The most interesting automotive stories of 2012

2012 is nearly over and I thought I’d give some time to what, for me, were the most eye-opening automotive stories for the year.

Here they are……

The rise of Kia

I haven’t looked at the numbers, but is there a company out there with bigger growth in terms of public perception than Kia? They stole Audi’s lead designer a few years ago and the results have been breathtaking in terms of the “before and after” makeover photos.

Kias are becoming genuinely fashionable in more than a few market segments now. Their new design ethos, combined with very aggressive warranty positioning and on-target advertising has seen Kia jump up the sales charts in many countries. It’s a similar story to that of their sister company, Hyundai, a few years ago.

Kia haven’t made a car that I, personally, find interesting yet. Hyundai managed that one earlier this year (see below), but there’s little doubt that they’re attracting interest from a lot of customers.

They’ve got the punters in the door. They’ve even got a lot of them to buy. Are the cars actually good enough over the long term for that growth to continue? Time will tell, but if the rise of sister-company, Hyundai, over the last 5 years is anything to go by then you wouldn’t bet against them.

The sale of Saab

This story is barely on the automotive radar in most places, but of course it’s one of the bigger stories of this year for me (and I’m sure for many of you, too).

The Saab name will live on and cars will roll off the line in Trollhattan once more. At face value, I’m pleased about that. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Can NEVS develop a Saab that people want to buy and can they develop an automotive narrative that Saab fans will identify with? Does that even matter?

So many questions remain and I remain concerned. NEVS hope to hire people again in the middle third of 2013 prior to building ICE powered 9-3s once again. That car will tell us a lot, I think.

The resurrection of Toyota

It’s been a rough couple of years for the juggernaut-formerly-known-as-Toyota but all indications are that they’re coming back – in a big way.

Right – the Toyobaru twins

They have an expanded and improved Prius range. An expanded and improved Hybrid range. And then there’s the launch of the 86 that was so close to perfect it’s not funny. After two years of bad headlines and recalls, it would have to be a massive relief for the people at Toyota to talk about cars once again.

And they’ve got plenty to talk about, too. The 86 is sweeping awards around the world right now. It just won a major COTY award here in Australia and will pick up more as the calendar turns over, I’m sure.

GM and Volkswagen are currently duking it out for #1 global sales status. Expect a three-way fight in the near future as Toyota begins to grow once again. They would have lost a few customers since that unintended acceleration fiasco but they built a deep base on years and years of reliable products. Those people will be back if Toyota get smooth water and clean air in the next 12 months.

That’s not exciting, by the way. Nothing about Toyota – with the possible exception of the 86 – is exciting. But it’s a big story nonetheless.

The mystery surrounding Joel Ewanick

There’s been a fair bit of interest in GM’s path under CEO Dan Akerson. Let’s just say he’s not every car guy’s favourite executive. Personally speaking, I’d rather not write about GM. I think watching them is still a bit like ogling a car crash – it’s predictably ugly, but you can’t look away.

The case of Joel Ewanick – GM’s former global marketing chief – is a fascinating one. It’s rumoured his first offence was to use a paltry few thousand dollars (from a five figure allowance) to freshen up his new Ren-Cen office with furniture from Ikea. Stuff like that makes it harder for the next guy to justify his largesse, I’m sure.

More relevant, however, is the way he left the company just two years after his hand-picked appointment.

Ewanick did what many thought he needed to do – he shook things up at GM Marketing. He ditched Facebook advertising, contending it was a waste of money (for a car manufacturer, I agree). He planned to ditch the company’s Superbowl advertising, saying that it was too expensive and that GM had had better results and greater engagement from an internet viral campaign run during the same period. He shook up GM’s relationships with advertising agencies, replacing several of them and thereby denting what were very comfy long term relationships. The final straw was said to be a decision for Chevrolet to sponsor Manchester United, one that he perhaps took a little too quickly and without full consultation.

