28 September 2010

Car Makes Ranked Part 1: US & Asia

How people view car brands is very important. One man said people would buy a turd if it had a BMW logo on it. Although a little crude, the comment is spot on. Brand prejudice is something all are affected by, especially those who can afford to be so. So how do I rank brands, and do you think I am brand prejudiced? There are three parts to this series and not every brand is mentioned but most are.

Chinese Brands: Chery, Geely, BYD, Great Wall and a myriad other makes are made in China. Most will go under and never be seen outside of China but some will, such as the ones listed. They usually look quite well styled and are inexpensive to buy. However, build quality is questionable to put it politely, and their crash worthiness is disgraceful. I cannot recommend anyone to buy any Chinese brands until they improve enormously. With Chinese branded cars, you cannot trust anything you do not see. The only makes that are probably acceptable are the Roewe and MG brands, which came from the defunct MG Rover company (see pic). Score 1.5/10

US Brands: These cars do not make it here (NZ) in big numbers, but I have an idea of where they are at. The big three in the US scored poorly in reliability, quality, driving dynamics. On the plus side, they always had a style about them and generally looked good. They have certainly improved the weak areas, especially reliability . The Chrysler Group is not up to the standard of Ford or GM and Fiat has a big job bringing it up to speed. Score 5/10

Korean Brands: Hyundai, Kia, Ssangyong and Samsung were all about value once but now they are also well made and competitive. despite this improvement, I don't think they have reached their target - equaling Japanese makes - but they are close to it. The style and driving experience is also below the European competition on some models. They are now competing on more than just price. Unfortunately, Ssangyong drags the score down. Score 5/10.

Japanese brands (non premium): Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Suzuki, Daihatsu, Mitsubishi, Mazda and Subaru are all reliable, well made cars. Where most of the brands tend to fail is that they are too conservative. They appeal to the mind but not the heart. Recent upward movements in the Yen mean they have offer less value for money too. Score 7/10

The bottom line: The Japanese have consistency throughout their brands, earning them top in this comparison.

Car Makes Ranked Part 2: Premium

Swedish Brands: Volvo and Saab are leaders in occupant safety and are of sound quality. Both brands have a unique style too. Volvo is doing well enough but Saab is off the pace after years of neglect from recent owner GM. Both have just been sold to new owners but as of now, Saab needs a lot of work before I would recommend buying one. As for Volvos, style is still disappointing and they are too staid in image. Score 4/10.

Japanese Premium Brands: Lexus, Acura and Infiniti mirror Japanese cars generally. Well made, but fairly uninspiring. For regular makes, this is not too much of an issue but against other premium marques, these three look quite ordinary. That is not really good enough for potential buyers, who in this segment expect more. Quite a bit more. Score 5/10

German Premium: Whether BMW, Mercedes, Audi or Porsche, all these marques are respected and popular worldwide. I realise they are well engineered and well made, yet they do not inspire me. Why? They are overpriced, unattractively styled and lack character. Surely value and tasteful design are so important. The engineers obviously dominate the designers in Germany, and without a better balance between the two, they lack charisma. Score 6/10

Italian Premium Brands: Both Maserati and Ferrari make beautiful cars which are also well made these days, despite some prancing horses catching fire recently. Of course the cost of ownership is outrageous and are strictly for the rich. Practical no, desirable yes. Score 7/10

UK Brands: Only premium and sports brands are left now, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini, Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Lotus and Morgan (with a few other small makers). They were always interesting but were let down by unreliability. Today they are much more dependable (due to foreign ownership), yet they have kept their style and class. Numerically small in production, but they are high in dollar value. I rate them highly but their premium nature puts them beyond what I could afford. Score 7/10

The bottom line: Italian and British design are the best.

Car Makes Ranked Part 3: European Non Premium

French Brands: Renault, Peugeot and Citroen of the past were always different and even quirky at times, yet never dull. As they have become more mainstream, the quality dropped and they are not up to standard in this critical area. I personally wouldn't buy any of them but Renault would be the best of the Gallic trio. Score 4.5/10

Fiat Group (non premium): Italian marques Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Lancia were the opposite to German, that is design winning out over engineering. They were also unreliable, which hurt their reputation badly. They are better made now, while still retaining much of the style too. Lancia does has an odd mix of models and the other two still have room for improvement; still a work in progress but moving forward. Score 4.5/10

VW Group (non premium): VW of Germany is a strong marque, but overpriced. Skoda of the Czech Rep offers value but with an unusual range, which needs settling down. Seat of Spain which is a brand of limited appeal and is struggling to be successful. Collectively an unusual mix brought together with some success only. Score 5.5/10

Euro US Brands: Ford and GM Europe are quality cars which offer reasonable value. Chevrolet Europe source cars from GM Daewoo of lesser quality but offering value. I think Ford is the best of these brands, closely followed by GM Europe. These cars are just about as good as premium marques, but without the snob value. Their score suffers with GM Daewoo's inclusion in this group though. Score 6/10

The bottom line: Ford and GM Europe my pick of this grouping.

