Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section led with the somewhat self-consciously juvenile word, ‘Vroom!’.
Subtitled ‘Why Britain can’t stop buying new cars‘, the cover story tried to answer why car sales are rising in the UK while stagnating everywhere else in Europe.
It provided a handy platform for assorted industry mouthpieces to congratulate Britons on being clever little consumers. Apparently we are becoming adept at signing personal leases and/or rushing into car dealerships to blow PPI payouts on deposits on car loans.
And to be fair, £69 a month for a brand new Skoda Citigo runaround isn’t a lot more than a his’n’hers iPhone/iPad contract. Assuming of course that you can chop your old car in for the £2,500 deposit.
And to be fairer than fair, the writer did ask some awkward questions. Why are fewer and fewer young people bothering to learn to drive? Why are annual mileages dropping?
Naturally, the industry came back with ready-prepared answers. Young people just need the right kind of ‘marketing’ to turn them back on to car ownership: cue ‘cool’ car ads that are so painful you want to stick needles in your eyes. Mileages are really falling only in London and the south east, because public transport is quite good there and executive-level company car users all use Skype or the phone these days.
To be honest, it all sounded rather defensive. The overall picture painted by the article was that of an industry whose existing customers are happy to use alternatives when they become available while potential new customers are increasingly disinclined, not to mention financially unable, to contemplate buying its products.
Cheap credit and the fact that Britain is not in the euro are behind this mini boom in UK car sales. The article pointed out that carmakers are assiduously pumping production into the UK to try to keep their factories humming as demand in the eurozone collapses.
The big risk to the UK car business is that it is storing up big problems further down the road. Sales are being bought expensively through wafer thin margins, heightened credit risks and discounts that end up depressing second values and thus hurting the all important fleet sector, which makes up half the market.
So the answer to the Guardian’s question appears to be: ‘Because British car buyers are easily-influenced novelty-seekers with an underdeveloped sense of consequences. Rather like four-year-olds.
A much more interesting question, which hopefully the Guardian will get round to investigating, is why so many Europeans have apparently broken themselves of the new car habit?
What do they see that we don’t?