American car market undergoing substantial changes

Excellent article by Hilton Holloway from Autocar on the changes happening to the US vehicle market:

“Many new cars are sold to buyers at barely above their cost to the dealer, he said. Unless the dealership also has an active used car operation, new car sales are often not enough to pay the bills.

One big fear is the extent to which US car buyers have moved into leasing cars (much like the UK) since the Credit Crunch. Around 31% of new cars are sold as monthly leases and the cheap deals of recent times are running out. 

The extent to which drivers who have borrowed themselves into significant debt, finding they owe $20,000 on a car they want to dispose of but which has a $10,000 trade-in value, is also a big concern for the industry, because people with negative equity can’t and won’t go out and buy a new car.

And it’s not just disappearing consumers who could undermine the carmakers – massive market shifts are catching them out as well. GM’s recent decision to close three plants and kill 14,000 jobs was mostly a consequence of the collapse in US road car sales as the market swings decisively to crossovers and pick-up trucks. “

It sounds like a combination of factors, from alternative ways to own cars (such as leasing and subscription services), to a shift in demand to SUVs and utes, have combined to create a hurricane that is disrupting the traditional process of outright purchasing a new car through a dealership. Watch this space.

Ssangyong to return to the Australian market in 2019

Scott Collie, writing for CarAdvice

“The headline inclusion will be an all-new Korando, set for reveal at the Geneva motor show in March. Production is set to start in July, with the first cars touching down in Australia early in the third quarter. August is likely at this point.

Ellis wouldn't be drawn on how many Ssangyong wants to sell, or indeed what the sales split will be going forward, but we know the company is chasing between 3000 and 3500 annual sales across its entire range.

Ssangyong is in the midst of its re-launch in Australia. It was backed by an importer last time it ventured into Australia, this time around it's a fully factory-backed operation – the first outside of Korea.”

This appears to be a more serious attempt by the Mahindra backed Korean company to gain a foothold in the Australian market, perhaps highlighted by the fact that Ssangyong will follow its compatriots Kia and Hyundai in selling its cars here with a unique Australian suspension tune. What’s interesting about this is that vehicles with the Australian tune will apparently be sold 3 months after the brand’s initial launch. Personally, if I was the head of Ssangyong in Australia, I’d refrain from selling vehicles until all Australian delivered cars had a localised suspension tune. What happens to the resale value of those initial vehicles delivered in the first few months? If I was a buyer looking for a used Ssangyong, I would hate having to tediously check build and compliance dates to ensure I was purchasing a vehicle with the Australian suspension tune. 

More fundamentally, I think the only way Ssangyong will succeed here is on the basis of low prices compared to Hyundai, Kia and other ‘mainstream’ brands. Whilst the design of the current range is a lot more attractive than vomit-inducing horrors such as the Stavic (Rodius) and Actyon, they are no more appealing than other cars in the same class. Compared apples-to-apples, every Kia and Hyundai sold here has greater brand recognition and is simply a better car than its Ssangyong competitor. Consequently, the company should focus in the short term on offering a value packed offering that can compete directly with Haval and other budget brands sold here.

Above left to right: The Rexton, Musso and Tivoli, which along with the yet to be revealed new Korando, will make up the Ssangyong range in Australia.

India: Yatri Deluxe electric auto-rickshaw

I’m currently on a trip to India, and was lucky enough to sit in an electric auto-rickshaw for the first time. Suffice to say, the experience was a step up over the typical CNG (natural gas) powered rickshaws, with the most significant benefits being the quietness of the electric motor and the lack of smoke. A range of 70km is sufficient for the urban travel that auto-rickshaws typically undertake, and I’m hoping that these vehicles become more popular in India over the coming year.

Below are some photos I took of the Yatri Deluxe:

Nissan and Mitsubishi to fire chairman Carlos Ghosn

Hans Greimel, writing for Automotive News:

‘Ghosn, 64, allegedly under-reported his income in official stock market filings. He diverted corporate investment funds for personal use. And he misused company expenses, Saikawa said. Ghosn was taken into custody earlier in the day after arriving at a Tokyo airport and charged with similar violations of Japan’s financial laws, local media reported.