24 September 2010

Your New Car And Its Fuel

The oil powering your car does likewise for the truck, train, ship and aeroplane that brings food and a myriad other goods to you. The problem is it is a limited resource. In 1980, extraction of oil from the earth started to exceed new discoveries, meaning we were confronted with the reality of running out in the foreseeable future.

So then the car industry starting turning to alternative fuels to save this precious commodity. Yeah, right. In fact the industry put the whole thing in the too hard basket, as if by ignoring it, the issue would go away. It didn't, obviously. Now it is estimated we are about to reach a critical point, where demand goes beyond production. That will cause petrol and diesel prices to soar, causing transportation costs to be drastically affected. This could cause great economic upheavals. Now the car industry is frantically seeking other ways to power our cars. They cannot find anything to match what petroleum yields.

I bought a new car five years ago. It is small and relatively efficient. I could buy a new car but I thought by now I would be looking at something to deliver much more than my car's 39mpg (US) or 47mpg (UK) or 6L per 100km. I could only buy about the same as I already have for petrol use. I am planning to wait until I can get a car that is doing something really different from what I have, at a price that is somewhat comparable. I am going to have a long wait.

The bottom line: It is just as well I own a reliable car with plenty left in it.

Girls And Cars

Cars are beautiful and they are certainly all the more appealing with an attractive girl. Below are some examples.

Here is a very nicely dressed, classy model with an exotic car. She really makes the photo don't you think?

Likewise with this model. Sitting on the bonnet and looking most elegant.

This woman obviously enjoys the attention next to a car of this style and class.

Finally, a young woman enjoying the spotlight with a ...Yugo??? Hasn't she noticed what she is sitting on? I guess she is doing what she is paid to do. However, even she cannot make this car look good.

The bottom line: If someone thought a beautiful model can make any car look good needs to realise that the impossible is just that..

17 September 2010

Lexus CT200H (Hybrid)

Toyota are undisputed leaders of the hybrid scene. The Prius has sold well for them and Lexus already has the RX SUV, the GS and LS cars. Now it will have the car pictured above as its new hybrid for imminent release. Lexus needs more models if it is to compete with its German rivals who take to new models and segments like the proverbial duck to water. For that reason, Lexus is falling behind its Teutonic rivals in sales, so a branching out with another model is just what the doctor ordered. So how good is it?

Many feel it isn't that green, with fuel economy only comparable to modern diesels. Of course, emissions are vastly superior to oil burners. Others say it is not very sporty, which will limit interest to 'tree huggers' and pottering retired folk. Apparently, it accelerates at the rate of a Prius, which says it all really. As for its appearance, I think it is very average. If it had for example, a Hyundai logo on it, I wouldn't have battered an eyelid.

For all of the above reasons, I expect what could have been a strong spike in Lexus sales, may in fact turn out to be only a modest improvement in forecourt activity.

The bottom line: Lexus rivals will sleep well.

15 September 2010

Honda Production:2009

According to OICA, Honda's production of cars/LCVs fell from 3.9m to 3.0m, or from 5.9% of world production to 4.5%. That's nearly 1 million units less in one year! Sales continue to fall in many markets for 2010 as well. Honda certainly hasn't chased market share because it hurts profit and can affect resale value of the product. Honda make good, if sometimes conservative cars, therefore they often appeal to an older demographic of customer because of that. The hatchback pictured was designed to break that perception.
So production figures for main countries, starting with '08 production and % of total Honda, followed by same for '09:

Country 2008 Share 2009 Share
Japan 1,256,000 32.3% 840,000 27.9%
USA 990,000 25.2% 725,000 24.0%
China 475,000 12.1% 600,000 20.0%
Canada 385,000 9.8% 260,000 8.6%
Brazil 133,000 3.4% 135,000 4.5%
Thailand 160,000 4.1% 130,000 4.3%
UK 230,000 5.9% 76,000 2.5%
India 53,000 1.4% 61,000 2.0%

The UK had a massive fall but is picking up in 2010. Western factories generally were hit the hardest as the recession bit. Out of all this, Honda will be smaller but still profitable. It doesn't have any alliances so development costs have to be met by the Honda and Acura brands.

To me, this leaves it possibly vulnerable long term. They have to remain a big enough producer to spread R&D over as many units as possible. Certainly for the time being, they are doing fine, albeit with reduced production for the time being.

The bottom line: Honda is solid in emerging markets, which is very important for future production volumes.

