Left Behind in City Car Race, GM Europe Plans Belated Entry
By Andy Bannister
General 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 not 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.
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.
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.
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