PARIS (Reuters) - Europe’s anemic car market rebound could be over before it has really begun. That is the fear of executives as they gather for the Paris auto show opening on Thursday, the biggest industry event in the regional calendar.
While U.S. and Japanese car sales are back at pre-crisis levels, Europe is still 20 percent below its 2007 peak.
Carmakers are rolling out new models in anticipation of closing the gap -- the Paris show floor will be bristling with fuel-efficient small cars and compact SUVs.
But a tentative recovery following a six-year slump is looking increasingly fragile. And this time there is little relief to be had elsewhere, with Chinese demand cooling, Russian sales in freefall and other emerging markets in sharp decline.
“Few plants have been closed, headcount levels remain high, and R&D budgets have largely been left intact to ensure a future product pipeline,” Bernstein analyst Max Warburton said. “The industry is just sitting tight hoping for a brighter future.”
It may have to wait a while.
At the end of this decade, European demand will still be 1 million vehicles short of its pre-2008 average, according to forecaster IHS Automotive.
“This recovery has always had shaky foundations,” said IHS analyst Ian Fletcher, who sees European market growth slowing to 3 percent next year after a 4.6 percent spurt in 2014.
“It’s about whether customers on the front line feel secure in their jobs and how heavily indebted they are from previous years,” he said.
Carmakers that were too optimistic about the pace of this year’s upturn have already been forced to cut back.
Ford, which is showing a new S-Max minivan in Paris, will stop building its top-selling Fiesta subcompact in Germany for 11 days in October and November.
Production of PSA Peugeot Citroen models has also outpaced sales, prompting a two-week halt to assembly of the 208 and C3 small cars in Slovakia as well as 300 job cuts at its main domestic plant in eastern France.
Low-cost cars offer a notable bright spot but are largely imported, leaving the region’s factories with excess capacity estimated at 2-3 million vehicles a year, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
Renault’s budget Dacia range, the fastest-growing brand in Europe with a 2.9 percent market share, will be unveiling crossover versions of its Moroccan-built Lodgy and Dokker vans.
Besides the no-frills range, Renault has been cushioned from the crisis by its 43.4 percent stake in Japan’s Nissan, and Fiat is similarly shielded by Chrysler after taking full control of the U.S. carmaker early this year.
It is Peugeot, showing small concept cars using a compressed-air hybrid drivetrain developed with Bosch [ROBG.UL], that is most exposed to Europe. Some 60 percent of its sales are still generated in the region and almost a third of its global production in high-cost France.
Regional demand is “a contributor to the recovery of Peugeot, which is heavily implanted in Europe,” Chief Executive Carlos Tavares said on Tuesday.
“We are placing our hopes in the continuation of this growth, although its weakness makes us rather cautious about whether it will last.”
European auto stocks have tumbled 14 percent since June 6, based on the 14-member Stoxx Europe 600 Autos & Parts index, after doubling in value over the course of a two-year rally driven by recovery hopes.
“The momentum has turned from positive in early summer to very negative right now,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, a London-based analyst with ISI Group.
The outlook has worsened as consumer and business confidence are “dragged down because of the whole Russian situation”, Ellinghorst added.
Russian car sales were down 26 percent in August, with the rouble tumbling as the United States and Europe stepped up sanctions over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
China’s auto-market growth is also slowing to a forecast 7.9 percent next year from 11.2 percent expected in 2014, according to IHS. That threatens to curb the bumper profits that have allowed premium carmakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen’s Audi to ride out the crisis at home.
The German big three are challenged by the pricing fallout from their intense sales rivalry, as well as new competition from the likes of Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover, whose Jaguar XE sedan makes its public debut in Paris.
European market leader Volkswagen also looks vulnerable to demand weakness at home, as it struggles to rein in cost overruns at the heartland Wolfsburg plant.
But a real rebound must happen sometime, and Bernstein’s Warburton sees Europe’s average vehicle age -- 9 years, compared with a pre-crisis 7.9 -- among reasons to be cheerful.
“There must be some form of pent-up demand building in Europe,” he said in a recent note. “There is clear upside for vehicle demand, if only a proper recovery gets underway.”
Editing by Mark Potter