After much dithering, French carmakers are making tentative steps into the SUV market, despite record gasoline prices and analysts' fears that the French market may be nearing its peak.
Compared with consumers in other European countries, the French have shunned sport-utility vehicles since they appeared in the early 1990s, in part because there was no locally produced vehicle to buy. The perceived wisdom was SUVs would never catch on in the narrow streets of French cities and towns. High gasoline prices compared with the United States also held back sales.
French consumers also tend to favor homegrown products, and the French market is important to Renault SA and PSA Peugeot-Citroen SA -- 29 percent of Renault's and 23 percent of Peugeot's total sales came from there in 2004. Without the economies of scale that access to the U.S. market would offer, French carmakers were leery about investing in what would have been a niche market.
That has changed in the past year, with the launch of less chunky SUVs, often referred to as "crossovers" or "soft roaders," which look and handle more like conventional cars. They have won over some French consumers with their high driving position and reputation for versatility and safety.
In the first six months of this year, sales surged 17 percent, outpacing an 11 percent increase in sales of SUVs across Europe and the 5.6 percent rise in overall car sales in France, according to CCFA, the country's trade group for automakers. SUVs now account for 5.2 percent of the cars sold in France, and the market for them there more than tripled from 1995 to 2004.
With SUV sales taking off, Peugeot and Renault are poised to give French consumers a French SUV and end the dominance of the market by Asian manufacturers, which now control more than 40 percent of the French SUV market.
Both Renault and Peugeot-Citroen have been trying to offset declining sales of core models as consumers head up-market, and SUVs offer an alternative way to sell higher-profit-margin models. Their top-of-the line sedans have had disappointing sales, with analysts saying buyers who want a luxury car prefer premium German brands such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Renault plans to add an SUV model to its catalogue next year. Peugeot will follow in 2007.
However, they might be getting into the market too late. In the United States, the SUV market seems to be reaching maturity. High oil prices prompted a decline in SUV sales in the first half of this year. In France, analysts fear there may be only a few years of good growth for the SUV market before it matures.
"That could be a source of concern," said Thomas Ryard, automotive analyst for Global Insight, a London consultancy, who predicts French SUV sales will continue rising at a robust pace through 2009. He noted, however, that volume planned by both Renault and Peugeot won't be large. The 30,000 SUVs that Peugeot plans to sell annually, for example, represent less than 1 percent of the company's production of 3.38 million vehicles last year.
Peugeot, Renault and Italy's Fiat SpA are the only European carmakers without an SUV in their lineup, although Nissan Motor Co. of Japan, in which Renault has a 44 percent stake, was one of the SUV pioneers and makes five models.
Renault also made a tentative move into SUV territory in 2000 with a four-wheel-drive version of its popular Megane Scenic, a mid-range, multipurpose vehicle. But the car lacked power, was too pricey to appeal to the typical Scenic customer and didn't appeal to people who wanted a true off-road vehicle. Renault eventually ended the venture.
Underlining their cautious approach, Renault and Peugeot are teaming up with Asian partners to spread the risk.
Renault's SUV will be made by 70 percent-owned Korean partner Renault Samsung Motors Corp. and sold in Europe sporting Renault's diamond badge starting in late 2006. Nissan also will be involved with its development. Renault will unveil its sleek four-wheel-drive concept car, dubbed Egeus, at next month's Frankfurt Motor Show. A Renault spokesman said it will be targeted at the market segment for small to mid-size high-end SUVs like BMW AG's hot-selling X3.
"Early SUVs were great if you wanted to go cross-country, but they weren't fantastic on roads," said a Renault spokesman. So the Egeus will be a "soft roader," designed to be equally at home on highways and dirt tracks.
Peugeot has teamed with Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to produce a replacement for Mitsubishi's Outlander. The Japanese company will make a Peugeot-designed SUV aimed at the European market starting in 2007.
Jens Schattner, automotive analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein Securities Ltd. in Frankfurt, predicted that the French manufacturers should be able to wrest shares away from Asian competitors such as Toyota, which controls nearly 18 percent of the French market. Once they have a choice, he noted, French consumers will most likely opt for a homegrown product.