Our resident car freak writes from Brussels

To no one's surprise (with the exception of Her Majesty's Government and the unlamented responsible Secretary of State, Ms P Hewitt) MG Rover last month finally succumbed to the weight of nose-diving sales, lack of new product and no means of raising further cash.

Though not quite in the same straits, GM announced yesterday that US sales in May were down 13%; Ford announced a similar 10% reduction (making 12 straight months of decline for old Henry's baby); and even Honda saw a drop of 14.7%.

On the other hand, the main highlight of May's US sales data was Nissan's 6.6% increase and the continuing advance of other Asian manufacturers (well, bar Honda for last month at least) at US car firm's expense: the total market share of Detroit's car makers fell over a percentage point to 57.6 percent in May from 58.7 percent a year ago.

These data are indicative, in fact, of the parlous state of most car manufacturers. Here's a quick run down on the condition of my top ten:

General Motors
Strengths: Size / Global Presence, GMAC, access to Korean product.

Weaknesses: Poor profitability, size, too many plants, too many brands, poor product (have you ever looked at a Hummer?), junk bond status, high labour costs US/Europe, failed to invest in the business, consistently over optimistic, image.

Strengths: Size / global Presence, quality, value for money, manufacturing expertise, profitability.

Weaknesses: Dull product, from No 1 the only way is...

Strengths: Per GM, plus share of Mazda, family influence, Non-US (ie European) product is very good, potential of Jaguar, Land-Rover and Volvo.

Weaknesses: Per GM, plus share of Mazda - it continually disappoints just when all think the corner has been turned, family influence (pressure to sell out).

Strengths: Size / global presence, financially sound (just)

Weaknesses: Chrysler (though getting better), "Smart" car brand, lost their quality image, Mercedes over priced, high European & US (Chrysler) cost base

Strengths: Size, perceived quality (especially Audi), strong product range Audi/VW, Skoda.

Weaknesses: Competing brands (market confusion), low profitability, Seat (underinvestment in product), Piechesreider.

Renault / Nissan
Strengths: Nissan (see sales table above), now a major player, Carlos Ghosen, implicit support of French state, profitability.

Weaknesses: Renault (quality & productivity issues), question marks over product strategy, Carlos Ghosen (should he encounter the proverbial bus).

Strengths: Image, profitability, engineering strength, Mini brand, family control.

Weaknesses: Real danger of brand dilution (eg BMW "1" series), Mr. C. Bangle (chief designer of current stupendously ugly range until promoted), mass market and high price don't mix, family control (pressure to sell...)

PSA (Peugeot Citroen)
Strengths: Family control, profitability, implicit support of French state, no US presence, strength in Africa.

Weaknesses: Ageing product, Citroen seen as cheap - struggle to gain pricing power.

Strengths: Engineering excellence, profitability but low(ish), No. 1 engine manufacturer, breadth - lawnmowers to cars to outboards.

Weaknesses: Relatively small, trying to position itself as a BMW beater, still thinks it's a sexy company (have you seen the FRV?).

Strengths: Home market support, growing fast, cheap(ish).

Weaknesses: Product - why buy when you can have Japanese?

So there you have it. Honourable mentions should go to Porsche (for convincing the market they wanted a Cayenne and for getting VW to pay for half its development) and the minnows of the UK market including Noble, Morgan, TVR, Caterham and Lotus.

Data source: The Detroit News Auto Insider

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