GENEVA -- A popular refrain among volume automakers this year at the Geneva show ran something like: "Our new car will challenge the premiums," followed by a passionate account of the car's impeccable craftsmanship, futuristic technology and catwalk design.
Volkswagen brand chief Herbert Diess said it of the new Arteon fastback, a replacement for the Passat-based CC. Opel Insignia chief engineer Andreas Zipser said it of the brand's new midsize contender, the car expected to become the new Buick Regal.
Either that, or volume players unveiled upscale entries of their own. Renault launched Alpine, its premium sports car brand, with a slick retro coupe. PSA Group, Opel's new owner-to-be, beefed up its DS premium brand with a swanky new crossover.
The volume automakers have good reason to fear luxury brands in Europe -- mainly the German trio of Mercedes, Audi and BMW, but increasingly Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover.
In 2007 the luxury share stood at 19 percent with sales of 3 million, according to data from market analysts JATO Dynamics. Last year that share had risen to 31 percent on 3.6 million. By contrast, last year the luxury share in the U.S. was 14 percent.
By 2020, the prestige brands will command a 35 percent share on sales of 4.3 million in Europe, predicts analyst firm LMC Automotive.
Their expansion is relentless. Not long ago the high-end brands stuck to making elegant, swift sedans. Now, no niche is safe.
"The premium brands are increasingly encroaching on spaces that were formerly the preserve of mainstream brands," Ian Fletcher, principal analyst for IHS Markit, said.
For example in 2014 BMW threw out convention and launched a compact minivan. Last year the 2-series Active/Grand Tourer was the third most popular in the sector with sales of just more than 100,000, beating offerings from Ford, Opel and Toyota.
The success of cars such as the Mercedes C class and Audi A4 mean the luxury brands now outsell their closest equivalents from the volume players. Two-thirds of all sports cars sold last year were luxury-brand models, despite the 2015 launch of the Ford Mustang in Europe. Premiums sell crossovers of all sizes, compact cars and even subcompacts.
The luxury makers themselves are pushing into subbrands. Land Rover launched the Range Rover Velar SUV, sharing a platform with the Jaguar F-Pace crossover, but costing at least £10,000 (about $12,190 at current exchange rates) more in its home market. Mercedes explored broadening its high-end AMG brand with a four-door concept.
The volume players have no choice but to compete with the luxury brands.
"If they improve the perceived quality and feature more upscale trims, then they have a greater chance," Felipe Munoz, global analyst for JATO Dynamics said.
At Geneva, Ford introduced its premium Vignale trim level into its new Fiesta subcompact, and Renault broadened sales of its upscale Initiale Paris trim outside France.
General Motors, on the other hand, decided the pressure was too great.
"The mass-market opportunity in Europe is no longer compelling," GM President Dan Ammann told analysts on a conference call last week after the announcement GM will sell Opel/Vauxhall to PSA Group.
One challenge: Mass market brands must spend money on raising quality to compete with the luxury brands, but can't command the same prices, reducing margins. BMW's 2-series Active/Grand Tourer minivan was the No. 3 seller in its segment, but led in terms of average sales price, according to JATO Dynamics.
Worse, because luxury-brand cars hold their value better, monthly payments on a leased car can match those of the cheaper volume equivalent.