My motoring month

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Fiat returns Panda to traditional breeding ground

Spent one of the last working days of 2011 in a car factory. These are not places I usually seek out, my interest being rather more in the product than the process, but every so often it does no harm to see what an extraordinary procedure the making of a modern motor car has become. Even one as simple as a Fiat Panda.

For years now Pandas (and Fiat 500s) have spewed out of a plant in Tychy, Poland but following the complete renovation of Fiat’s Pomigliano d’Arco factory near Naples, the Panda is once more built in Italy.

Those who know their Italian car industry history will recognise its location in the shadow of Vesuvius. This is the factory built in the late 1960s by the then Government-owned Alfa Romeo outside Nicolo Romeo’s home town. It was located on the site of Alfa’s old aero engine facility not for reasons of nostalgia, but to bring some much needed employment to a region that even today can seem almost third world compared to the rampant sophistication of Milan and Turin. The idea was noble and the little family car it was to build nothing less than a work of genius. And it was so inextricably linked to its location it was even named after it: Alfasud.

But then it started to go wrong. Alfa Romeo found that the density of skilled labour required even to build a car was not what they’d hoped for. Then the workers for whom the factory had been built appeared not to appreciate the fact and regularly went on strike. Even when ‘Suds were being made, each one contained a time-bomb guaranteed to destroy the car. If you ever find yourself playing word association with a bunch of car enthusiasts, say ‘Alfasud’ and I bet the next word you hear will be ‘rust’.

How extraordinary then to see the same factory, fresh from its 12-month, €800 million refit packed with immaculately turned out workers producing immaculately turned out small Fiats. The Panda may not be as glamorous, innovative or fun as the ‘Sud, but it’s been in production from one generation to the next for over 30 years now and I reckon it will be around for a while yet.

By contrast with the brilliant but flawed ‘Sud, the Panda is fairly predictable. Fiat exudes confidence with cars like this and it’s a usefully updated, capable runabout that will doubtless perform well in the market place. That said, the market is about to be drenched in Volkswagen Ups which, while conceptually just the next in the Lupo/Fox line of sub-Polo entry level VWs, is in reality so fluently executed I expect it to cause Fiat a real headache.

Knowledge from the web leads to forecourt power

A more regular ritual of my year is the trip to the What Car? awards. Eighteen gongs were given out, precisely half going to cars built by the VW Group, which is an amazing hit rate and a terrifying insight into the state of the art for everyone else.

I was on the same table as Audi’s chief marketing man over here and he told me that today the typical customer will visit just two dealers before deciding which car to buy. Ten years ago that number was seven. The good news is that if someone walks across your forecourt, there’s a 50 per cent chance you will sell a car. The bad news is that customer foot fall has never been lower.

There is another problem too. Not only are customers going to fewer dealers, those dealers that do receive a visit can now expect a completely different kind of punter. Armed with the internet, they will likely have boned up not only on the type of car they want, but which specific model. Instead of walking in looking helpless, they stride across the floor with the specification of a fully configured car in their hands.

More frightening still for the sales team is the fact that since the collapse of the traditional car classes, the number of different models has gone crazy. By my reckoning in 2002 Audi had five distinct ranges. That number is now 12. Consider also the number of five-door, estate, convertible, coupé, S and RS versions that each range offers, plus all the different equipment grades, engine specifications and options available on each one. It’s almost enough to make your brain melt.

So now put yourself in the shoes of a showroom salesman with an effectively limitless number of model permutations to learn, faced with a customer who’s spent the last month researching just one. If he or she has done their homework, the chances of you actually knowing more than the person to whom you are attempting to appear knowledgeable are precisely zero.

If you believe knowledge is power, the tables have turned in the last decade and placed all the power in the hands of the customers. All they have to do is exploit it.