December 17, 2005
I just posted at Autoblog how I feel Japanese manufacturers—despite the lack of breeding of their cars, with some exceptions—learn from their lessons. American 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 Honda Civic 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. Toyota was about to come out with its world-beating front-wheel-drive Corolla. Even the Honda City was revolutionary. Europe kicked off the aero look with the Audi 100 and Ford Sierra, so there was some innovation, but Japan, 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 hybrids 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 Chevrolet Prizm, which is the same car out of the same factory in the US—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 brands 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 motoring. 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 120 mpg? Who will mainstream biodiesel? Will someone take the lead from New Zealand 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 China 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 MG Rover. That is, if the Politburo will let it.
The most ready solution today is biodiesel- or alcohol-powered cars. Fiat and Volkswagen 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 India and let a country, untainted by the narrow thinking of the west, lead the way in automotive development. Already there are facilities such as DC Design for prototyping and styling, and once Tata 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 Indian cars, despite decades of Marutis, Hindustans, Premiers and Standards. permalink
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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.Post a Comment
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