31 October 2010

Honda's Insight Hybrid

Honda has introduced a Prius competitor in the Insight. It looks like a Prius but does not have the same sophistication in hybrid technology. The advantage to that is that the Honda product is much more affordable. In NZ, the Prius is a third more expensive.

So is it worth buying a hybrid car such as the Honda Insight? For me, the jury is still out on that. It certainly is a way forward but in the case of the Insight, the electric motor only assists the petrol one rather than driving it exclusively. Therefore, it is called a mild hybrid. In other words, the move away from petroleum fueled cars is a slow one. In New Zealand where the car has just arrived, the Insight is well priced, not something you could say about any other Honda products in this country. I took it for a test drive and it is a good quality, well executed vehicle. I found that the headrests were set too far forward and were a nuisance. The boot is large but shallow to accommodate batteries underneath. It's not that exciting to drive, so I see it appealing to older people.

The Honda Insight has merit, but is more novelty than substance. It's fuel consumption is comparable to the latest petroleum eco models and therefore this type of car is not the eco warrior it is portrayed by some. Hybrid cars today are seen as at the cutting edge of the eco market, whereas I wonder why they are not already obsolete. Superior technologies should have moved the game on, but are nowhere to be seen.

What it means to me: It's a good effort Honda, but it emphasises how far behind car makers are on the alternative fuel front.

26 October 2010

Sales Figures That Embarrass

There are some sales figures that are embarrassing to certain manufacturers. They won't talk about them for obvious reasons, but I will. All the figures quoted are for the first nine months of 2010.

I'll start with Porsche, a brand recently crowing about sales successes which, considering the ever widening range of vehicles they make, are disappointing. In Denmark, where about 122,000 cars are sold, Porsche managed a measily 14. If that isn't bad enough, in Eire where 83,500 cars have found new homes, only 1 (that's right one) Porsche has. I have to say overpriced cars like this only deserve pitiful sales so full marks the the Danes and Irish for their insightfulness.

Now onto Jaguar - Land Rover. These are selling well around the world but I've found a few blots on the landscape. In Serbia, there have been 30,000 new car sales but not one Jag. There doesn't seem to be an importer in the country and hasn't for some time, if ever. Amazing. In Thailand, 550,000 vehicles have been sold so far this year, but only 17 Land Rovers and 9 Jaguars. Even Lotus has managed 9 sales. Mind you Audi only snared 37 new customers. However, you would have to wonder when JLR will demand answers from its importer, or indeed get a new one.

Finally Renault, a brand that relies mainly on Europe for sales. In New Zealand, 45,500 cars have been sold but only 13 Reggies. In the amittedly very small market of Iceland, of the 2,600 car sales, only 2 Renaults have enticed buyers. Surely they could have done better than that!

So there are markets where certain marques are not selling well or at all. It could be a slack importer, or no real demand for the product. Either way, they won't be publicising it. They leave that to me.

What it means to me: Brand perception varies greatly from market to market.

Belgium's GM Antwerp Plant To Close

When GM decided to reduce capacity in Europe, panic ensued. The German government aggressively acted to ensure it wouldn't be there. UK production is already small and perhaps fearing lost sales in GM Europe's largest market saved Ellesmere Port's plant. Poland seemed safe with lower wages, Spain felt vulnerable but it was Belgium where the axe fell (Astra cars are made there). After spending much of the year trying to find a suitable investor to take its place, GM has announced the plant will close by the end of 2010.

Plant closure is difficult in Europe with politics playing a major part. There is over capacity within Europe but most manufacturers accept this is a better situation than closing factories and the ensuing negativity. GM's dire financial situation meant it was unavoidable.

What it means to me: The Belgian workers have done a good job for GM at Antwerp, but it wasn't enough to save the plant.

21 October 2010

Toyota Retreats In Europe

Toyota has been in aggressive growth mode as it ruthlessly hunted down GM to be world number one. Europe was an area where it was weaker than most, so it set about changing that. Therefore, through the 21st century, it relentlessly gained market share in Europe, and by 2007, reached 5.6% share and nearly 900,000 sales (source ACEA; minus Russia). Since then, it has slipped. For the first nine months of 2010, share was only 4.3% and 450,000 units sold.
Why has this happened? I can think of three reasons:

1) Toyota was chasing sales, but reliability was doing down hill, which led to a drop in this core quality. This has hurt its image.
2) The opposition products are getting more reliable too.
3) European drivers generally like stylish and good handling cars while Toyota continues to make dull ones. As the other brands make ever more interesting cars, Toyota is falling behind.

