IAIN ROBERTSON 

As usual, Iain Robertson reflects on the past 12 months and about what might happen over the next twelve months in a motor industry that continues to endure more changes since 2000, than it did in the previous 100 years.

While Simon and Garfunkel sat in a railway station, I have been reminded of what may have been written ‘wittily’ on its toilet walls…”Here I sit broken-hearted, paid a penny and only farted!” Such has been the movement in Whitehall, which strikes me as the largest money sluice that any of us has ever known, where the concentration of effort has been directed solely at a non-Brexiter’s negotiation of a nationally-willed exit from the EU. At what cost?

The overarching issue of 2018 has been ‘Brexit’.  While only a few car companies were making noises a year ago, the echo turned into a full-on chorus over the course of 2018. However, when you peer a little deeper into the EU abyss, you start to appreciate that the EU has actually been exceptionally underhand in its dealings with the motor business. BMW was encouraged by EU grants to relocate much of its production to both Holland and Austria. The Tata Corporation (which owns Jaguar Land Rover) was gifted a number of EU grants to relocate to European sites…bearing in mind that its steel division took the EU funds and left South Wales in unemployment hell.

These are but two examples of several, which go back as far as when Peugeot shut down its immensely productive Ryton operation (near Coventry) to take EU money and establish a car-making facility in Kolin, Czech Republic. In fact, while not intending to be an ‘anti-EU’ rant, the EU has created more manufacturing industry problems for the UK than it has allowed it to benefit from. When you are aware that the UK imports virtually half of its vehicle stocks from EU-based companies, regardless of ‘deal, or no deal’ the EU appears to be far keener on bolstering its manufacturing horizons, rather than assisting ours.

Yet, this poorly managed scenario has placed a thin but dark veil over the UK motor business. New vehicle registrations dropped by almost 10 per cent in 2018. In some respects, this is more normalisation than negative impact. The motor industry has been on a marketing push initiative ever since the financial collapse of 2008, the outcome of which has been little more than serious overcrowding of vehicles that are no longer ‘owned’ by their guardians. While just over 2m new cars will be registered in the UK by the end of the year, around 250,000 of them are manufacturer platings (no customers), the best part of 1.4m are major fleet registrations (big companies and public sector), while less than 10 per cent of the balance are cash transactions to real people. In reality, the car business is in a parlous state.

As far as the motor-writing aspect is concerned, with the continual demise of the print industry, fewer newspapers and magazines to fill with editorial and an increasing number of marketing types taking over the former media relations roles with the different car companies, the only places you might read independent opinions are websites like ‘B-C-ing-U.com’! Marketing people cannot handle free thought, or opinions. Anything that disagrees with their remit will be dealt with, not always pleasantly.

Car test fleets (the vehicles you read about on these electronic pages) have been reduced substantially, partly to reflect the changing editorial scene, mostly to meet ever-tightening marketing budgets. Where test reports used to reflect market popularity of certain makes and models, the number of active press fleet operations has all but disappeared. It is not a situation that will improve in coming years.

Partly due to governmental insistences that the Electric Vehicle sector is the only one viable for the future, having demonised diesel quite fruitfully over the past three years and now making obsequious sideways glances at the petrol-powered scene, the EV code is being preached evangelistically from several pulpits. However, without a decent recharging infrastructure (it is growing, just not at a rate that would make EV operation viable for at least the next ten years) and with EVs costing markedly more per unit to produce and retail, let alone contemplating available electricity stocks (and a recent 50% increase in wholesale electricity prices), it does appear as if driving itself is under fire.

Yet, there have been some highlights in 2018: the new Suzuki Swift Sport demonstrates that motoring can still be fun and affordable. The luxury arm of PSA Groupe, DS, has started to come good with almost uniquely French style and presence on its latest DS7. The Subaru XV has been comprehensively revised and turned into a much higher class of 4×4 car. Vauxhall’s Insignia estate car has claimed a number of well-justified awards and Ford has turned the common-or-garden Focus on its head, with the best example of mainstream car manufacturing in years. However, were I to award my Car of the Year trophy, it would be given to Volvo for its excellent V60 estate car. No other carmaker has delivered as much driver satisfaction and practicality into one well-sized, well-equipped station wagon as Volvo.

Conclusion:     Vehicle choice has seldom been broader, if not better than ever. Do not settle for advertised prices on new cars, because no dealer in his right mind will refuse a sensible offer. Before going headlong into EV fever, just consider the implications (and the number of fossil fuel-fired power stations!).