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Analysis: Subaru staying in Europe despite 2020 "disaster"


Subaru’s British and European operation is being radically overhauled after the Japanese firm suffered a “ridiculous” year for sales in 2020, according to its UK managing director.

While most brands recorded substantial falls in registrations across the country, due to the pandemic, Subaru (which is run in the UK and Europe by British independent importer International Motors) was the hardest hit of any, with a year-on-year decrease of more than 68% compared with 2019.

It shifted only 951 cars last year, compared with just under 3000 the year before. In August, Subaru’s 69 UK dealers clocked up just 34 registrations between them.

“2020 was a horrible year,” admitted John Hurtig, who moved from heading up Subaru’s Nordic operation to become UK boss last summer. “What can you say? It’s just an embarrassing number. There’s no more context, to be honest.”

Hurtig details some specific reasons that contributed to 2020 being one of the brand’s worst on record here, stating that “it’s not really as bad” as the numbers make it seem.

“As a brand, we had a very high registration number in December 2019,” he explained. “In fact, it was actually the best month Subaru UK has had ever. So we went into 2020 with a big backlog.”

Hurtig admitted this was entirely down to the company pre-registering cars en masse to avoid being handed hefty fleet-average emissions fines when the European Union’s new CO2-cutting regulations came into force in January 2020. All of those cars were sold throughout the year as discounted pre-registrations.

There were two other crucial factors, Hurtig claimed, that meant Covid-19 and associated lockdowns did greater harm to Subaru than to other brands.

One was its customer base. “Our target audience, is, to be honest, older people,” he said, “and those are the [biggest] risk group [for the disease]. So they have been very concerned about getting out there and doing business; that has been the feedback we get from customers. This might be one of the reasons it’s hit us more.”

Perhaps even more significant, however, is what Hurtig describes as a need to “rebuild the dealer network from the roots”.

He explained: “We’ve changed a lot of things within Subaru UK. We also need to change the structure of our dealer network entirely. There’s a lot of things we lacked in the past – from both sides of the business. I’m not just blaming the dealers; 50% [of the blame] goes back to us as an organisation as well.”

While he acknowledges that there’s a “core” need for more Subaru presence in the UK, both in terms of dealers and investing more in marketing and brand awareness activities, more pertinent is actually getting those dealers engaged in the brand and on-message.

“We need the right dealers,” he said. “It comes back to that. We can have the best marketing and brand awareness, but if the dealers aren’t on the same page, it’s useless. So this has to be developed hand-in-hand.”



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