owns the bright-red color in which it advertises and shows its cars. Out on the road, it's as stunning as the dynamics of the vehicles themselves. From the MX-5 Miata roadster to the Mazda6 sedan, virtually every of Mazda's cars feels light on its feet. That makes reporting on Mazda frustrating. The Japanese manufacturer, which is now free of Ford and out to prove that it can survive alone, hasn't cracked the two-percent market share mark in America since 1994 - and in Europe, since 1992. Mazda owners tend to be a very enthusiastic crowd, and one hopes the brand can grow without giving up its principles.
On the back of a new E-Class, Mercedes-Benz was the #1 luxury brand in America by some margin last year. The S-Class, E-Class, and C-Class look similar once again, but it seems not to matter. More than ten years ago, the CLS merged sedan and coupé in a four-door profile with a dramatic roof line. Today, it is in its third generation.
MINI is the only evidence that BMW ever owned Rover and Land Rover (in the '90s). Its newest models, now in their third generation, are the largest yet, and considerably larger than the 1959 original. MINI sales in Europe cracked two-hundred thousand for the first time in 2016, and the brand sells five times as many vehicles there as in the 'States. Controversially, the MINI front-drive platform is making its way across the bottom of BMW's range, as the Bavarians ditch rear-wheel drive in their most affordable models for better space efficiency.
Mitsubishi isn't doing much better in Europe than it is in America. The Japanese manufacturer that rode the SUV boom in Europe in the '90s, while winning the hearts of American enthusiasts with the Eclipse, is now down to half of what it did in those heady years. This appropriately named Eclipse Cross hopes to reignite passions for Japan's oldest automaker. With Nissan taking a thirty-four percent stake in 2016, and Mitsubishi's skill with electric cars and traditional fondness for new technology, don't count the hundred-year-old brand out just yet.
Nissan sells more than half a million cars a year in Europe, a third of what it does in the 'States. Its Micra subcompact is new, sharing its engines with the Renault Clio. The Qashqai compact crossover was a smash hit when it launched in 2006. Now in its second generation, it's being assailed from all sides.
You'll know the Opel Insignia as the Buick Regal - and this may be the last time an Opel becomes a Buick. After nearly ninety years of GM ownership, the German brand has been purchased by PSA/ Peugeot-Citroën. Opel sells roughly a million cars a year in Europe, holding steady with between six and eight percent market share over the past decade; but a fair sight down from the 1.6 million sales - twelve percent of the market - it was able to command a quarter-century ago.
The Peugeot 5008 proves that large crossovers don't need all-wheel drive. It's the seven-seat, upmarket version of the second-generation 3008, which was Europe's "Car of the Year" in 2017. The midsize 508 is eight years old and aging gracefully, but a new one launched in Geneva a few weeks ago. Despite the declining demand for midsize sedans, particularly from mainstream automakers, it should help what is one of the world's oldest surviving car companies boost its European market share back over six percent and one million annual units.
Booming sales in larger SUVs have convinced Renault to renew the Koleos, which shares a platform with Nissan's X-Trail. After some hamfisted premium models over the past ten years, Renault is doing a better job in the image segment, with Koleos, the recently launched Talisman sedan, and the Espace minivan. Although the compact Mégane has not done as well as expected, Renault outsells its Peugeot and Citroën French rivals in Europe.
SEAT's Arona is a new, smaller sister to the Ateca SUV. The VW Group's Spanish brand has some of the youngest customers in Europe. As its brand blurb states, "Our story begins in a beautiful land: Spain. A country by the sea, full of light, art, and passion." People, the company says, expect SEAT to be warm - to express the spirit of Barcelona.
The Škoda Karoq is a new small SUV replacing the Yeti, and similar to its VW Group sisters, SEAT's Ateca and Volkswagen's T-Roc. One step up is the Kodiaq, launched two years ago. With four-and-a-half percent of the European market last year, the Czech arm of the Volkswagen Group is doing well, having found its own style and now offering more than just a budget VW. Rumor has it they're looking to build a new plant in Europe.
Ssangyong is South Korea's fourth largest automobile manufacturer. Now owned by India's Mahindra, it builds SUVs and crossovers. Despite having been around since the '90s, and despite its reliance on Mercedes-Benz engines and transmissions, it remains an unknown quantity. Ssangyong sold about seventeen thousand vehicles in Europe last year.
Subaru has tripled its sales in America over the past decade, but similar success in Europe has not followed. The brand is known for capable four-wheel-drive systems, characterful boxer engines, and a fanatical if relatively small owner base.
Suzuki no longer sells cars in America, and its show hit won't pull any heartstrings in the 'States, either. The small-car specialist has launched the Ignis, whose design references the SC100 "Whizz Kid," a '70s rear-engined pocket rocket which Suzuki hopes that Europeans - especially the British, where it was a minor sensation - remember. Suzuki also sells the Swift and Baleno, and a slew of small crossovers, choosing to play to its strength rather than try to improve on its weakness - which since time immemorial has been larger cars.
Toyota's C-HR goes after the Nissan Qashqai, and new Volkswagen Group trio of T-Roc, Ateca, and Karoq. Toyota continues to demonstrate a newfound fearlessness when it comes to design that, as Autocar magazine puts it, "is likely to lose as many fans as it wins." There's a hybrid version, but not the diesel power which remains popular in this segment - at least for now.
Volkswagen's Arteon, a four-door coupe positioned above the Passat, was presented alongside Ivana Španović, reigning World indoor long-jump champion. Complete with a digital gauge cluster seemingly identical to Audi's "Virtual Cockpit" system, it won Germany's "Golden Steering Award" at its launch last year, and is targeted at those who like the Passat but want something a little more dynamic.
Following an investment by China's Geely estimated at $11 billion, Volvo - which means "I roll" in Swedish - is on a roll. Its XC60 received an award in Belgrade, and its 90-series cars - the S90 sedan, V90 wagon, and XC90 SUV - present a credible alternative to the usual luxury fare. At the other end of the scale, the new XC40 is Europe's "Car of the Year." Volvo has invested heavily in developing the safety technology expected of the brand, including active collision-avoidance technology and semi-autonomous driver assistance. In design and image, the brand has credibly evolved to occupy the space that its now defunct crosstown Saab rival, when at its best, used to: stylish, somehow without really trying, and different, for reasons, one presumes, have something to do with integrity. Volvo sells half a million cars annually, in total, most of those in Europe. It has targeted sales of 800,000 by 2020.
Finally, the show's awards: Though not quite the dynamic equal of some German rivals, the Volvo XC60 is at least as stylish and, some might say, the intelligent option. In New York, it just beat the Mazda CX-5 and Range Rover Velar to the title of "World Car of the Year." The Opel Crossland X is a fine example of what awaits Opel in the future. It is based on the Peugeot 2008. And a panel of Serbian journalists voted the Volkswagen Polo the best car of the show for under €15,000 ($18,500).