31 May 2010

The Infiniti Brand

Around the same time as Toyota invented Lexus and Honda Acura, Nissan brought out the Infiniti brand. It was introduced in 1989, and its purpose was have a premium marque in the United States to sell above the Nissan brand, which has a mainstream status. By the end of 1994, a total 200,000 sales was reached and two years later 300,000.

However, by the end of the 20st Century, Infinti sales had not really kicked on, around 75,000 per annum. Infiniti executives told the motoring press at a meeting that they "swore never again to take their eyes off BMW". It has worked at a sportier image which has worked quite well. If we look at the two main markets of the marque, we see it is doing reasonably. In the US and Canada, its sales have been as follows (yr/sales/market share):

2001 71,400 0.4%, '05 136,400 0.8%, '09 81,000 0.8%.
2001 _4,300 0.3%, '05 __7,700 0.5%, '09 _7,100 0.5%.

The improvement since '01 is marked. Still, compared to comparable premium brand sales, Infiniti is somewhat behind. Nissan is now is trying to take the make to the international market, not an easy task if initial sales are any indication. In the premium market, image is everything. Establishing that takes time and seeing as it is a latecomer in most markets, it will be an uphill climb.

The bottom line: Infiniti is a good brand trying to catch very good brands on the sales charts.

22 May 2010

Toyota Burnaston UK Gets Into Hybrid Production

In May 2010, Toyota commences production of the hybrid version of the Auris at its Burnaston plant in the UK. The Auris is the first hybrid to be produced in Europe. CO2 emissions are just 89g/km on official tests, well below the current Euro average of 146g/km. It goes on sale in Europe at the beginning of July.

With sales of Toyota at 5.6% market share of Europe in 2007, 4.9% share in 2009, and down to 4.4% Jan-Mar '10, this new variant could give the marque a much needed boost in the region.

Its introduction to the assembly line is more complicated than you may think. It has required extensive training and changes to the production lines testing procedures. Although built on the same production line as petrol and diesel engined cars, the hybrid takes 11 minutes longer to complete, requiring changes so as to ensure no bottlenecks occur. Those who oversee such things have been sent to plants abroard that make hybrids to learn how best to integrate and manage hybrid production. The new model will be a timely boost for Burnaston UK production.

Longer temp, TMUK would like more hybrid models but that is something for the future.

The bottom line: A good move by Toyota to get hybrid production into Europe, a key area for alternatively fueled vehicles.

Bufori Geneva

Motoring has always had its eccentric brands and Bufori is no exception. It's a Malaysian firm making old style cars. The operations started over 20 years ago in Australia, until the headquarters and production were transferred to Malaysia in 1994. Bufori is specialised in building cars in the classic design of the 1930's, incorporating state-of-the-art technology.

The current model is the La Joya, something like a Morgan car but not as nice (I think). The new model is the Geneva (pictured). Each of the Geneva vehicles moves through 24 production stages and requires more than 6,000 man hours to create. So they are not cheap. The are only sold in a few countries but expanding slowly.

I'd have to say I would never own one, but I could see why some may be attracted to its olde worlde charm with a modern twist. It would look smart parked outside the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. A very unusual car.

The bottom line: It certainly adds variety to an all to often predictable motoring landscape.

12 May 2010

Porsche 918 Spyder Concept Sports Car

I believe that Porsche cars have good points and not so good ones. The good part is that they are a well engineered, fine driving machine. The bad news is Porsche design is rearward looking and therefore dated. They also make what I call the most over priced mass produced vehicles in the world. If you doubt the latter point, compare a Nissan GTR with a Porsche 911. (911 owners are free to weep at this juncture).

The first problem of poor styling direction may have been addressed by the 918 Spyder High-Performance Concept Sports Car. It actually looks up to date and pleasing to my eye, something no other Porsche can do. The 918 Spyder also has an emission level of just 70 grams CO2/km on fuel consumption of 3 litres/100 kilometres (equal to 94 mpg imp). It has acceleration from 0-100 km/h in 3.2 seconds, top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). It has a 3.4-litre V8 power unit, while the electric energy is a lithium-ion battery stationed behind the passenger compartment. So it retains the good part of Porsche cars.

As for the outrageous price Porsche charges to own one of their cars, I think the only hope is that the new VW ownership leads to cost savings. These in turn passed on to the consumer.

Porsche sales have not been doing well of late, even allowing for the new Panamera. Maybe its obsession with 'engineering over looks' and poor value is hurting the brand. It would keep me away for certain. All I can say is the 918 concept is a styling step in the right direction.

The bottom line: Now about the price...

Too Many Chinese Brands

China is the biggest car market in the world by volume. Virtually all cars sold there are made locally due to import duties on imported cars and cheap labour costs. Yet, the dominant brands within China are foreign despite local brands selling well. Chinese brands are now exporting, mainly to developing nations and selling on price. However, even in these markets, the top brands are not Chinese.

You would think that even by now, they would be reaching the top of sales charts with stylish, low priced cars. But they are not. So why can't Chinese brands get to the top of any market. Average quality, poor crash protection and low brand image all play a part but there is another reason though. There are too many Chinese brands who take sales off each other. In Uruguay for example, it seems about half of all brands sold there are Chinese, yet none are in the top ten.

Of course, in Europe and America, when the automotive industry was in its infancy, hundreds of car companies started up, only to fall by the wayside. The few that survived have become the names we see on the cars around us. Won't this happen in China? Well maybe. The reason why it hasn't even shown signs of happening yet is that China's economy is regional and the car makers are too. Most of their sales are achieved in the area they are made. If that is to change, some regions may have to give up car making, allowing the fewer brands left to grow in size and use the extra profits garnered to really get competitive and take on the world.

So the current setup is holding back the Chinese auto makers. Who can say how it will pan out? For the time being, it buys time for other nation's car makers to prepare for the attack of Chinese brands when they do come in earnest.

The bottom line: Chinese car makers are impatient to go global, but the current situation is proving counter productive.

05 May 2010

VW Amorak

You're a new pupil at a school and you notice the toughest child surrounded by all the other rough kids. You go up to them and you let it be known that you are here now and things are going to be different in future. You're taking a slice of the action from now on. That would be brave, but maybe not the smartest move.

Well that is how I see VW's decision to enter the Japanese dominated Pick Up Truck market. Brands like Hilux, Navarra, Triton and Rodeo are tough, mean, experienced vehicles. Yet VW is going into this arena, saying in effect that things are going to be different from now on. It plans taking a slice of the action. Brave? Certainly. Stupid? We will have to wait and see. The new Amorak (pictured above) is Veedubs move into the Pick Up segment and by all accounts a good first attempt. It will be made in Argentina (?), unlike most others which originate in Thailand. It's VW Groups attempt to be top dog in the automotive world and it will not achieve this by ignoring any sizable segment of the market.

However, just as the tough kids in the school won't just hand over their playground dominance to a new arrival without a fight, so also the existing Pick Up manufacturers. I'm expecting it will take time for VW to woo large numbers of loyal buyers away from Hilux and co. Let the fight begin.

The bottom line: A brave yet necessary move by VW.