It was bombshell development for one of the industry’s most storied executives and a man who created its biggest automotive partnership, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Ghosn oversees them all as chairman of the alliance, while individually chairing all three carmakers and concurrently serving as CEO of French partner Renault.’

This is shocking. Alongside the late Sergio Marchionne, Ghosn is one of the most influential and famous executives in the automotive industry, and widely credited with turning around the fortunes of Nissan and for forming the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. It will be fascinating to see the consequences of these revelations unfold and their impact on the Alliance, given the substantial amount of power Ghosn held over the three companies.

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Above: Brands of the Alliance. From left to right, they are Renault, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Dacia, Renault-Samsung, Lada, Alpine, Infiniti, Venucia and Datsun.

Guangzhou Motor Show highlights

Mark Tisshaw from Autocar has a fascinating look at some of the wacky concepts and curiously interesting production models on show at this year’s Guangzhou Motor Show. Whilst models such as the BAIC BJ80 are clear rip-offs (the Mercedes-Benz G-Class in this case), other cars such as the GAC Aion and the Wey P8 GT offer differentiated styling that demonstrates the domestic Chinese automotive industry is maturing.       

British Vauxhall factories at risk of closure under PSA

Jim Holder, writing for Autocar:

“If a plant closure is the favoured option, it is likely the axe will be brought down on Ellesmere Port. PSA has already highlighted deficiencies at the Cheshire facility, while Vauxhall's Luton factory had its fate secured for ten years back in April due to demand for capacity to build the Vivaro van. 

Previously, PSA Group CEO Carlos Tavarez stated that the Ellesmere Port plant must close the cost and quality gap between it and its European equivalents if it's to survive.”

This news continues as a flow-on effect following Groupe PSA’s 2017 acquisition of Opel and Vauxhall. The Ellesmere Port factory solely builds the Vauxhall Astra in right hand drive (RHD) for the UK, a car which for Australia, is built at PSA’s factory in Poland. Ultimately, the closure of this factory would not be unexpected - it’s already surprising that an identical model needs to be built in two separate locations despite only the UK and Australia being key markets for the RHD Astra. Surely savings would be realised by shifting production of UK models to the same Polish factory where Australian vehicles are currently sourced from.

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Above: Vauxhall Astra, sold in Australia as the Holden Astra

Mazda design - from Nagare to Kodo

Excellent essay by Karl Smith from Car Design News on the transition from Mazda’s ‘Nagare’ design language to the contemporary ‘Kodo’:

“The Nagare language, first introduced in 2006, was developed by Franz von Holzhausen and Laurens van der Acker. It featured streamlined forms with lots of lines and textures. 

A casual glance at the Shinari suggests an evolution of Nagare, rather than a totally new expression. The natural curves and organic surfacing are still there, just more subtle and refined.

It might be interpreted as more mature, more developed from the earlier, expressive Nagare forms – but Kodo is built on a different aesthetic and philosophical foundation to Nagare. Both emphasise natural curves and tension, but Kodo works towards simplicity and the power of surfacing rather than dramatic windswept forms, layered lines, and details.”

Nagare

Above left to right: The namesake Nagare, followed by the Hakaze, Ryuga, Taiki, Furai, Kazamai and Kiyora concepts

As highlighted in Smith’s essay, the Nagare language melded streamlined shapes with flowing character lines to create an organic, almost ‘born from nature’ character. This is perhaps best highlighted in the Furai racing concept, whose headlamps and front grille mimic leaves within a set of flowing tree branches, and the Kiyora concept, whose colour and flowing door textures are inspired by water.

Kodo

Above left to right: The Shinari, RX-Vision, Vision Coupe and Kai concepts

In contrast to the Nagare language, Kodo marks a clear shift away from textures and character lines to a greater focus on proportion that is allowed to show itself through simple, elegant surfacing. This is perhaps best evidenced in the stunning 2017 Vision Coupe concept, where the cab-rearward proportions are accentuated by a solitary, sword-like bone line flowing across the side profile.

Lexus UX: Australian pricing and specifications revealed

Lexus has announced pricing and specifications of the all-new UX crossover prior to its launch in the Australian market later this month. Let’s have a look at how the UX compares to its key rivals:

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It’s clear from the above table that the Audi Q2, rather than the Lexus, offers the best price/performance ratio, with the cheapest price but also the best fuel consumption and second fastest acceleration.

