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December 17, 2005

New automotive niches: where to next? 

I just posted at Autoblog how I feel manufactur­ers—despite the lack of breeding of their , with some excep­tions—learn from their lessons. manufac­turers repeat their mistakes. But after clicking on to a 20-year-old Top Gear video at Google, my mind went back to the early 1980s.
   Back in those days, I thought the Japanese were coming out with the coolest products. The third-genera­tion and Ballade CR-X. The high-roof Civic Shuttle, more than a decade before Renault gave us the equiv­alent Mégane Scénic and Opel its Zafira. The new Mazda Capella. The mini­vans such as the Nissan Prairie and the Mitsubishi Chariot. was about to come out with its world-beating front-wheel-drive . Even the Honda City was revolu­tionary. Europe kicked off the aero look with the 100 and Sierra, so there was some innovation, but , Inc. beat everyone.
   I just don’t think the Japanese have recaptured that. The new range of Lexuses has a spirit to it, but the cars are merely plusher and more refined than their pre­decessors. Like a Continen­tal Mark V was nicer than a Continen­tal Mark IV at Lincoln, once upon a time. Toyota now has western­ers on the board, which will help them break out of the committee-thinking that gives us Avensis after Avensis, but the aside, it hasn’t really broken any new ground. The excep­tion is Honda: it is doing better because it is putting out appealing products. Considering it was once a maker of lawnmowers, it has come a lot further with products such as the new Civic and Ridgeline.
   Exceptions aside, I don’t find the same appeal with Japanese cars as I once did. Their brands are keeping them going—a Toyota Corolla will fetch $2,000 more used than the Prizm, which is the same car out of the same factory in the —but brand effects only go so far. Getting more plush with each gener­ation is no solution—the US itself had been through that.
   The American are rediscover­ing this as the Japanese trounce them again.
   But where was that daring, anywhere in the world? We’ve done very little to find new niches in . Assuming we have found all the market niches in the world, then how about letting tech­nology catch up, rather than build cars with thicker leather and more buttons on the radio? The lightweight car, for instance, using new compo­sites? The car that does ? Who will main­stream ? Will someone take the lead from of 1979 and do more natural-gas cars? Methanol? Hydrogen? How about gyro tech­nology?
   Whomever is first to market with a new concept—and is prepared to make it mainstream—will “own” that category. Right now, you can’t overtake Toyota for hybrids, even if Honda has the Insight, Civic and soon, Accord. Red actually has potential to do something amazing here and show the world a way forward, if it wasn’t so busy fighting over the corpse of . That is, if the Polit­buro will let it.
   The most ready solution today is bio­diesel- or alcohol-powered cars. and already have access to such technol­ogies from their South American operations. Fiat, in particular, should be thinking about following up the Panda with something that could revolution­ize motoring, particularly after some weak years this century—and not the Grande Punto and the Croma. Or, once again, we might cast our eyes on and let a country, untainted by the narrow thinking of the west, lead the way in development. Already there are facilities such as DC Design for proto­typing and styling, and once finds a way to deliver a car for $2,000, then watch Tom Hanks, HRH the Prince of Wales and others try to buy one. Then they will all be saying why on earth they have not heard of cars, despite decades of Marutis, Hindu­stans, Premiers and Standards.
Interesting. Similar to my own observations.  
Thank you for commenting, Joel. I have an extra post about this based on what I would personally like to drive in the future at my blog.  
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