In Germany

Those of us in the U.S. often have the chauvinistic notion that our country is the heart of car culture…

This week at the Frankfurt Auto Show (the IAA for those who are detail-minded about the whole thing) an array of new cars is being introduced to the (1) German market, the (2) European market, (3) the Chinese market, (4) the U.S. market, and (5) countries like Brazil and Russia used to go here, but things aren’t working out so well economically in those countries, so. . .

If you’ve never been to the IAA, or Germany, for that matter, you probably figure that the German market is in the first category for the simple reason that the show is being held in Frankfurt, Frankfurt is in Germany, so one follows the other.

While that is true, geographically speaking, what is more to the point is that there is a particular German focus in the German automotive market on German products.  Meaning that people in Germany tend to buy German cars.  When you look at the U.S. market, on the other hand, that’s not the case—I mean, the U.S. market doesn’t as tenaciously take U.S. product the way that Germans buy their cars.

Because people in the U.S. market do buy German cars.  Plenty of them.  (Maybe not so many Volkswagens, but. . . .)

For example, according to the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA), August 2015 U.S. sales figures show that international nameplates (think: European, Korean and Japanese brands) accounted for 55.3% all U.S. sales.  Yes, more than half were non-U.S. models.  And it is likely the case that were we to take out sales of light-duty pickup trucks—which the Europeans and Koreans don’t produce for the U.S. market, and which Toyota (Tundra, Tacoma) and Nissan (Titan, Frontier) do—the number of international nameplates would have an even greater percentage of the market.

The European market is in second place on my list for the simple reason that there is this thing—shaken and stirred though it might be—called the “European Union,” which is all about a unified market.  Or so it is supposed to be.

The Chinese market could arguably be in first or second place rather than third—well, maybe it could have been prior to the whole currency and stock market imbroglio.  The German luxury manufacturers have been making plenty of cars to serve the interests of the Chinese wealthy and elite, so that market is fundamental to their seemingly ever-growing sales in that market.  Presumably, there is the old “whatever goes up. . .” law of life that probably applies in China, too, so this may not work out so well in the long run for the German luxury manufacturers.

The U.S. market is fourth, because as those AIADA figures show, it is an extremely important market for the German manufacturers.  With Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen all producing cars within the U.S.—well, at least the first two are producing SUVs and the latter is producing a sedan and will be adding an SUV to its lineup—and with Audi preparing a plant in Mexico, you know that the U.S. matters.

As for Brazil and Russia—well, again, the roiling of economies has a direct effect on vehicle manufacturers.  Fortunes can and do shift quickly.  But when is the last time that you heard anyone proclaiming the power of the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China)?  It certainly once sounded promising, but there’s proclamations at conferences and there are realities on the ground.

Those of us in the U.S. often have the chauvinistic notion that our country is the heart of car culture.  When you go to Germany you discover that there is extensive mass transit, that you can maneuver through cities or from city-to-city (and even small towns) on trains.

That said, German vehicle buyers are far more deliberative in their purchases than U.S. customers.  We tend to buy cars off the lot, so dealers carry large inventories (which is expensive) and we often end up with vehicles that are not exactly what we wanted, but available (“I can get you into the blue one right now—and I’ll even throw in the mats”).  Talk to a German and you’ll discover that they pour over any brochures and other documentation they can get their hands on, then specifically order a vehicle—and wait weeks, months for their car to arrive.

That’s a culture that is really into its cars.