Moreover, whilst the design of the vehicle includes on-trend elements such as a full-width rear light bar, I find the overall design of the car to be distasteful. This is especially the case with the side profile, with excessive creasing and character lines that fail to create any cohesion, and an awkwardly proportioned, excessively wide C-pillar.

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Car and Driver test of AEB systems

American automotive magazine Car and Driver recently undertook a series of comprehensive tests of Autonomous Energy Braking (AEB) systems, involving the Subaru Impreza, Toyota Camry, Tesla Model S and the Cadillac CT6. Four types of tests were undertaken:

  • Closing in on a stationary car

  • Target switching to a stationary car

  • Maximum deceleration

  • Approaching a slower moving vehicle

The article is excellent and definitely worth reading in its entirely. The key takeaway I found was that despite AEB systems ostensibly claiming to achieve the same goal of preventing, or at the very least mitigating the impact of a collision with another vehicle, the performance of such systems varies substantially and is often not dependent on the class or price of the vehicle. For example, the Subaru Impreza’s EyeSight stereo camera system outperformed the other vehicles on test despite being the cheapest to buy.

In the U.S. at least, another takeaway is the state of legislation in relation to AEB systems. The NHTSA (National Highway Transport Safety Administration, effectively America’s equivalent to ANCAP) has a very basic requirement in order to satisfy its AEB test which most vehicles today can easily meet. These requirements should proactively become tougher, to further compel manufacturers to invest more in AEB systems and additional capabilities such as pedestrian and cyclist detection.

Follow-up: VW to seek partnerships rather than use Audi to develop electric and autonomous vehicles

Edward Taylor and Jan Schwartz, reporting for Reuters (from Automotive News Europe):

“Volkswagen…will explore potential alliances with Ford and others to develop autonomous and electric vehicles. If approved by the board, it would signal a major departure from VW's standalone efforts to build them and diminish Audi's importance as an engineering hub.

The strategy could also deepen existing cooperation with Ford. This could include Ford supplying a pickup platform and some engines to VW, one of the sources said. VW could also buy a stake in Ford's autonomous cars program and give Ford access to its MEB electric cars platform, they said.

Audi has been developing autonomous technology for VW, Audi and Porsche. It built the A8, a car with advanced self-driving features, but its efforts for a fully autonomous car have fallen behind rival companies such as Alphabet's Waymo.

"We want to have access to a self-driving system and we are speaking with relevant players. It is very expensive to develop and others are already well advanced," Chief Financial Officer Frank Witter said in a phone call with reporters on Tuesday.

This ultimately isn’t surprising, and affirms my comments regarding yesterday’s article. Today, the automotive industry is fragmented, and consists of a number of key players, ranging from both traditional automotive manufacturers to those entering with a Silicon Valley mindset. As a result, there is little logic in every company going in-house, and at great expense, to develop technology that fundamentally aims to achieve the same end goal - a fully autonomous, electric vehicle. In this regard, recently departed Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s comments are prescient:

“Auto companies need to quickly separate the stuff that will be swallowed by commodity from the brand stuff”

In this regard, what matters more is the integration and execution of electric vehicle and autonomous driving technologies, with design and usability into a seamless whole - it is this that will differentiate successful automakers from those that are not. When everyone has access to the same fundamental technologies, it is that final, extra layer of polish that will separate the wheat from the chaff, and an average car from one that is great. Of course, whether that extra polish can be achieved through refinement of available, off-the shelf technologies, or only through an in-house, end-to-end development and ownership of the technology stack within a car, remains to be seen.

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Above: The VW brand portfolio. Note that VW Commercial Vehicles is considered to be separate to the ‘main’ VW passenger car brand despite often sharing dealerships and sales channels

Ford and VW reportedly discuss collaborating on autonomous and electric vehicles

Edward Taylor and Ben Klayman, reporting for Reuters:

Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Co are in “exploratory talks” to jointly develop self-driving and electric vehicles in a far-reaching strategic alliance meant to save the companies billions of dollars, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Our (memorandum of understanding) with VW covers conversations about potential collaborations across a number of areas. It is premature to share additional details at this time,” Ford spokesman Alan Hall said in an email.

