BMW says customer tastes changing, popularity of sports cars declining

BMW Group said sports cars may never find as many buyers as they did in the market’s glory days before the global recession.

“The sports car market is roughly half of what it used to be,” Ian Robertson, BMW’s head of sales, said in an interview at the manufacturer’s headquarters in Munich. “Post-2008, it just collapsed. I’m not so sure it’ll ever fully recover.”

In Europe and North America, the car’s role as a status symbol has diminished, with SUVs and crossovers becoming ever more popular.

In China and emerging markets, Robertson said hot weather, pollution and a penchant for chauffeur-driven limousines have made sports cars less popular among richer clients.

Despite the downturn, selling a car built for speed and performance — priced at a relatively high margin — is an important part of building a brand’s allure. That’s why BMW, known for turning out sporty luxury vehicles, is teaming up with Toyota to share development costs on a new midsize sports car, Robertson said. The duo said last week their project has moved to the concept stage after completing a feasibility study. They declined to provide details.

BMW, the world’s biggest maker of luxury cars, and Toyota agreed in 2013 to collaborate on the underpinnings of a vehicle, the most visible project within a broader partnership that also includes cooperation on fuel cells and lightweight technology.

BMW is “taking very progressive steps with this now, and we’ll see how it goes in the months ahead,” Robertson said of the collaboration.

Auto markets in Europe and North America, where two-seater cars like Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz SLK and Audi’s TT are popular in the sports segment, are recovering slowly after the financial crisis sent demand to the lowest in two decades. Annual growth in excess of 10 percent in Asia has helped to offset the declines.

Combined global sales of the TT, SLK and BMW’s Z4 peaked at about 114,000 in 2007 before slumping 45 percent by 2010, according to IHS Automotive. Demand in China has remained negligible, while global sales are expected to reach about 72,000 vehicles by the end of the decade, IHS said.

“The market has been diluted with more offerings designed to appeal to the kind of demographic traditionally associated with these models,” Tim Urquhart, a London-based analyst at IHS, said. “Young, urban upwardly mobile professionals are now able to buy a much wider range of lifestyle vehicles other than sports cars.”