Left Behind in City Car Race, GM Europe Plans Belated Entry

By Andy Bannister

01.15.2010

Opel logoGeneral Motors in Europe is scrambling to catch up with its rivals in the continent’s booming city car market, although it will be at least another two years before its proposed baby Opel and Vauxhall comes to market.

The company’s long-standing tie-up with Suzuki to produce an entry-level model, the Agila, has been a mite disappointing, and is potentially doomed anyway since Suzuki hopped into bed with Volkswagen.

The current Agila, now in its second generation, hasn’t been a roaring sales success, despite offering much more space than rivals like the Ford Ka, Peugeot 107 and Renault Twingo.

The trouble is it looks too big and is just notOpel Agila cute enough to cut the mustard as a city car player, in a market where interior room is less important than image.

It is built in Hungary by Suzuki, and has a near-identical twin sister, the similarly-obscure Suzuki Splash.

It didn’t help that the first generation Agila was particularly ugly, resembling a wardrobe-on-wheels, which made it the butt of many jokes. The latest model is much better looking, but the negative conotations still stick.

Smaller than Opel’s Fiesta-rivalling Corsa, the Agila hasn’t been helped by a lack of serious promotion by GM and its dealers, and buyer awareness of the latest version is fairly low.

Another problem the car has faced is that there has been a widespread practice of Corsa discounting, so the bigger brother is understandably perceived as a far better buy. For the sake of its bottom line and future resale values, GM will need to end this practice soon.

2010 Chevrolet Spark

There is an obvious solution to Opel and Vauxhall’s dilemma, in the shape of the newly-introduced Chevrolet Spark, from GM Daewoo in Korea.

Replacing the rounded Matiz model, the new Spark has quite a striking-looking body, although again it is a boxy five-door rather than the sleeker three-door configuration favoured by many European small car buyers, a fair proportion of whom are young urban females.

The Spark – built in Korea and India – is competing at the lower end of the city car price scale, and is likely to be hampered by the relatively poor image that the ex-Daewoo Chevrolets (like the Aveo) currently have in Europe. Its principal rivals are also Korean – the Hyundai i10 and Kia Picasso.

It does have one thing in its favour – a new GM-developed new small car platform which looks like an obvious choice to underpin Opel and Vauxhall’s new baby. Early reports, however, suggest GM Europe’s new boss, Nick Reilly, is less than keen on the Korean solution.

Opel Trixx Concept 2004 552X373

Opel Trixx Concept 2 552x286

Back in 2004, Opel showed a baby-car concept, the TriXX, with some particularly interesting – if probably expensive and impractical – sliding doors. Nothing has been heard of it since, but the car does reveal at least some fresh thinking at a company with no track record in this class of vehicle.

A new moniker, Allegra, is being touted as the name of the future GM baby, although this seems unlikely to be well received at Vauxhall in Britain, where too many buyers still remember the similarly-named – and infamous – Austin Allegro of the 1970s, one of British Leyland’s most notorious failures.

German magazine Auto Bild has already published speculative renderings of the Opel Allegra, which it suggests will be an 8000 Euro ($11,600) three-door which will be under 3 metres (just under 10 feet) in length, and fairly conventional-looking.

An electric version is pencilled in alongside petrol and diesel variants, as this is one area where GM hasn’t yet missed the boat.

Reports suggest the Allegra is being developed as a collaborative venture with another partner, but whether or not that is Suzuki in the light of recent changes in the industry in unclear. To compete against its rivals the new car will certainly need to be built outside the Euro currency zone.

Suzuki’s low-cost Hungarian plant at Esztergom makes quite a range of models, alongside the company’s staple Swift hatchback, which has been a major European hit.

As well as the Agila/Splash twins, it is the home of another joint venture, this time with Fiat, which produces the Fiat Sedici alongside its Japanese double, the Suzuki SX4.

A further Suzuki baby, the Alto, is made in India and has a rebadged Nissan twin, the Pixo.

Whether VW will want its new partner continuing these complex multi-company arrangements with Opel, Fiat and Nissan is another matter.

Irrespective of this, what the Opel and Vauxhall brands need to put their smallest car on the map is a really clever, distinctive body – something Ford pulled off 15 years ago with the original Ka, but has struggled to recreate with its second generation offering (ironically, developed in conjunction with another former Opel platform-partner, Fiat).

Cheap and cheerful isn’t going to be enough on its own in the coming decade.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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5 Comments

  1. The Trixx is nice, but the Spark ain’t bad at all. I guess the question is how it drives, because it isn’t bad looking at all.

    And the Spark actually exists and the Trixx doesn’t, which also matters.

  2. The Agila is a good car, it’s just not a great car. The Spark may look better, but is it anything more than a good car? I don’t think so, and what GM needs in Europe in this class is a great car.

  3. JGarza, I don’t agree. What GM needs is a great-looking car, as the author says. It doesn’t have to be a great car, just a good car will do, as long as it looks great. In this price bracket in Europe, people flock to a car that stands out in looks, as long as it’s standing out for the right reasons.

    But, whatever GM does, they may wish to seriously re-think that Allegra name. The Allegro’s fame as one of the worst cars ever made has spread well outside it’s home country of Britain.

    Also, imho, that Spark is quite attractive to look at, although certainly not daring in any way.

  4. The Trixx is not just good looking, it’s great looking.

  5. Much like it’s historical neglect of the small car segment in the U.S., GM has not done a lot for the cars in what is considered the small-size “city” class in Europe. It’s more important to them now, but they are going to be playing catch-up in this class, much as they were previously in the U.S. in the segment where they now have the Malibu.

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