Don’t skirt the Minis

My Q2 column for Professional manager magazine – on the rise of Supermini cars and their appropriateness for the fleet sector

As with many walks of professional life, it’s easy to get drawn into spotting patterns in data when you work in the car industry. With a wealth of figures available every month from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) few journalists can resist writing the epitaphs of car makers seemingly on a downward slump – or lauding those registering huge jumps in sales.

Yet there are always long-term patterns that may contradict short-term gains or losses – and car sales shouldn’t be the only consideration is registering the health or relevance of a manufacturer when a lack of new product, external factors such as petrol prices and a shift in focus to more profitable models could lurk behind the headlines figures.

Having said that a look at 2013’s car sales, within the context of the last ten years or so, indicate that talk of a financial recovery may not be far from the mark. Car sales in the fleet sector – often a good arbiter of the general health of the industry – were up some 25% on the previous year. Even allowing for a three-year bounce from the end of the scrappage deal that’s very good news, though the overall figures have only just reached parity with 2007, the last full year before the credit crunch zapped car sales.

There are, however, some undeniable, patterns across that period of time. Strip out the false positives and there’s a definite trend in car sales towards a narrow band of car segment to the detriment of virtually every other. By 2014 it’s evident that the once-humble Supermini – and similar ‘crossover’ cars based on the same platforms as cars such as the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Corsa – is where the smart money is in a landscape where the cost of living is squeezing real wages and costs. Sales in this sector now account for 35% of all registrations in the UK – and that figure is growing.

These cars were once considered entry-level, below even the informal Small Family Car tag of the Honda Civics and Volkswagen Golfs as far as body segments are concerned, and are only trumped by the City Car – the cheapest, smallest cars on the road today. Yet as car safety, aerodynamics and the demands of versatility and practicality have increased, the Supermini has grown in size and stature. There’s nothing humble about these cars any more.

These cars are everyday heroes at the sharp end of modern manufacturing. Margins are razor thin in this competitive marketplace so these small cars must fulfil the functions that much larger cars used to. The modern Supermini will be expected to transport at least four adults, plus luggage, in comfort – not a problem in cars such as the Honda Jazz; at 399 litres it puts many larger cars to shame. Practicality is not a premium in the sector; most model offer the choice between three or five doors and most have versatile seating arrangements.

Nor should the modern Supermini want for the variety of modern gizmos that car owners expect as a matter of course: satellite navigation, Bluetooth, cruise control, DAB radio and the requisite safety equipment. Most cars in this sector are equipped with a fleet special – the car designed to tempt the fleet manager to look again – that will be packed with the sort of kit designed to keep drivers happy on long journeys.

Just as important these days is fuel economy on these small cars, where relative size and weight is a natural advantage. In 2007 average CO2 emissions from new cars was 164.9g/km; in 2013 it was 129.1g/km – a stupefying drop aided by the take-up of Mini and Supermini cars. Put another way, a typical new car is now 27% more efficient than seven-year-old model. Combined fuel economies of over 75mpg and emissions of under 100g/km are routine in this sector – while modern small cars frequently offer an automatic transmission with little fuel penalty.

At least one model that offers these tax-busting, wallet-friendly powertrains will be present in the line-ups of all mainstream manufactures – and even some you might not expect. Audi’s A1 is the German premium offering in the sector and Citroen’s DS3 represents the funkier end of the market. Small cars are no hair shirt these days.

High-spec, good-looking and affordable cars should be the holy grail for fleet managers and the Supermini has been shaped by the demands of the market; demands that are often contradictory. More space; less weight. Higher economy; lower emissions. Because of these unique demands the Supermini is a marvel of packaging and technology.

We’re hard-wired to see patterns in data or experiences that may be meaningless. But in automotive terms it’s clear that this trend isn’t a figment of imagination. Small cars are big news – in a smaller, cleaner, cheaper future that makes them impossible to ignore.

Mini Marvels

Five tips to ensure Superminis work for your fleet

In three year’s time

Not all Superminis are born alike – high-spec models will offer the best residual values so don’t go for entry-level metal if this is a consideration.

Don’t dread unleaded

Fuel economy is impossible to ignore, but do bear in mind that many modern petrol engines can offer excellent MPGs. On smaller, cheaper cars the diesel premium may not be worth it.

Three-door bad; five-door good

All Superminis feature a hatchback tailgate, but think of your rear passengers and make sure you get front and back doors too.

Don’t fear the badge

Old-fashioned badge snobberies make little sense at the best of times but all manufacturers are developing rapidly. Look again at that brand you’re inclined to dismiss.

Baby got back

Modern Superminis are expertly packaged – some will offer larger boots and interior space than much more expensive cars. Don’t assume those golf bags won’t fit in the boot.

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