When legendary bubble-permed rock band The Scorpions sang touchingly about 'The Winds of Change', they encapsulated the emotions of rockers everywhere about the falling of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s.
But in 2004, the Winds of Change are sweeping through the fleet lower-medium sector.
By the end of this year, the sector will be almost unrecognisable from how it was at the beginning of the year, a bit like east Berlin after the wall came crashing down in 1989.
So far in 2004, there has been a new Volkswagen Golf, a new Vauxhall Astra and a new Mazda3. By the end of the year, a new Ford Focus will have been unveiled and the BMW 1-series will be here. Competition in this sector, which has seen fleet registrations growing, will be fiercer than ever.
It's pretty fierce even now. The Focus is retaining its top-selling spot despite the fact it will be obsolete at the end of the year, which is a staggering performance. Second-hand buyers still like them and with low tax and running costs, it is still a fleet favourite.
Then there's the new Golf. Volkswagen reckons it will sell fewer of the new model, mainly due to the fact that there are more niche models such as mini-MPVs in the market, but it is still a powerhouse car, particularly in fleet terms.
With strong residuals and a cast iron image it is especially popular in the contract hire market, and among user choosers. Of all the surprises this year, the new Astra could be the biggest. Most people thought the old model was dull but dependable. There's a fair chance the new one will be dependable too, but it is certainly not dull. It has a cabin that rivals the Golf while new engines and an improved driving experience will shake off its dour persona. Whether that will be enough to tempt user-choosers remains to be seen.
Mazda is another manufacturer that believes its new offering in the segment will shake off the dull image of the car it replaced. The Mazda3 aims to continue the success of the Mazda6 and RX-8 and turn the brand fresh and funky. It reckons to do this by high specification and low starting prices. The question is whether wholelife costs will undermine this attempt.
The Toyota Corolla recently won the Fleet News Award for best lower-medium car, thanks to a raft of segment-leading innovations over the past year. It was one of the first manufacturers to have Euro IV compliant diesel engines in its range and its excellent reliability was confirmed by leasing companies in the 2003 FN50.
The Peugeot 307 illustrates just how fast this segment is moving – more gales of change than winds – as it wasn't long ago that this was the attractive newcomer in the market. It was 2001 to be precise, and it is now the second oldest car in this basket of vehicles, although it has a strong diesel engine and good looks. It's not over the hill yet.
Operations director, Inchcape Fleet Solutions
'For a number of years the lower-medium sector has been taking a larger proportion of the market as buyers downsized, but new trends are emerging as the market becomes more competitive. Each new C-sector hatchback is supported by at least a mini-MPV and in some cases a number of niche products. The core lower medium hatchback is still a critically important sector.'
Managing director, Zenith Vehicle Contracts
'This sector accounts for a high percentage of the company car park and is fiercely competitive. Volkswagen's domination of the sector has recently been under threat with the Mk 4 becoming tired and outdated, the Focus and Astra have all been tussling for the top spot. However, the launch of the new Astra has firmly placed it at the top of the class.'
Pricing manager, Lloyds TSB autolease
'This sector is looking particularly good at the moment with a new Golf, Astra and Mazda3 all recently launched. It is now a hugely competitive sector demanding high specification, excellent drivability and low running costs. All the cars in this group do well against those categories. Three of the six models are also Euro IV compliant, saving drivers the 3% BIK.'
Commercial director, Alphabet
'Diesel five-door hatchbacks account for one fifth of fleet registrations in the lower-medium car sector but sales slowed down last year. With BMW's 1-series now just over the horizon threatening to shake up the sector, several contenders have had a preparatory shot in the arm and the sector is already taking on a much livelier appearance.'
Head of UK & international sales development, Arval PHH
'Hatches aren't everyone's cup of tea, but before I became a sad old bloke and moved into estates they were always my first choice. The new Astra is challenging Golf and Focus. Combining compact style with a decent slice of practicality, the sector grows in size and strangely so do the cars. For wholelife costs and value the case for Golf is hard to resist – but this new Astra is very fanciable.'