Volkswagen Chief Financial Officer Frank Witter on Tuesday said the carmaker was open to deeper alliances with outside companies, particularly in the area of autonomous driving. 

Witter said sharing the carmaker’s electric cars platform MEB with Ford was theoretically possible, although VW is currently focused on rolling out the electric vehicle technologies among its own brands.

Such a collaboration between the two companies wouldn’t be surprising, and would in all likelihood be beneficial for both parties. From a Volkswagen perspective, the VW brand in particular is weak in North America, especially in light of the damage caused by the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal. Thus, a collaboration could provide access to Ford’s American factories and other resources such as the company’s marketing expertise and dealership network, potentially increasing the presence and sales footprint of the VW brand. From a Ford perspective, the company gains access to VW’s MEB electric vehicle platform and the expertise associated with it; which, in light of the company ceasing sales of passenger vehicles in the U.S. market, could be very beneficial indeed. Indeed, given both companies respective strengths, future Ford electric commercial vehicles built and geared towards the US market, but developed using VW technology, could have strong prospects of success for both companies. Moreover, although Ford recently invested in Argo AI, a self-driving startup, and created a separate division to lead its autonomous vehicle development, neither brand has the same level of expertise in autonomous vehicles that Waymo, Tesla or GM (with its Super Cruise technology) does. As a result, collaborating in this area may help both brands catch-up more quickly to the current industry leaders.

Above: VW’s electric MEB platform, and Ford’s F-150, the best selling vehicle in the U.S. market

Faraday Future co-founder resigns, confirms company is insolvent

Sean O’Kane (The Verge), quoting from co-founder Nick Sampson’s resignation letter:

The company is effectively insolvent in both its financial and personnel assets, it will at best will [sic] limp along for the foreseeable future. I feel that my role in Faraday Future is no long [sic] a path that I can follow, so I will leave the company, effective immediately,” 

Unless a knight in shining armour investor comes along, Faraday Future’s viability as an automotive manufacturer has come to an end. The death knell has stopped sounding, and now its time for the funeral to occur. There may still be an option for the company to transition to a ride-sharing service or rental car company, but I’ll be very shocked if its FF91 concept is ever mass-produced. Ultimately, this isn’t surprising for a company that generated hype from nonsensical buzzwords, that was dependent on a single large investor and ultimately didn’t even own the intellectual property used to develop the FF91.

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Above: An image of the concept FF91, the most significant piece of vapourware in the automotive industry this century.


Ad Standards ironically bans VW 'too powerful for TV' ad

Abigail Dawson, writing for Mumbrella:

Volkswagen’s “too powerful for TV” ad, which aims to show the power of the Amarok V6 without breaking any advertising codes of conduct, has been deemed as “unsafe” by Ad Standards for depicting “driving which is reckless and would breach road rules”.

Despite particular scenes in the ad being intercepted with a director who demonstrates scenes he would like to film using miniature models, rendering and storyboards, Ad Standards said the ad still depicted a “realistic image of a vehicle in a regional area overtaking a road train”.

How ironic.

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Apple CarPlay, Android Auto available for Mazda vehicles in Australia

From the Mazda press release:

“Reinforcing its commitment to tech integration that enhances the journey of both driver and passenger, Mazda is the first in Australia to announce the introduction of Apple® CarPlay™ and Android Auto™ upgrade kits, available as of tomorrow to existing customers. 

All Mazda customers with a model with the MZD Connect infotainment system, first introduced to the Australian market in early 2014, will be able to purchase the smartphone mirroring upgrade kit for $494.98 (recommended fitted price).”

Finally.

Although Mazda is late to the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto party, it should be applauded for how it’s implementing the software. Making the upgrade available for all MZD Connect equipped vehicles sold to date (of which there are very many on Aussie roads) is a great move. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant proportion of upgrades are from owners of older Mazda 3 vehicles dating all the way back to 2014. Whilst $500 isn’t peanuts, it’s a fair price to pay for the latest and greatest infotainment software available, and the cost could very likely be recouped through an increase in resale value. I can fathom younger people in particular paying the slight extra for a used Apple CarPlay/Android Auto equipped Mazda over one that isn’t, or choosing exclusively from vehicles with the software installed.