12 September 2010

TVR Sports Cars

In the 1950s, TreVoR Wilkinson started making TVR sports cars (his first name was used to create the name). They made light cars with big engines and developed a cult like following. The company was eventually bought by a Russian man, Nikolai Smolenski and shortly thereafter, the company closed in 2006. There has been much speculation since about its revival and it may now do so in Germany.

As to what went wrong, I think it was a case of too many eggs in one basket, ie the UK market. TVR from 2001 to 2006, averaged only 10% of production for export. As a comparison, in 2008 both Morgan and Caterham exceeded 50% of production exported and Lotus 75%. This was critical for Lotus, whose UK sales fell from 1,300 in 2002 to less than 500 in 2009. I cannot compare sales, but TVR production fell from nearly 1,700 in 1998 to 700 in 2005. It seems the sports car market in the UK was shrinking and TVR was left vulnerable. The fact is, even when things were better, making money out of relatively small runs of sports cars was difficult.

TVR was a fascinating part of UK car making, which collectively is a shadow of its former self. The British have great ideas and made some great cars, but lack of investment and aggressive sales marketing has led to its current position of a few makers in foreign hands. The Germans have shown that making unattractive, sterile cars is very profitable if you invest in R&D and plant, make them well and push hard in marketing.

The bottom line: TVR has gone but their cars must have brought grins to the faces of many an owner.

09 September 2010

Daihatsu In Retreat

Daihatsu is a Japanese brand owned by Toyota that makes small cars and trucks. This makes them very popular in Asia but not so much elsewhere. In fact, outside its home continent Asia, they are either slumping on sales charts or leaving markets altogether. The marque pulled out of Australia a few years ago and it has just exited the UK. Sales in many other markets is in free fall. Why? I can think of four reasons.

Firstly, their range of exclusively small cars limits their appeal in many countries. Second, small cars cost nearly as much to make as big cars and that end of the market is very price conscious. Therefore a range of just small cars isn't going to be very profitable for an importer. Thirdly, they are not dynamically exciting. In Europe especially, this is a deal breaker. Finally, the more realistically priced Yen means they are not the value car they were when Japan kept its currency very much undervalued.

I've owned one from new for some years now and the car I have is very reliable and practical. However, even in New Zealand, sales of Daihatsus have fallen from hundreds per month, to 20-30. That despite their being sold through the country's largest dealer network, Toyota.

Daihatsu may eventually become simply an Asian brand. Parent company Toyota's disinterest in expanding the range of vehicles to suit international taste is surprising and baffling. The Japanese have been good at that in the past but it seems German brands are now setting the pace in plugging every market niche.

The bottom line: A brand that had potential but too narrowly focused to have true international appeal.

05 September 2010

The Gordon Murray T25

Cars will change in the future according to Gordon Murray, designer of the T25. His vision of future personal mobility is the T25. This car is 2.4m long, 1.30m wide and 1.40m high. It sits three with the driver alone at the front and the two rear passengers sitting behind and to each side of the front seat. Either or both of the rear seats can make way for more cargo space if needed.

It weighs 575 kg and has a 660 cc three cylinder engine with a clutchless five speed transmission. It accelerates to 100 kph or 60 mph in 16.2 seconds and the top speed is 90 mph (160 kph). Fuel economy is up to 74 mpg and fuel efficiency of 86 g/km. It is light, strong and easy to assemble. The car is reported to be very quiet inside. The panels are bolt-on self-coloured recycled plastic, making them cheap and easy to replace. The only door opens upward which I see as a problem in most garages and in the rain. Nice idea otherwise.

02 September 2010

Ford Production: 2009

Back in 2005, Ford had just over 9% of the world car/LCV production, but now it is just under 6.5%. That translates in to production falling from 5.7m to 4.25m. US production has gone from 2.9m to 1.35m! The figures come from OICA, so I presume they are kosher. I did notice that Russian Ford production disappeared off the radar on their stats, so they do worry me a little as I know they still make cars there. Ford fell from third to fourth over the year, but they are actually profitable now.
For current production by country:

USA 1,350,000 32.1%
Germany 750,000 17.6%
China 430,000 10.2%
Brazil 325,000 7.7%
Spain 300,000 7.1%
Canada 240,000 5.6%
Mexico 230,000 5.5%
Belgium 184,000 4.3%
Turkey 173,000 4.1%

A fairly healthy spread of production in diverse countries.
Ford has done well in getting out of the red ink, but the target is to grow and prosper. Under its 'One Ford' slogan, it has offloaded all of its European brands and Mercury is out. Just Ford and Lincoln to carry it forward. Working more closely with Ford Europe and making global cars rather than regional ones is Ford's new direction and that is good. It should have been done years ago but at least the right track has now been chosen. Doing it well is the new challenge.

The bottom line: Still plenty of work to do at Ford to maintain long term profitability.