Vital statistics: how our models compare
Average rental rates
Volkswagen Golf £315
Toyota Corolla £316
Vauxhall Astra £326
Peugeot 307 £328
Ford Focus £333
Average maintenance costs (3years/60,000 miles)
Vauxhall Astra £1,355
Ford Focus £1,365
Volkswagen Golf £1,480
Toyota Corolla £1,563
Peugeot 307 £1,571
RV forecasts (3years/60,000 miles)
Volkswagen Golf £6,511/41%
Toyota Corolla £4,830/32%
Vauxhall Astra £4,639/29%
Peugeot 307 £4,517/28%
Ford Focus £4,257/27%
CO2 emissions (g/km and tax band)
Vauxhall Astra 140/15%
Volkswagen Golf 143/15%
Toyota Corolla 154/16%
Peugeot 307 138/18%
Ford Focus 140/18%
Vauxhall Astra 56.5
Peugeot 307 54.3
Ford Focus 53.3
Volkswagen Golf 53.3
Toyota Corolla 50.4
Ford Focus 1.8 TDCi 100 Ghia 5dr
Cope: The Focus is still performing well. Its looks, drive, specification and performance take a great deal of beating. The Focus set the standard and has maintained this since entering the market in 1998.
McMahon: The Focus still offers all the things drivers are looking for, such as good specification, style and drivability. However, it has high rentals as it's one of the most expensive to buy new.
Brown: The Focus has been massively successful and is due to be replaced by the series-2 next year but is still a very strong competitor. Apart from one or two details such as the boot release, only familiarity and weight of numbers count against it.
Schooling: The TDCi diesel adds to the Focus's appeal although, in Ghia trim, the Ford commands a premium price in return for volume RVs, making it the most expensive choice here.
Pout: The dominance of the Focus is well justified so far, but how will it cope against the resurgent Astra and Golf – let alone the new BMW 1-series? Price-wise this suffers for its RV, which is not as strong as its rivals.
Average monthly rental £333
P11D price £15,697
Average net price £12,570
Average maintenance £1,365
Average RV £4,257/27%
Arval PHH £313.40
Lloyds TSB autolease £333.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%): £622/1,1309
2004 VED bill: £115
Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTi 100 Design 5dr
Brown: Styling is clean and bold but stops short of going avant-garde, the interior and fascia design provide a fresh, modern look. The diesel engines are now competitive.
McMahon: The new Astra looks much more stylish than the old and is a very strong contender. Cabin quality is excellent as well as practical. It is also Euro IV compliant and avoids the additional 3% BIK tax.
Cope: Vauxhall is top of the class with the launch of the all-improved Astra. It has combined build quality with great handling and performance. The rest of the class have a lot of work to do to compete.
Pout: The Astra is making a determined comeback to rival any of its peer group with a new emphasis on style and quality. The Astra has always been a favourite with fleets. It's not always been a favourite for those who had to drive them. The new model might even turn a few heads.
Schooling: The leap from the old to the new Astra shows how far and fast expectations have moved in this sector. Dynamically and financially, it is not the class leader but few drivers will complain.
Average monthly rental £326
P11D price £15,742
Average net price £12,641
Average maintenance £1,355
Average RV £4,639/29%
Arval PHH £321.12
Lloyds TSB autolease £328.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £519/£944
2004 VED bill £115
Volkswagen Golf 1.9 TDi SE 5dr
McMahon: The Golf has always been a favourite in this sector and its reign continues. The new Golf offers the same benefits as the old, and maintains strong residual values keeping rentals competitive.
Brown: A major step forward but the mark 5 hasn't had quite the impact the mark 4 had when launched. The interior is roomy and ergonomically sound, and handling and ride are a major advance.
Schooling: The new Golf is conservative but its lack of inspirational qualities won't dampen its appeal for diehard fans of the car.
Pout: The Golf has achieved a mildly iconic status, so this is going to be a winner. The benchmark for classy hatches, this is sparky, offers a firm and confident drive and is bigger than it looks. It's also strong on safety features, is pricey to buy but typically strong RV brings it on the money for rentals.
