Industry apathy may crash sales

Multi-purpose vehicles or ‘people carriers’ have been one of the marketing success stories of the Nineties. They have come from a standing start to sell some 45,000 vehicles a year in the UK. In an overcrowded car market with little difference between products, the people carriers have created a sector to appeal to middle-class families – a genuine example of ‘segmentation’ that has worked.

Chrysler received the ultimate personality endorsement for its Voyager people carrier when one was purchased by Tony Blair and wife Cherie to ferry around their family.

But the recent New Car Assessment Programme tests show that some of these vehicles, once assumed by drivers to be among the safest on the road, can be death traps in certain circumstances. The Voyager performed particularly poorly in head-on crashes, achieving an appalling rating of nil points from NCAP. Others received similar damning appraisals.

Marketing Week has commissioned research into public attitudes to multi-purpose vehicles to gauge the effects of the adverse publicity. Sure enough, the whole sector has been tarnished by the poor performance of some of the models.

The industry is defensive when confronted with Marketing Week’s research. ‘So what?’ one marketing director replied when questioned about the damning results. The marketer in question reasons that the NCAP tests will be quickly forgotten by the public, and may end up doing little harm to the market. This underestimates the power of negative publicity to eat away at a product’s credibility. There will be more tests. If people carriers continue to perform poorly, their manufacturers could receive a rude shock. After all, safety is a prime consideration for drivers when it comes to transporting their families.

Marketing Week’s survey shows that drivers are only too aware of the bad publicity – some 56 per cent remembered seeing the negative media reports. But they were less clear about which models were the worst performers. The impression was left of a class of car which is far from safe.

To add to these problems, people carriers are being seen by many as cumbersome, difficult to park and expensive to run. A new, smaller type of MPV typified by the Renault Megane Scenic has had great success. It is about to be joined by more models from other manufacturers. Many industry observers predict that this type of people carrier will overtake their larger cousins over the next few years.

Chrysler says its engineers will take on board the results of the NCAP tests and may make technical adjustments where necessary to the Voyager. But the industry has confronted the crash tests with what appears to be indifference, doing their best to play down the results. The results of Marketing Week’s survey should be enough to shake them out of their complacency. As one observer says: ‘The safety issue will hasten the decline of the sector.’

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