DETROIT — Following a year that saw their U.S. sales drop 4 percent overall, many European automakers are introducing a slew of new models in 2005 as part of an effort to reverse the slide and revive their brands.
They're using the North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public Saturday, to showcase new vehicles ranging from the new Volkswagen Jetta and the Land Rover Sport to the second-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class and Porsche's new 911 Cabriolet.
The European automakers didn't have many new models on the market last year, and the aging lineup contributed to the sales decline, said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasts for J.D. Power and Associates.
The introductions are a must if the European automakers hope to reverse the trend, Schuster said.
Audi is planning to revamp its U.S. offerings with five models in the next seven months. And Volkswagen this month has been showing off its Jetta — the first of nine new models in the next 18 months — as it works to return to its performance-car roots and revive sales.
Len Hunt, executive vice president of Volkswagen of America, said the automaker's customers want "dynamic German-engineered driving experience with European flair."
Before last year, the European automakers had mostly posted consistent sales gains in the U.S. market.
Despite a 1 percent decline in overall U.S. sales in 2003, the European brands saw sales rise 2 percent. And in 2002, European auto sales in the U.S. rose 4 percent despite a 2 percent industrywide decline.
But in 2004, when overall U.S. vehicle sales rose 1 percent, the European brands hit a wall. Volkswagen sales were down 16 percent, Audi sales were off 10 percent and Land Rover dropped 9 percent last year.
Land Rover, which is part of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, on Monday showed off its new Range Rover Sport and 2006 Range Rover, which will soon join its Land Rover LR3 sport utility vehicle in dealer showrooms.
The Ford Premiere division's Volvo, which saw U.S. sales up 3 percent in 2004, and Jaguar, which was down 16 percent, both are planning new models in the coming years to try to strengthen the brands. Those include the C30, which will be Volvo's smallest car and is expected to be introduced in late 2006.
"They speak volumes to the strength of the strategy — both now and also in the longer term," said Mark Fields, who oversees Premier Automotive Group and Ford of Europe.
Other automakers, such as BMW, are in a better position going into the year after its U.S. sales rose 7 percent.
BMW Group chairman Helmut Panke said the company plans to continue to bring a broad range of products to market. And Tom Purves, who leads the automaker's North American operations, said making new models available played a key role in the company's 13-year streak of sales increases in the United States.
"We've been very active with new models in the past 12 months," Purves said Monday during the media preview at the auto show.
Mercedes-Benz a day earlier showed off its new M-Class, one of four new Mercedes models this year. Its U.S. sales were up 1 percent in 2004, but the gain came as the division of DaimlerChrysler AG suffered from weaker sales in Western Europe.
Audi chairman Martin Winterkorn said 2004 was a year where the company faced tough competition for its cars in the North American market from SUVs and pickup trucks. But he says its new lineup is the most comprehensive overhaul in its history.
Even with new models coming to market, some such as German luxury automaker Porsche AG say they aren't focusing wholly on sales. Last year, the company said its North American sales rose 11 percent to more than 33,000 — breaking a record set in 1986 — as its U.S. sales jumped about 10 percent.
"We will not push Porsches into the market by means of discounts. ... A Porsche must and will always remain a scarce asset in great demand," said chief executive Wendelin Wiedeking.
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