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Getting more out of tanks is top of mind

THE buyer’s hunt for fuel-efficient cars is very much on as South African motorists begin to rapidly change the kind of car they are buying, according to motor industry experts.

South African motorists are being besieged by high oil prices, a weak currency, imminent tolling on Gauteng’s highways and hiked carbon emissions taxation. They will not have enjoyed the announcement in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget statement last week that the fuel levy was on the way up.

An 81c/l hike in fuel prices was endured on Wednesday, while the additional 23c/l tax means the price of a litre of fuel will have surged R1.04 in the matter of a few weeks and will sit perilously close to R13.50/l for 95 octane petrol on the reef. It means a 40l tank will cost more than R500.

Motor vehicle companies have felt the effect of changing customer behaviour as a result of the squeeze on the motorist. Fuel consumption is an area where customer choice can make a real "rands-and-cents" difference.

"There’s a huge buy-down," BMW SA’s Guy Kilfoil says.

But the kind of engine people choose in their car is changing too. "The percentage of diesels is growing," says Mr Kilfoil.

"In 2011 we sold about 12,000 3-Series, of which 2,500 were 320d," he says. However, by last year that number had risen at least 25%, "despite selling about the same number of cars", Mr Kilfoil says, adding that such figures could be affected by cycles of replacement.

BMW is also seeing its customers trade down within a model range. "Perhaps three (vehicle) generations ago they would have a 540i, then a 525i, and now they’re buying a 520i."

This is driven by the cost of the cars, as new technology means higher prices, but also because of the fuel benefits.

The National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA’s (Naamsa’s) director Nico Vermeulen says the way in which customers are seeking more fuel-efficient technologies, and the move to smaller cars and motors, can be seen in the "progressively declining trend in CO² emissions across the new car parc — the number of cars on the road".

Figures given to Business Day by RGT Smart, the independent provider of South African new vehicle sales information and statistics, show a dramatic decline in average emissions, as well as fuel consumption, across the new vehicle car parc.

The petrol consumption figures, in steep decline since long before the 2010 implementation of the carbon emissions tax on new vehicles, appear to give lie to the Treasury’s claim in last week’s budget that it was the tax that was driving customers to more fuel-efficient cars.

"There’s a distinct move to smaller cars. Over the past few years there’s clear evidence of a general move towards more fuel-efficient vehicles," Mr Vermeulen says. There is no more compelling incentive than the high price of fuel for customers to "seriously think about fuel-efficiency when they replace a motor vehicle".

"It’s certainly influencing consumer behaviour. The average car buyer is well-informed."

Matt Gennrich, a spokesman for Volkswagen SA, agrees, adding that increasing awareness means people are opting to buy cars with the firm’s Bluemotion technology.

"People are conscious about doing the right thing." He says the Polo Bluemotion, a super efficient three-cylinder 1.2l diesel, now makes up about 8% of sales of the best-selling supermini and will "possibly get to 10%".

Ford is also in on the act. It recently launched a 1l, three-cylinder turbo petrol-driven version of its new Fiesta, which manages 92kW and 4.3l/100km.

However, it appears that R12/l has not been the threshold that will push South Africans into hybrid cars.

Mr Kilfoil says that uptake of BMW’s hybrids in SA remains "very slow". "You can understand why. You need to sit in a lot of traffic to see the benefit, and customers need to understand the technology."

Leo Kok, spokesman for Toyota SA concurs on the slow nature of hybrid sales.

"Uptake is slow," he says, "but they’re growing slowly."

Mr Kok says the company’s best-selling cars are the models with the smaller engines, and that customers are "increasingly sensitive to fuel prices".

But Toyota’s research suggests that in terms of the sale of hybrids, "there isn’t a specific threshold". "Price is more important," he says.

Source: Alexander Parker, 07 March 2013, BD Live

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