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Drop-tops belly-flop as austerity breeds pragmatic car buyers

By Laurence Frost

PARIS, March 1 (Reuters) - The mass-market convertible car emits its last gasp this week at a Geneva motor show bristling with sport utility vehicles and low-cost models -- more evidence of the pragmatism of European consumers marked by years of austerity.

Mainstream brands from Peugeot to Volkswagen are quietly axing cabriolets, as customers with cash to spend increasingly plump for a crossover, or choose to buy a low-cost car and keep the change.

That's just fine with most carmakers, who would rather sell an offroad-styled city car or budget model, either of which typically brings lower production costs and fatter profits.

"We're seeing the end of noughties bling-bling," said Francois Roudier, spokesman for France's CCFA auto industry body. Outside the luxury market, "today's buyers want either a safe family car or something a bit more rugged," he said.

Global production of convertibles and roadsters has fallen by 59 percent since 2007, the eve of the financial crisis, according to industry data from IHS Automotive.

SUVs have meanwhile surged to account for one in five European vehicle sales, according to the forecaster, creating a pocket of growth in an otherwise lacklustre market.

Conspicuous by its near-absence from Geneva is the coupé-cabriolet (CC), whose hard roof folds and stashes electronically into what might otherwise be useful luggage space.

Peugeot is dropping the once hot 207 and 308 CC, descendants of the pioneering 206 CC it unveiled as a 1998 Geneva show car.

Renault scrapped its Wind convertible roadster in 2013, with the larger Megane CC expected to follow soon. VW last month killed off the equivalent Eos, while keeping soft-top Golf and Beetle cabrio versions for now.


Unlike the Peugeots, once a big hit for the manufacturer, rivals including drop-top variants of the Ford Focus and Nissan Micra have never really caught on.

"We've seen a few belly flops," said IHS analyst Ian Fletcher, adding that convertible versions of cars such as the Focus require major design changes going way beyond the roof.

"It's an expensive exercise -- and a painful one when they don't sell," he said.

A CC version also piles on weight from the mechanical roof and chassis reinforcements required to pass crash tests, posing a fuel-efficiency challenge amid ever-tightening CO2 rules.

Mid-market brands are glad to be rid of coupé-cabriolets and selling SUVs instead, said Laurent Petizon, a managing director for consulting firm AlixPartners, which advises major carmakers.

"This is doing them a huge favour," he said.

Whereas convertibles often need expensive niche production or outsourced manufacturing, crossovers typically use the same assembly lines and modular architectures as their car siblings -- while still commanding a hefty price mark-up.

"They allow the carmakers to differentiate their offering while using their own production capacity and generating much better profit margins than coupé-cabriolets," Petizon said.

The shift away from mid-market convertibles fits a broader push to cut development and production costs by building more vehicles from a smaller number of common platforms, while sharing those architectures with other brands.

In Geneva, Renault will wheel out the Kadjar SUV derived from alliance partner Nissan's bestselling Qashqai. Nissan's premium Infiniti marque is presenting the QX30 crossover built on Mercedes-Benz architecture.

A new vehicle announced by PSA Peugeot Citroen last week for its upscale DS brand is also expected to be a mini-SUV, sharing underpinnings with the Peugeot 2008 crossover.

With the French carmaker now trimming its model lineup under new boss Carlos Tavares's turnaround plan, ditching the CCs was a no-brainer, Peugeot product chief Laurent Blanchet said.

"We're producing vehicles that are more global," Blanchet said in an interview. "That's why we've decided to invest more in crossovers -- which also generate very nice margins." (Additional reporting by Gilles Guillaume; Editing by Mark Potter)