So buyers look elsewhere. For example Nissan sold 310,000 cars in the Euro zone in 2007 and in nine months of 2010 305,000 and share has risen from 1.9% to 2.9%. Admittedly this came after some poor years for Nissan, but they have done so well due to interesting product such as the Qashqai (Dualis). The new Juke, which is now on the market as of now is following this different and exciting theme.

So Toyota has it all to do if it wishes to start winning back the European buyers it is steadily losing. The Auris (Corolla) hybrid is a start with its green credentials. However, a more exciting range of cars is a must if it ever hopes to succeed in this discerning car buying continent.

What it means to me: Toyota needs to make more exciting cars to conquer Europe or the retreat may well continue.

17 October 2010

Lincoln To Muscle Up

Ford has been remiss in not looking after the Lincoln - Mercury brands particularly well. Mercury is finished but Lincoln will now try to muscle in on other premium brand's sales. The problem Lincoln has it that it is only a slightly more posh Ford, nothing else. It doesn't have the cache of Euro - Japanese marques in that segment, in fact not even compared to GM's Cadillac.

Nevertheless this is the ambitious, and necessary, goal of Ford. In reality, it takes years to build the image to compete successfully in this premium segment. Brand loyalty exists in all areas of the market, but people buying basic cars cannot always afford to be too picky. However, the more you go up, the more image counts and buyers with more money can be choosy, and are. They will pay top dollar to get the marque they want. Lincoln sales are also basically confined to North America so there is much brand awareness to build around the world.

Therefore, Lincoln will start the long journey breaking down preconceived ideas as it tries to shake off it's negative image.

What it means to me: I doubt Ford can pull this one off in the already crowded and highly image conscious premium segment.

14 October 2010

Packhard Cars In Picton, NZ

I was in Picton, Marlborough, NZ, when these and many more cars turned up. I'm not really into vintage cars to own but i like their style. Modern cars are sometimes bland (Asian), other times ugly (German), but rarely have style (Italian, British).

The brand is Packhard and they certainly are eye catching. Well done to the owners.

What it means to me: I wouldn't be bothered with the effort and expense, but good on those who are.

13 October 2010

Who Choses The Car?

If you go to a house and find it not well cleaned, who do you blame? The wife. Then you notice the lawn is very long. Ah, the man is responsible for that. I know it's not fair, after all women can mow lawns too. But seriously, who gets the blame if the family car is dull and to put it bluntly, an uninspired choice? The man of course. He may have as much say as to which car adorns the drive as he would in deciding where, for example, the Marigolds are to be planted. Still, he will be credited with the decision. However, he may have taken the option to buy what suits others, not his preferred drive (such men do exist ladies). I think such a practical choice would be a good one. Why? Well, it is a sensible man who puts the needs of wife and offspring ahead of his own. I applaud that.

Now imagine seeing a sporty car with large racing stripes, pretending to be family transport. This is usually a male petrol head choice, a man that has never lost the urge to play with toys. The kind of man that needs a woman to remind him that a mature decision dictates putting the families' needs ahead of his own wants. If you have more than a one car family, then of course, personal choice comes into play. Otherwise, you buy what is required. That is the grown up, mature way.

What it means to me: A car is first and foremost transport.

10 October 2010

Cars And Councils

In the UK, whenever a council buys a new car for the Mayor, a section of the community insist it must be a green Prius or a low cost car to reflect fiscal responsibility.

BBC Leicester recently reported that a union criticised Leicestershire County Council for leasing a new Jaguar despite needing to make cuts of £94m. The council is apparently leasing a diesel Jaguar for £13,000 a year to transport the chairman to civic events.
On the one side, Josie Nicholls from Unison, said it was disgraceful at a time when the council was having to make job cuts. Ms Nicholls said: "It's arrogance. It's saying 'we're more important' than home carers who are looking after vulnerable people or teaching assistants, who are low-paid and don't need a 'Jag' to do their work. In this period, it's wrong having vehicles such as this when people are losing their jobs."
The other point of view is from Nick Rushton, deputy leader of the council, who said it was essential to have a prestigious car for civic events. The article noted the council was 'Conservative-run'. Mr Rushton said the car replaced a petrol Jaguar and would save £11,000 a year on fuel. He said: "We've always had a car for civic and official engagements. A diesel Jaguar is not meant to be super posh. We do need a civic car for the head of the civic services for the county council. I'm proud that the head of our civic duties is conveyed around in a car that carries prestige."

So should those who attend civic functions turn up in a nice car, or an everyday hack? Will a nice car mean that carers for the aged and teaching assistance be thrown out of a job because of it? Clearly, wasting money that could be better spent is bad. All the same, someone with an important post undermines their position if they turn up in a Skoda. That is why company CEOs drive prestige cars. It does make a perceptional difference whether we like it or not. Buying a cheaper car wouldn't actually save much at all.

