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Germans' love affair with their cars changing gears

Saturday, September 19, 2015 - 13:51
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Few things are so closely tied with Germany's national identity as the automobile. But changes in demographics, consumer behaviour and new technologies are beginning to steer that relationship, especially for young people, in a different direction, analysts say.

[FRANKFURT] Few things are so closely tied with Germany's national identity as the automobile. But changes in demographics, consumer behaviour and new technologies are beginning to steer that relationship, especially for young people, in a different direction, analysts say.

On Saturday, the IAA auto show throws open its doors to the general public in Frankfurt, drawing car lovers in their hundreds of thousands to ogle a glittering display of bright, shiny new models.

The organisers are predicting that up to 900,000 visitors will pass through the vast exhibition halls until September 27.

"Germans have a very special relationship with the car, which is evident in the importance they attach to the quality and innovation of the vehicles," said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management.

That is evident in the success of top-of-the-range national brands such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

"They spend more on average than people from other countries do on a car and have a clear preference for high-end vehicles," noted Elmar Kades, auto expert at the consultancy firm AlixPartners.

The ingrained love of fine cars is also reflected in attitudes that might raise eyebrows elsewhere.

"The company car is very important in Germany" and is one of the first questions that always come up at job interviews, Mr Kades said.

"Germany is a country where people are very attached to material things and ownership, and where the car is seen as a symbol of success," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg-Essen.

A small scratch on the car bonnet will often send the owner speeding straight to the garage to have it repaired, the expert added with a laugh.

But young people in Germany appear to be turning away from the traditional view.

DWINDLING INTEREST IN OWNERSHIP

"The car no longer has the importance for young people as it did 30 years ago, particularly for the young generation today who live in big cities," said Stefan Bratzel.

According to one study by the Centre for Automotive Research, the average age of buyers of new cars this year was 53, the highest-ever.

That is not just because of Germany's ageing population, experts say.

The 18-45 age group - which makes up 40 per cent of the population - represents just a quarter of buyers of new cars.

"Other products are vying for young people's attention, such as holidays... . This has increased sharply in recent years," said the study's author, Dudenhoeffer.

"In big cities, the car is losing its importance as a status symbol and the emotional relationship attached to it," he said.

It is a phenomenon not only seen in Germany, but still primarily an urban one, added Bratzel, pointing out that in rural areas, young people still see the car as a symbol of freedom.

Peter Fuss, auto expert at EY, noted another development.

"Fewer young people have a driving licence and more and more take part in car-sharing schemes. A car no longer has to be owned by its user," he said.

"For the young generation, it is no longer so important to have their first Golf or their first Peugeot. They prefer to spend money on experiences," said Gero Graf, director of the German operations of Drivy, a French startup that allows car-owners to rent out their vehicle to other people when they are not using it themselves.

Germany, the cradle of the automobile industry, is also the world leader in car sharing. In Berlin, 45 per cent of households do not own a car.

Auto manufacturers are looking to keep up with this trend, for example, by offering apps to that show which mode of transport is best for a journey or car-sharing services.

AFP