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2018 Shannons Sydney Spring Classic Auction

There are some really interesting vehicles going up for auction next Monday at Shannons. Here are my picks:

  • 1963 Fiat 2300 Ghia Coupé: I especially like the wraparound design of the rear windscreen, with the curved glass C-pillars and a bone line that extends from the side around the tail creating a unique, elegant look for a vehicle of this vintage.

  • 1953 Porsche 356 ‘Pre A’ Coupé: The 356 was the first mass produced Porsche, and the ‘Pre-A’ models were the first of the first of these. The fact that this car was the progenitor for a legendary brand is enough for it to make the list.

  • 1971 Ford Falcon XY GT-HO Phase III Sedan: An Australian legend, the acronym ‘GT-HO’ stood for ‘Grand Touring-High Output’, and true to its word, this car held the record for the fastest four-door sedan in the world. Its reputation was confirmed by winning the 500 mile Bathurst endurance race in 1971.

X marks the spot: Toyota Corolla design

Toyota recently unveiled the all-new 12th generation Corolla. Let’s go through its design and see why it’s a clear step up over its predecessor.

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The design of the new Corolla is in line with CEO Akio Toyoda’s vision for Toyota vehicles to be less bland and more characterful. Indeed, Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s American Calty design studio, confirmed that the company wants to progress with more emotional designs and move on from a widely held perception that it makes inoffensive whitegoods on wheels.

The face

Above top: The superseded Corolla, known in Europe as the Auris

Compared to its predecessor, the new Corolla presents an aggressive face that is a stark departure from its predecessors. The two key elements here are the hidden bumper and the headlamps. The front bumper has cleverly been painted black and is camouflaged behind mesh, creating the illusion of a large, gaping grille. Together with the slim, downwards angled headlamps, this creates an aggressive ‘X’ design across the front of the car, in line with other recent Toyota models and helping to develop a family design language.

Above left to right: The new Corolla, Aygo, Yaris, C-HR and Camry. These models all use an aggressive front design incorporating an ‘X’ graphic to develop a shared family resemblance.

The sides and rear: more balanced proportions

The 12th generation Corolla continues its predecessor’s cab-forward design, with a minimal dash-to-axle ratio and the base of the A-pillar positioned almost on top of the front axle.

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The key improvement, however, is in the treatment of the side profile. The older model implemented a single crease which acted as a half-hearted attempt to break up an otherwise slab-sided design. In contrast, the latest Corolla implements a curved secondary character line that flows from the front of the rear door handle, across the C-pillar and into the tailgate. This crease has the effect of accentuating the rear haunches, and together with the more steeply raked rear windscreen, helps develop the sense that the new Corolla has a more protruding, substantial rear end. When taken into consideration with the rest of the side profile as a whole, this develops an illusion that visually elongates the car and helps balance the otherwise cab-forward design.

Above left to right: Corolla, 2018 Renault Megane RS, 2014 Renault Megane Coupé

The tail of the new Corolla is in harmony with the front of the car. Angled character lines that extend from the rear bumper reflectors into the tailgate, together with the blade like tail-lamps and curved rear windscreen work together to develop an ‘X’ graphic that mirrors the front of the vehicle.

Of note is the inspiration Toyota has derived from the Renault Megane for the design of the tailgate. In some respects, the new Corolla is an amalgamation of both 2014 Megane Coupé and the 2016 Megane. The steeply raked, curved windscreen has a clear lineage to the Megane Coupé, whilst the slim tail-lamps extend far into the tailgate to serve a secondary function that visually widens the car, in a fashion similar to the 2016 Megane hatch.

Conclusion

The new 12th generation Corolla successfully achieves its objective of presenting a more aggressive, characterful design, in line with the vision outlined by CEO Akio Toyota. The use of an ‘X’ graphic across both the front and rear, together with a more balanced side profile incorporating character lines to emphasise the rear haunches and tail, creates a very cohesive design. With the right combination of trim and colour, the new Corolla is a desirable and compelling option in its segment.