Cope: Volkswagen's reinvention of their flagship has been met with a sigh of relief. The mark 4 became tired and did not live up to its pedigree, the launch of the mark 5 heralds the return to form with more space and an improved drive.
Average monthly rental £326
P11D price £16,027
Average net price £13,534
Average maintenance £1,480
Average RV £6,511/41%
Arval PHH £305.40
Lloyds TSB autolease £313.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £528/£962
2004 VED bill £115
Peugeot 307 2.0 HDi SE 110 Fap a/c 5dr
Schooling: The 307 is a stylish and practical choice for drivers who swear by French diesels. Unfortunately, it's not as entertaining or classy as its newer rivals despite being at the high end of the cost scale.
Pout: The Peugeot fails to excite me. Less responsive and noisy, it falls behind its rivals for style and spirit. The wide front screen gives a sense of spaciousness that is not fulfilled if you are sitting in the back. Why choose this when you can have a Golf that's cheaper?
Cope: The 307 exterior style and design conveys the feeling of large interior space, unfortunately this is not the case. The 307 has under performed on many levels but mainly in terms of its reliability.
McMahon: The Peugeot 307 has been around for a while but has become a strong contender in this sector. The specification is good with multi CD as standard.
Brown: The 307 was one of the first of the current generation of mid-sized hatchbacks to go tall in search of interior space which may have compromised looks and image. It offers comfort and space and performance is competitive.
Average monthly rental £328
P11D price £16,067
Average net price £12,414
Average maintenance £1,571
Average RV £4,517/28%
Arval PHH £318.21
Lloyds TSB autolease £329.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £636/£1,157
2004 VED bill £115
Mazda3 1.6D TS 5dr
Schooling: It feels taut and well-built underneath the slightly over-styled skin. It is the bargain of the bunch thanks to strong predicted RVs, even though Japanese-badged used diesels are still uncommon.
Brown: Derived from the same platform as the new Volvo S40 and next generation Ford Focus, the Mazda has its own distinct personality. Cheap list prices and a strong diesel engine make this car worthy of success.
Cope: The Mazda 3 fails to tick a lot of boxes on a potential drivers' checklist. Its looks are different, its overall performance is average. Its saving grace is value.
McMahon: The Mazda 3 looks sporty inside and out yet still keeps its practicality with excellent interior space. Rentals are competitive, thanks to a lower cost new, competitive residuals and good maintenance.
Pout: Naturally competing with the Focus and the Golf, it's a tough call to wrestle drivers' affections from the established leaders, but this is a pretty good effort. Anonymous from the back but a hungry, sportily-styled front turns the Mazda into an attractive and fun-to-drive small family car.
Average monthly rental £301
P11D price £14,647
Average net price £11,640
Average maintenance £1,618
Average RV £4,800/33%
Arval PHH £300.60
Lloyds TSB autolease £298.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £580/£1,054
2004 VED bill £115
Toyota Corolla 2.0 D-4D T Spirit 5dr
Schooling: No longer is the world's best-selling car the automotive equivalent of magnolia paint. The 2004 Corolla is smart, economical, well-finished and offers impressive wholelife costs. A sound fleet choice.
Cope: The Corolla is one of the sector's unsung heroes, providing good all-round performance and build quality. Unfortunately it has been lost among other more brightly shining lights in this sector.
McMahon: The Toyota Corolla is a strong contender in this sector caused by its excellent standard equipment, not to mention Toyota reliability. Running costs are high and it has the highest CO2 emissions, compensated for by being Euro IV compliant.
Pout: Dull to look at, noisy to drive, sluggish in the diesel version – it's not for me. There are some upsides: competitively priced, well-equipped and roomy. It is hard to see this model being chosen over the Golf or Astra.
Brown: Maybe lacking the strong upmarket image of the Golf but for ease of ownership the Corolla is second to none. This is a quality, low stress product. The diesel engine is very quiet and also Euro IV compliant.
Average monthly rental £316
P11D price £15,240
Average net price £11,941
Average maintenance £1,571
Average RV £4,517/28%
Arval PHH £302.37
Lloyds TSB autolease £314.00
2004 CO2 BIK tax bill (22%/40%) £536/£975
2004 VED bill £135