Commentary: When models take the front seat

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Yesterday's batch of European car results is at first sight confusing. Renault's profits rocketed; Daimler-Benz's went up by a respectable 16 per cent; VW's by a paltry 3 per cent; and Volvo's halved. What sort of sense are we supposed to make of them?

The companies talk much about the strengths of their markets, and are rightly worried about the collapse of the formerly life-saving German market. But the figures are interesting in a more fundamental way, for they prove what should be an obvious point: that there is a strong link between the health of a car company and the strength of its range. There are no surprises here for anyone who scours the back pages of Car magazine, which pithily summarises its views of every model.

Why has Renault, which was recently draining the French taxpayer of francs by the billion, turned itself round so successfully? The company says it is because production was up 20 per cent in the first half. Car gives the reason. Of the new Clio (the one in the 'Papa' ad on television), it writes: 'Renault gets it right'.

Why is Daimler-Benz doing well? Because its new Mercedes S-Class, described by Car as 'muscle-bound', has reinforced its reputation for making the ultimate upmarket car. It is also much more expensive than the previous range, which does no harm to profitability.

Volkswagen used to be able to do no wrong. Its Golf and Polo ruled the roost in the small-car world. No more. With the exception of the Golf GTI, both ranges have been relegated by Car to its 'Boring' section, alongside Yugos, Reliants - and most of the Volvo range. Volvo's top-of-the-range 900 series is dismissed as 'barely better than a Granada'.

The lesson here is that car companies, more than any other, can change their fortunes almost overnight if they get a model spectacularly right, or wrong. VW was struggling with the antediluvian Beetle when it launched the Golf in the early Seventies: within a decade it was the most powerful car maker in Europe. Peugeot's bacon was saved by the introduction of the 205 10 years ago ('still one of the best', says Car). Vauxhall is on an up, and Ford is on a down, because of the strengths of their respective ranges.

The most interesting company to watch in this context is undoubtedly Rover (formerly British Leyland). Before it launched the 200/400 range two years ago, its last unambiguously good car was the 1100 of the early Sixties. That, in a nutshell, explains British Leyland's shameful decline. It also explains why other car companies are so keen to buy the company as soon as British Aerospace puts it on the market. The 200/400 is, according to Car 'one of the best'. And that spells profits.