What it means to me: While I'm all for restraint when spending public money, purchasing a good car may be necessary when image is important.

The MINI Countryman

The new MINI Countryman is a big car, considering it's called a MINI. The length is 4.1m and the width 1.8m. I am surprised 4wd is an option for it. All the other Minis ever built were all good looking, this is the ugly sibling but the most practical ever. It will be more popular than the better looking but poorly conceived Clubman.

As for the original Mini, a Dr Alex Moulton was responsible for the rubber suspension system which made it possible for the car to be one of the smallest ever built, whilst maximising interior space usage. His opinion of the direction the MINI has gone is: "The Mini brand has long since been disassociated from the product and is just a reflection of styling features. I am greatly disappointed that this precious thing we created has become a mere styling feature, simply a badge". He also felt the dimensions were not compact enough and they were now too high (the Countryman is 1.6m in height). There is now too much power - original performance emphasised good handling. He also wished making it more sustainable and should be made in the UK (Countryman is made in Austria).

Many feel the Countryman is not the way forward for the once little car. The direction BMW has gone with the MINI will ultimately be decided in car showrooms. If they sell well, who can argue with what was done? There are many others entering the premium small car segment to cash in on the success the MINI has so far achieved. The MINI must be kept interesting and stay ahead of the competition.

What it means to me: Another winner on the way for MINI.

04 October 2010

My Opinion Of BMW

When I lived in Auckland NZ, a fellow worker observed that when other motorists drove in a way that lacked consideration, they were usually behind a wheel of a BMW. I took note and, yes there was something to this, a sort of elitist mentality. So what is my opinion of the company that attracts this kind of motorists?

1) Years ago, when BMW bought a profitable Rover Group, it soon turned it into a massive loss maker. Rather than admit it handled the whole thing badly, it instead mockingly called Rover the English Patient.

2) BMW regularly releases glowing articles to the press of ever increasing sales.
3) BMW keeps publicising targets of reaching ever more vehicle sales and being the world's largest selling premium brand.
4) Now with a car breaking issue, a BMW spokesman said the problem wasn't relevant to safety; in extreme cases, the driver would need to use more force in braking.

What can we learn from this:

1) To take a profitable brand and make it unprofitable so quickly and not acknowledging any blame is arrogant. I cannot read it any other way.
2) BMW's sales increases are achieved with a policy of an ever expanding range of vehicles. Anyone could do that.
3) BMW's obsession with increasing sales misses the point. In the long term, you achieve success by making desirable and reliable cars.
4) Having to break harder to stop in an emergency situation is very serious.

Charlie Vogelheim, executive editor of auto buying website IntelliChoice said "Any company that chooses a sales number as its primary and most publicly stated objective is wiring its organization for something that doesn't necessarily have to do with its reputation, quality, or engineering, which are the things that, in BMW's case, are the things that have made it successful,"

BMW sums up what I dislike about the wasteful world we live in, that of status and excess. The X6 model is all about those qualities and nothing else. That is why my work colleagues noticed a difference with BMW owners.

What it means to me: I have a poor opinion of BMW and the ethos that drives it.

PS. In case my opinion of BMW drivers seems incorrect, on 13th Oct 2010, Autoblog UK reported that in the UK, BMW drivers "were named the nation's angriest motorists yesterday by a poll of road users". So I'm not the only one then.

02 October 2010

The Jaguar C-X75 Concept

Jaguar has released this concept at the Paris Motor Show 2010. OK, so it's a nice looking sports car in a world awash with them. Oh, but this is good-looking and so much more. The C-X75 has a top speed of 205mph (330 kph), making it the fastest ever electric road car. It can also travel for 560 miles (900 kms) without needing to be recharged because of a gas turbine system.

The gas turbine technology from Bladon Jets, which is based in Shropshire, UK, recharge the battery beyond its basic range and provides extra power to the four electric motors driving the wheels. Of course, the gas turbines on the car need to be refueled, meaning the car essentially uses hybrid technology. However, it is classed as an electric car because it is driven by an electric and not a petrol engine.

The turbine engine is lighter weight, less polluting and lower cost than a reciprocating engine. Besides this, it will run on just about any type of fuel, including LPG and bio-fuels, so is not dependent on dwindling oil reserves. Unlike hydrogen where distribution is virtually non-existent, fuels for gas turbine engines use existing distribution infrastructures.

Because the C-X75 is only a concept car, it is not yet clear when or if Jaguar will release the car on general sale. The company’s directors plan to analyse the cars reception by critics and the public before making a decision. This has to be a no brainer. What a car, what technology.

What it means to me: Forget the reception, I can tell you now it will sell so just build it.