Ewanick was gone before the fruits of his decisions could ripen. We might never really know whether those decisions were the right ones. A cynical man might say he simply made life too hard for the people above him. That he created too much heat. His successful record at Hyundai (pre-GM) and being sacked by an automotive outsider CEO got tongues wagging, though. It’d be fascinating to know the real story and how it relates to attitudes governing GM right now.

Europe’s recession double-dip

EuroRecessionWhen he bought Saab back in early 2010, Victor Muller warned that the single biggest fear he held was for a W-shaped recession in Europe. A double-dip. As it happened, there were things more immediate to be concerned with, like paying the bills, but he was right. A double-dip recession most likely would have killed Saab even if we hadn’t have had trouble paying everyone else.

Europe’s car industry is reeling right now as sales continue to decline. Peugeot is shedding 9,500 jobs through plant closures, plant shrinkage and natural attrition. Opel, in more poop than a sewerage farm duck already, recently announced the closure of its Bochum plant. Renault just sold its stake in Volvo trucks to raise much-needed cash. European car sales are forecast to fall to 19 year lows in 2012, down 10% last month and nearly 8% for the year so far. Italy’s Prime Minister told Fiat to rely more on Chrysler after Sergio Marchionne hinted at some French-style assistance for the Italian industry. And of course, Sergio and the guys from VW are having a massive bunfight over what Marchionne alleges are discounting tactics on the part of VW deliberately designed to bolster market share as a platform for future growth when things get better (a tactic that I’m sure the VW bosses are sleeping very soundly over, as would Marchionne if he could afford to do it).

Europe is still reeling from the economic troubles in Greece, Spain and elsewhere and it’s going to be a long road to recovery. The capital intensive automotive industry is reeling with it. I’m not sure we’ll see any of the companies take a fatal blow, but there’ll be some crippled companies when this is all said and done.

Tesla Model S

WebsiteTesla are THE trailblazing electric car company – have no doubts about it. If the electric train gets running in earnest and we’re all zipping around emissions-“free” in 20 years from now, Elon Musk’s company will be the one with the biggest chapter in the history book.

Tesla was initially written off as vaporware. When their Roadster cars first arrived, they were sold at high prices but still accrued massive losses and the critics continued to wonder how they could survive.

Well, survive they did. Earlier this year they released their Model S sedan and Elon Musk recently reported that Tesla just had its first cashflow positive weeks of business activity since the company was established nearly 10 years ago. The Model S has been positively received, too, with Motor Trend’s 2012 Car Of The Year coming its way along with thousands of back-orders to fill. Tesla also just announced a new European distribution centre for parts and cars, in Holland.

Tesla is still struggling. A few positive weeks in terms of cashflow doesn’t reduce the daunting nature of the industry or the task ahead.

But a successful launch of the Model S remains significant. Perhaps it’s only the history books in 20 years from now that will tell us just how significant it really is.

——

And on a personal note….

Hyundai finally built an interesting car

I might have written that headline a few years ago if we had that Genesis Coupe here in Australia, but we don’t. For me, Hyundai’s first interesting car is the Veloster Turbo.

I love the quirky 3-door design – one door on the driver’s side and two doors on the passenger side. What I love even more is that Hyundai has had the courage to produce this for both left and right hand drive markets. The costs in doing so must be staggering.

The addition of a turbocharged engine finally is said to finally allow the Veloster to drive in a manner that befits its funky design.

It’s the first Hyundai to get me wanting a stint behind the wheel, and that’s something.

You may also like

14 Comments

  1. Of course the recession in Europe has an effect, but the cost of fuel and the general rising cost of car ownership, excepting the purchase price which is cheaper than Australia, has led people to become less car focussed. I believe in the last few years annual mileage travelled has actually fallen in the UK. No doubt because of all of the above factors. When I reached 17 it was a priority and a right of passage to get a driver’s licence and then as soon as possible a car. These days, many people that I know in that demographic are not bothering to learn to drive until into their early twenties and few are ‘car tragics’ in the way that my peers and I were.

