Four-wheels on thin ice: Competition and the cost of fuel could put a brake on sales boom

LAND ROVER announced last week it was spending pounds 68m expanding production of its Discovery offroader. This is the ninth production increase since it was launched in 1989, making Discovery the most successful British vehicle for many years.

But even as sales of offroaders boom, there are growing worries about their future in Europe. 'There is an argument within the industry that says this segment could implode,' says Nigel Griffiths of the consultancy DRI Europe.

There is a also a big question mark over the imminent explosion in the number of multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) - similar to the Renault Espace - that could eat into the four-by-four market.

Until 10 years ago, the offroad market was driven by people who needed four-wheel drive, such as farmers. Even the Range Rover, launched in the early Seventies, was aimed at people who needed to plough through mud. In 1979, 70,000 four-by-fours were sold in western Europe.

But in the United States, a 'fun' market was developing. Geography meant four-wheel drive was necessary to go fishing or exploring, and both American and Japanese manufacturers started to build vehicles to satisfy the demand. Offroaders now account for more than 10 per cent of the total market, and the Ford Explorer outsells any conventional car.

The Japanese began to push the fun idea in Europe with success. Tiny Suzukis carved out a market in an area untouched by Land Rover, while Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Vauxhall (with the Japanese-designed Frontera) all moved in with bigger and increasingly sophisticated models.

Sales kept growing through the recession - from 180,000 in 1990 to an estimated 242,000 this year - and the offroad market share doubled from 1 to 2 per cent. The success of the Discovery fuelled this growth.

But while Land Rover remains bullish about its prospects, worries are emerging elsewhere in the industry. One senior executive says his company has trimmed the growth it is projecting for the offroad market from 15 per cent a year to about 5 per cent. 'The vehicles are fuel-inefficient and relatively uncomfortable,' he says. 'Originally we thought the lifestyle of people in Europe would move more to four-by-fours, but those assumptions were made before the second generation of MPVs came along.'

The problem is that few Europeans really need four-wheel drive. According to Don Irvine, project manager for Nissan's Terrano 2, which is also sold as the Ford Maverick: 'The proportion of buyers who have a genuine need for these vehicles is about 30 to 40 per cent.'

Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School, agrees. 'You don't need four-by-four to park on a pavement in Fulham, and customers find they use a lot of fuel, and are too high for the car park,' he says. 'The four- by-four market is much more a fashion product than anything else in the motor industry - which is why it could evaporate quickly.'

Mr Irvine says that people like offroaders 'because you sit high, feel safe and it says something about you'. However, not only do MPVs share these characteristics but, according to the senior executive: 'They are a damned sight more fuel-efficient.'

Offroaders could have another problem. The Association of British Insurers said last month that insurers are seeing a disproportionate number of claims from four-wheel-drive owners, and that premiums could rise by 25 per cent.

Sales of 'hot hatches', such as the VW Golf GTI, have already been decimated by rocketing premiums, and there are signs that thieves are now turning their attention to four-wheel drive cars. From 1 August Norwich Union is refusing to insure some models unless they are fitted with approved alarms.

Competition will increase, both from within the sector and from MPVs. New offroaders are due to arrive in Europe from two Korean makers, Chrysler plans to build its Grand Cherokee in Austria, and Ford is expected to import its Explorer from the States. Mercedes, which already produces the G-Wagen, is planning to build an all-new model in the US and sell it in Europe.

No one is sure how far MPVs will take business from offroaders. The specialist consultancy Planned Business Development has done market studies but 'the jury is still out,' says Ian Henry, a director. The senior executive says that while the up-market models, such as the Range Rover, will fight them off, 'the sports utility market could see a lot of contamination'.

What is certain is that there will be a raft of new MPVs fighting for market share. DRI sees the MPVs' share going from 1.4 per cent now to 3 per cent by 1997 as production builds up. Peugeot-Citroen and Fiat are jointly producing an MPV, as are Volkswagen and Ford. These models alone should add 290,000 units a year to a market that now stands at 174,000. Mercedes, Rover and Chrysler all have plans to enter the market.

Meanwhile, Land Rover launches an all-new Range Rover next month, and is planning fast expansion in the US. It will continue to fight harder than others to protect itself in the four-by-four market because it has nowhere else to go.

(Photographs omitted)