  2. I have to admit Kia/Kyundai are making some good cars now, but their past, i.e., their road to financial success, leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I will never own one. For example, their first cars were well known to be deathtraps. A police officer I knew said whenever they got a call for an accident involving one, they new it would be bad. I think even today, their only interest in safety is the advertising value of an IIHS award. Before the IIHS started roof strength tests, they did a preliminary test on a number of vehicles, and only the Hyundai Tuscon flunked, miserably. But now, of course, they all pass with flying colors.

    But, on a more positive side: Go Tesla! And of course, go NEVS/SAAB!

  3. Maybe, after all, the bancruptcy of Saab will give them a chance to survive this double dip recession, their workers (according to a TV report a couple of days ago, two thirds are still unemployed) being payed by the Swedish state, even though badly of course, while they take a hiatus from which, hopefully, they will re-emerge with some interresting products.

    You did not mentions the soft killing of Lancia and Alfa that took place this year, with yet aanother strategy change anounced by Sergio.

    1. How do you mean? Are Lancia and Alfa killed already? I thougt they were still alive, barely. Lancia by means of Chrysler and Alfa still waiting for a new 156.
      Or was that perhaps what you meant?

      The italian/american Chrysler300-Lancia Thema looks like something Tony Soprano would love.

      1. Pls understand my comment as a follow up to the discussion on Volkswagen. It’s about the workforce, the environment were a car is built, etc. Cars built in the USA by some Chrysler stuff, on Chrysler platforms, with Chrysler spirit, will be Chryslers for me, irrespective of stickers attached here or there. I am not alone in this regard, since apparently, no one buys the Chrysler 300 any more. I read of Chrysler converting kits available for a significant amount that allow Chrysler 300 buyers to remove those Italian infected stuff from newly bought “Themas”. A car company is more than a group of designers focussing on the “Alfa spirit” this year, essentially just glueing together retro design elements slightly resembling the genuine cars, and then, for the next project, converting to e.g. Fiat design wizards.

    2. I’m not as pessimistic about Alfa as you are, Thyl. I think the 4C has serious potential for the brand. Sergio definitely needs to focus the brand effort, but there’s still plenty to work with.

      1. Not talking about the abstract “brand”, but about the company. Show me the Alfa plants, the Alfa design center, the Alfa engineers working on clever new technology. There ain’t none. Gone. The last alfa plant in Pomigliano d’Arco will assemble Fiat Pandas. And that was Alfa Sud, worse then Alfa Nord.

        In contrast, I can show you all of the above for VW, Audi, Skoda, Bentley etc. All these companies within Volkswagen have their own “people”. They share technology, but the also compete, and have their own identity.

        1. According to Wikipedia, and following my above definition, the 4C will be a Maserati. Will it be assembled by the same love and passion that the workers at Maserati built there own cars with?

        2. Thyl not trying to be nasty, but your VW picture is a little bit erroneous. Yes, they have their own development centres, but they also develop for other brands, and when it comes to production the picture is much different.

          So you have a Bentley with an engine developed at VW, you have a mini VW produced in Bratislava (I don’t know if those guys are VW, Skoda or Seat) in the same line as the rebadged Seat and Skoda, you have the Audi Q3 produced in a Seat factory, and the VW Polo produced in VW of Spain. You also have the Bugatti dev. centre in Wolfsburg (consider them as VW-platinum workers) and a corporate dev. centre that develops tech for all brands. Then you have Audi Management in Sant’Agata Bolognese, and you see lots of company Porsches in Wolfsburg.

          The only company within VW that has some kind of autonomy within VW is Audi, but I’m not sure how long this will last.

  4. I would say the fight between BMW and Mercedes is a distraction neither can afford. Audi must be laughing all the way to the bank with their current deals (and the new BMW is still no where near as good looking car as the 2000 3 series.

  5. I’m looking seriously at a Kia Sportage as my next company hack vehicle to replace a Subaru. As SUV’s go it is appealing. But all a bit dull compared to my 9-3 V6 convertible!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *