Archive for the ‘cars’ category


Z cars

11.03.2020

I did say I’d blog when Autocade hit 4,100 models, which it did yesterday. Proof that the hundredth milestones aren’t planned: the model was the Changan Zhixiang (長安志翔 or 长安志翔, depending on which script system you prefer) of 2008, a.k.a. Changan Z-Shine. A less than stellar car with a disappointingly assembled interior, but it did have one thing many period mainland Chinese cars lacked: a self-developed engine.
   It shows the nation’s quick progress. The Zhixiang was Changan’s (back then, we’d have written Chang’an) first effort in the C-segment, after making microvans, then A-, then B-segment cars, with quick progress between each. The Changan Eado, the company’s current C-segment sedan, might still be rather derivative, but the pace of improvement is still impressive.
   After 1949 through to the late 1970s, Chinese cars in the PRC were few in number, with mass production not really considered. The first post-revolution cars had panels that were hand-beaten to the right shape in labour-intensive methods. Some of those cars borrowed heavily from western ones. Then came licensed manufacture (Jeep Cherokee, Peugeot 504, the Daihatsu Charade at Tianjin) as well as clones (Citroën Visa, SEAT Ibiza). By the 1990s some of these licensed vehicles had been adapted and facelifted locally. The PRC started the new century with a mixture of all of the above, but by the dawn of the 2010s, most Chinese press frowned upon clones and praised originality, and the next decade was spent measuring how quickly the local manufacturers were closing the gap with foreign cars. It’s even regarded that some models have surpassed the foreign competition and joint-venture partners’ offerings now. Style-wise, the Landwind Rongyao succeeds the company’s (and Ford affiliate’s) Range Rover Evoque clone, the X7, with a body designed by GFG Style (that’s Giorgetto and Fabrizio Giugiaro, the first production car credited to the father-and-son team’s new firm) and chassis tuned at MIRA. The Roewe RX5 Max is, in terms of quality, technology, and even dynamics, more than a match for the Honda CR-V—a sign of things to come, once we get past viral outbreaks. Styling-wise, it lacks the flair of the Rongyao, but everything else measures up.
   But the Zhixiang was over a decade before these. Changan did the right thing by having an original, contemporary body, and it was shedding Chinese manufacturers’ reliance on Mitsubishi’s and others’ engines. To think that was merely 12 years ago, the same year Autocade started.

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Autocade turns 12

07.03.2020

Autocade turns 12 today, as it’s now March 8 here in New Zealand. From zero models to 4,093 (the Hyundai Avante XD is the latest); and as I write this sentence, it’s netted 18,683,611 page views. Just four years ago this month, it had only managed eight million.
   Just this week, I added two public notes of thanks to Carfolio, with whom we’ve done a bit of an information swap, on the site. Admittedly that swap has been in our favour. The first fruits of that were four Toyota models. It shows that we motorheads have been able to find each other and work on a spirit of cooperation, to make the web more informative and useful.
   It’s a far cry from those early days when the site got its first few models; it took four months to get to 500. The timing wasn’t great, considering the Global Financial Crisis was beginning to happen around us, and more people were being sucked in to Facebook. As a hobby, I carried on, because it was a satisfying use of my time.
   I’ll leave a stats’ breakdown when we get to 19 million views, and no doubt I’ll do another post when we get to 4,100 models.
   Stuart Cowley, who shot the first Autocade video with me fronting it, has a few more up his sleeve that he’ll edit in due course. I’m open to seeing what the future will bring for the brand.
   Having one independent web publication that’s survived 22 years and counting, and another that’s now 12, is perhaps quite rare these days.
   Since I began writing this post, Autocade has gained another 73 page views.
   I’m grateful for all the support out there—thank you for all your views, feedback, generosity, information, and your shared love of cars.

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Could this happen one day at GM?

22.02.2020


The MG line-up in New Zealand. Could it be part of a bigger portfolio of brands later this decade?

In the context of what has happened with Holden, and Peter Hanenberger’s thoughts on the direction of GM, I wonder how far away we are from seeing these headlines:

Cash-strapped GM sells passenger car brands to SAIC to focus on trucks and SUVs

and:

SAIC builds passenger-car brand portfolio with Wuling, Baojun, Chevrolet, Roewe, MG, Buick and Cadillac

You can almost think of MG as Pontiac and Roewe as Oldsmobile … With the decimation of the GM line-up globally, and the segments they no longer field (e.g. C-segment cars in many markets), will they even have the investment needed to sustain the car brands?
   I know they are saying this was all necessary to fund the electrification of the range and autonomous tech, but isn’t this the same company that nixed the EV1 and failed to make the Volt a Prius-beater?
   The Chinese state wasn’t about creating “Chinese Leyland” when they forced SAIC and NAC to merge. They had much grander plans.

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Peter Hanenberger’s unintended post mortem of Holden

19.02.2020


The 2009 Chevrolet Caprice SS, sold in the Middle East but made in Australia.

I came across a 2017 interview with former Holden chairman Peter Hanenberger, who was in charge when the company had its last number-one sales’ position in Australia. His words are prescient and everything he said then still applies today.
   He spent over four and a half decades at GM so he knows the company better than most. Since he departed in 2003 he had seven successors at the time of the interview; and I believe there have been a couple more since.
   A few interesting quotes.

‘It’s [now] a very short-sighted company.’
It feels like it. The sort of retreating it’s done, the dismantling of global operations, and the failure to see how global platforms can achieve economies of scale is something only a company beholden to quarterly stock price results will do. And it doesn’t help its longevity.
   Even Holden, which looked like it was going to simply depart the passenger-car sector at the end of last year before a full withdrawal now, tells us that there doesn’t appear to be a long-term plan in place that the US management is committed to. Not long ago they were going on about the two dozen models they planned to launch to field a competitive line-up.

‘For me General Motors was a global player. Today General Motors is shrinking to an American company with no foresight, which is in very bad shape, which has missed the market.’
Remember Hanenberger said this in 2017, when it still had presences in many Asian countries. In 2020 it very much looks like GM will be in the Americas (where it still fields reasonably complete line-ups, although God knows if they have anything in the pipeline to replace the existing models) and China. Russia, India, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand are gone or going, and western Europe went in 2017 before the interview.

‘Maybe it fits into the vision of Trump; America first. But how the world is going to work also in the future is not because of America first and America only. It’s global. I think there will be no GM in the near-future.’
Everyone else is desperate to do tie-ups while GM retreats. I think GM will still be around but it’ll be a Chinese firm.

‘I couldn’t give a shit what they thought in America.’
I don’t mean this as an anti-American quote, but I see it as a dig against bean counters (whatever their nationality) fixated on the short term and not motorheads who know their sector well.

‘For me Holden didn’t have enough product, and the second one [priority] was I wanted to get these cars they had into export. For me it was very clear the products they had could be exported and they should go on to export.’
You saw the failure of this in the early 2010s when Holden failed to keep its Middle Eastern deals, and the US models returned. It could have been so different, though I realize GM was very cash-strapped when they needed the US taxpayer to bail them out.
   Bruce Newton, who wrote the piece, says that the Middle East was worth up to 40,000 units per annum, with A$10,000 profit per car. It cost Holden A$20 million to develop them for left-hand drive. I’d have held on to that sort of opportunity for dear life.

‘There was nothing going on that was creative towards the future of Holden as in Australia, New Zealand and toward the export market. They just neglected this whole thing.’
That was Hanenberger when he visited his old workplace in 2006. With product development cycles the way they are, it’s no wonder they were so ill placed when the Middle Eastern markets lost interest in the VE Commodore and WM Caprice (as the Chevrolet Lumina and Caprice), and China in the Buick Park Avenue.
   It’s an interesting interview and perhaps one of the best post mortems for Holden, even if it wasn’t intended to be so three years ago.

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The death of Holden

17.02.2020

GM pulled out of Russia and India, so with hindsight, those of us Down Under, with a far smaller total population, shouldn’t have thought we were particularly special.
   Even where GM remains, such as South Korea, there’s a broken model range, with a big gap where the Cruze used to be.
   It’s becoming apparent that GM, with no more right-hand-drive markets to cater for, will be a company that only offers full lines in China and the Americas.
   Some GM-watchers have been calling for the demise of Holden for years, just as they had called for the deaths of Oldsmobile and Pontiac years before. But as I argued in a letter published in the (also-defunct) Condé Nast Portfolio, each brand occupies unique territory, and, had they not been diluted, could still appeal to certain buyers that more mainstream ones, e.g. Chevrolet, cannot reach.
   Holden was always a tough case in Australia, where we noted it was very tied to nationalism. Once local manufacture finished, its sales plummeted.
   It wasn’t the case in New Zealand, where all cars had been imported for decades and we never had the sense that Holden was our ‘own car’. However, GM New Zealand (as it then was) had created a handful of Holdens unique to this market that the Australians never saw. Once upon a time, it was a more independent beast.
   When Holden ceased Australian manufacture, sales didn’t drop the same way in this country. With Kiwis loving entries in the CD market, the Commodore isn’t an uncommon sight, and remains the choice of the police.
   But the same argument of economies of scale applies to New Zealand, a country with a population of five million: GM had no desire to allow this country much wiggle room compared with Australia. Whatever happened there would necessarily happen here.
   Those 600 jobs that are going include redundancies in New Zealand.
   Over the years it had seemed Holden was on life support. There was a golden age where the HQ series and its derivatives flew the Holden flag high, but after the oil crises, there was a real possibility the company could have bit the dust in the mid-1980s, becoming an import-only operation.
   A plan circulated within GM to replace the top Holdens with Cadillacs, while the rest of the range would be made up of cars from around the GM empire—which, in those days, included Opel and Isuzu.
   But the Australians won the day and the VN Commodore got the green light. By the end of the 1990s, Holden was in great shape, including an export programme for cars based off the VT Commodore.
   You could say history repeated itself with the global financial crisis in the late 2000s—where GM, keen to continue, asked for US$50,000 million from the US taxpayer. But perhaps more importantly, it sold the controlling stake in its venture with SAIC of China to its Chinese partner for a mere US$85 million. That was one deal that allowed GM to raise funds elsewhere, but it also saw the beginning of a technological transfer to China. Even after GM bought back the share, SAIC would get control of the JV’s sales’ company.
   Numerous SAIC cars were built on GM platforms—the Roewe 950, for example. Cars made by GM ventures began appearing with SAIC-owned brands—the MG Hector in India, a rebadged Baojun 530, for one; it also appears as the second-generation Chevrolet Captiva in some other markets. Once upon a time GM might have earned a royalty for any car built on its tech, but it’s unlikely here as the two companies share in the profits.
   While SAIC hasn’t succeeded with MG Down Under, you notice more of a push these days, and it has already made an impact in New Zealand with the Maxus commercial line-up, rebadged LDV. Export sales aren’t a big deal for the Chinese giant, but with the Chinese economy slowing, they could be eyeing up more international markets.
   With SAIC keen to get more of the action for themselves, GM’s operations in many of its outposts became irrelevant.
   Holden held on for dear life and arguably had one of its more competitive ranges for years—but in this context, GM might not have had much choice.
   It has little to do with the consolidation of markets and all to do with much higher-level strategic decisions. After all, hardly anyone in China will have grown up with idea of Holden being Australia’s own car.

This post also appears in Drivetribe and Lucire Men.

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Posted in business, cars, China, New Zealand, USA | 2 Comments »


GM’s Holden to abandon C and D car segments, delivering them on a silver platter to competitors

23.01.2020


Stuart Cowley for Lucire

I haven’t spoken to Holden New Zealand to see if we’re following suit, but as far as Australia’s concerned, 2020 will be the final year for the Astra and Commodore, as Holden transitions to selling only trucks (utes) and SUVs.
   Here we are, with its most competitive C- and D-segment models for a long time, and Holden decides to abandon them.
   New Zealand did briefly chart its own course recently with the Holden Spark, which it secured supply for even after its cancellation in Australia, but it’s unlikely to depart from what’s happening in Australia.
   Beyond the obvious question of ‘What will the cops drive now?’ it’s a sad development for a brand that’s been part of the Australasian motoring landscape for decades, even before 1948 if you count the Holden coachbuilt bodies before the war.
   Holden points to the rise in truck and SUV sales and the decline in passenger car ones, and, unlike Ford, it can’t blame a lack of marketing for them—over here, it’s been fairly consistent in promoting each one of its lines.
   Over in Australia, Holden sales collapsed when domestic production ended, but in New Zealand, where we have no such allegiance to ‘Buy Australian’, I saw some reasonable sales’ figures for the Opel Insignia B-based Commodore. And it is a good car.
   The chief reason, I imagine, is that after GM sold Opel to PSA, which seeks now to merge with FCA, it didn’t really want to buy cars off a competitor. And PSA really didn’t want to be paying royalties off each car it sold back to GM. Basically, the supply chain ain’t what it used to be.
   By 2021, PSA will launch a new Astra based on a platform to be shared with the third-generation Peugeot 308, and Insignia B’s days are numbered, too, as it transitions that to a PSA platform (if PSA doesn’t just cancel it altogether). GM would earn nothing from this 2021 model, so there would be no point going forth with it.
   GM has also killed off the Cruze in Korea, the US and México, leaving Argentina the only country that still makes it, so it wasn’t as though it had anything else in the C-segment that it could bring in to Australasia. Many of its Chinese-market models are on the GEM platform, regarded as too basic for our needs, and there seemed to be little point to getting them complied with our standards or having them engineered for right-hand drive. Basically, there isn’t an alternative.
   This frankly strikes me as all a bit defeatist, not unlike Ford’s decision to kill off all passenger car lines (bar Mustang) in the US a few years ago.
   Toyota will have you know that the C- (Corolla) and D- (Camry) segments are doing quite well for them, and they are quite happy to pick up some conquest sales from the Americans.
   I’m not sure if ‘We’re not doing that well there. Oh well, let’s give up,’ is much of an attitude to adopt when certain segments could reignite as consumer tastes shift. And if one really wanted to compete—if there was a will—then one could.
   What I fear is that GM isn’t Mystic Meg and even though my previous post was in jest, there is a serious point to it: people might wake up to the big frontal areas and poor aerodynamics and high centres of gravity and general irrelevance and inefficiency of the SUV for everyday use. I mean, I still can’t reconcile people complaining that petrol prices are too high while sitting in a stationary SUV with the engine on awaiting someone, anyone, to leave a spot so they can park right outside the shop they wish to go to. While claiming they are concerned about the planet. I have a C-segment car because I do think petrol is expensive. And even if you had an electric-powered SUV, you’re still affected by the laws of physics and your charge won’t go as far if the aerodynamics are poor. I thought we got all these lessons in the 1970s and 1980s.
   Just as I warned that killing Plymouth was a mistake for DaimlerChrysler—because recessions can come and people want budget brands—I question whether becoming the vendor of ‘Australia’s own truck’ is a smart tactic. There are some segments that have a base level of demand, or so I thought.

Of course, this leaves PSA to do the inevitable: launch Opel as a brand in this part of the world.
   Opel CEO Michael Lohscheller said as much when PSA bought the firm, and while his eyes were probably on China, they could apply equally here.
   I realize Opel flopped in Australia when an attempt was made a few years ago, but unlike Australia, Opel has a reasonable history here, with its Kadett GSis and a full line of Vectra As sold in the 1980s and 1990s. Kiwis know that the Opel Vectra and Holden Vectra are part of the same lineage. And I have to wonder if the brand, with its German heritage, would do well here.
   Imagine the scenario where Opel launches here in 2022 with not just Astra and Insignia (because Kiwis love their D-segment wagons, unlike the UK), but with the Crossland X and Grandland X as well.
   They’d have the goodwill of the Astra name (just as GM predicted), and there may be enough Kiwis who have positive impressions of their Vectra As. Even our family one sold recently to a South Islander after my friend, who bought it off me, decided to part ways with it. Mechanics still think highly of the Family II units those cars had.
   And somehow, I think being independent of GM is a good thing in this case—no conflict of interest, no wondering whether Mokka might cannibalize Trax, resulting in stunted marketing.
   The new design language is looking sharp and I think it would find favour among New Zealanders who are currently buying Volkswagens and Škodas. They’d also be a darn sight more reliable, too.
   If you’re thinking the market is too crowded, remember VW didn’t think so when it determined SEAT could have another crack in the late 2010s.
   I can’t be alone in thinking this—certainly Australian media were speculating if Inchcape could bring Opel in to their country this time last year. Who’ll take it on?

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Give me a break

23.01.2020

From an Automotive News interview with Yves Bonnefort, CEO of DS.

   Um, that’s called a station wagon or estate car, mate.

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Replacing Po.st with Addtoany, outside of Wordpress

17.01.2020

Some of you will have noticed that Po.st went out of business, so all the Po.st sharing links disappeared from our websites.
   The replacement: addtoany.com offers a similar service without the hassle of header codes. Just customize at their website, grab the code, and insert it where you want it. It’s now on the main Lucire website, Autocade (at least on the desktop version), and this blog (desktop as well). Strangely, the plug-in for Wordpress didn’t work for us, and the HTML code with Javascript is far more practical.
   There are fewer customization options but it’s a remarkably quick and handy way to replace the old code.

Despite providing a sharing gadget, I wonder how much I’ll use one. It’s been seven days since I last Instagrammed and I don’t miss it. Granted, something major happened in my life but organic sharing had been dwindling through 2019, and if their algorithms aren’t providing you with the dopamine hit that you seek, and you’re unlikely to pay for it like a junkie (which is what Facebook wants you to do), then you have to wonder what the point is. It might, like Facebook, just become one of those things one uses for work—and that’s not something I could have predicted even a year ago.
   I see Twitter is introducing features where responses can be limited by the user. The logical outcome of this is Tweets that are directed at limited audience members only, maybe even one-to-one. That looks remarkably like email. And these days I seem to be more productive there than I am on any social network.

With a fresh browser to kick off the year, I surfed to the popular page listing at Autocade. Unsurprisingly, there is some grandfathering going on: the first pages added in 2008 have had more views than the latest pages. That much is logical.
   But if there’s a model line page in the top 10 that wasn’t first authored in 2008, that would be, at least to me, interesting. That honour goes to the 2010-authored page on the Opel Astra J, at over 21,000 views.
   Once upon a time, the Nissan Bluebird (910) page was top among the individual model lines, thanks to a link from Wikipedia. It’s since slipped to third, after the Ford Fiesta Mk VII and Nissan Sunny (B14). The Toyota Corolla (E100) page, once in second place, is now fourth, followed by the E120. The Ford Taunus TC, Taunus 80 and Cortina Mk III are sixth, seventh and ninth respectively—all 2008 pages. The Opel Astra J, coming in at eighth, is an anomaly among the top 10. (The Renault Mégane II finishes the top 10.)
   Something’s driving interest in this model, and I’m very happy it is.

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Carlos Ghosn redresses the balance

10.01.2020

It’s been fascinating to watch Carlos Ghosn’s press conference in Beirut, and subsequent interviews, confirming my own suspicions back in November 2018 (as Tweeted and blogged).

   Criticisms of Japan’s justice system don’t just come from Ghosn. There was Mark Karpeles, who endured 11 months awaiting trial in Japan. From the Asia Times:

But Karpeles didn’t confess. Prosecutors kept re-arresting him and denied his lawyer’s request for bail again and again. During his incarceration, he suffered mild frost-bite, malnutrition and sleep disorders and went slightly stir crazy. He finally won bail in July 2016.

and:

It didn’t surprise me that the police and prosecutors didn’t want to find the real criminal: I had seen it before in the 2002 Nick Baker drug smuggling case. In that case, Japanese prosecutors declined evidence from overseas police agencies that supported Briton Baker’s assertion that he had been framed by his traveling companion. Their aim in the case was simple: conviction.

   The criticism isn’t coming only from foreigners. Carlos Ghosn’s own lawyer in Japan, Takashi Takano, recalled on his blog:

「・・・残念ながら、この国では刑事被告人にとって公正な裁判など期待することはできない。裁判官は独立した司法官ではない。官僚組織の一部だ。日本のメディアは検察庁の広報機関に過ぎない。しかし、多くの日本人はそのことに気がついていない。あなたもそうだ。20年間日本の巨大企業の経営者として働いていながら、日本の司法の実態について何も知らなかったでしょ。」

「考えもしなかった。」

「逮捕されたら、すぐに保釈金を積んで釈放されると思っていた?」

「もちろん、そうだ。」

「英米でもヨーロッパでもそれが当たり前だ。20日間も拘束されるなんてテロリストぐらいでしょう。でもこの国は違う。テロリストも盗人も政治家もカリスマ経営者も、みんな逮捕されたら、23日間拘禁されて、毎日5時間も6時間も、ときには夜通しで、弁護人の立ち会いもなしに尋問を受け続ける。罪を自白しなかったら、そのあとも延々と拘禁され続ける。誰もその実態を知らない。みんな日本は人権が保障された文明国だと思い込んでいる。」

「・・・公正な裁判は期待できないな。」

   The Asia Times story has a translation, and you’re free to copy and paste into a translation service.
   As someone who follows the car industry, and holds business and law degrees, this case has fascinated me far more than any Instagram caption from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex—and it will also be interesting to see how Renault Nissan Mitsubishi deals with the fallout.

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It took a while: Autocade hits 4,000 models

08.01.2020

The Chinese-market Buick Enclave became Autocade’s 4,000th model today. It wasn’t planned: in fact, I had readied a photograph of the Hyundai Tiburon (RD), expecting that would be the 4,000th. But, as happens with this site, you spot something, and you want that clarified. I haven’t been methodical about Autocade, ever—it has always been about what took my fancy and whether my reference books on the topic were around. (After the move, a few still aren’t, so fans of smog-era US cars may have some waiting before they see those increase in numbers again.)
   Just as I do with each millionth page view, I thought I’d see how the entry numbers had progressed:

December 2009: 1,000 models (21 months to first 1,000)
December 2012: 2,000 models (three years to second 1,000)
December 2014: 3,000 models (two years to third 1,000)
January 2020: 4,000 models (six years and one month to fourth 1,000)

   In other words, these last 1,000 took ages, and I suspect it’s a mixture of busy-ness on other ventures and the fact that a lot of modern cars that get entered aren’t that inspiring.
   When many entries of new models into Autocade are of SUVs, especially Chinese ones that have little to distinguish themselves, then it’s not as fun as adding those models that you’ve had some connection with from your youth. The first 1,000 were easy: I remembered many of the details (cubic capacities and prices, for instance—I am that much of an anorak when it came to stuff from my childhood) and while I still checked with books, they didn’t take that long to write. But how many of us care about the difference between the Honda Pilot and Passport, or the links between the Beijing X3, Changhe Q35, BAIC X35 and Senova Zhixing anyway?
   I imagine that there’s more editing that goes on today, too. When a current model gets entered, you just put the start of production and ‘to date’. But there’s no guarantee we’ll revisit that page when the car ends production; and often there’s no announcement of the cessation anyway. Naturally with more pages on the database, the more time you’ll spend editing and correcting existing content than creating brand-new stuff. China’s massive boom in the late 2000s and most of the 2010s meant a plethora of models got entered, and with the market the way it is there, cannibalization of your own model lines hasn’t struck some car makers as an issue yet.
   There’s also the issue of translation: you want to go to a Chinese resource when writing about Chinese cars, and my literacy hasn’t really kept up with my age.
   A middle-aged man uses, in part, nostalgia to make sense of the car world—I buy Octane and Classic and Sportscar more than Autocar and Car these days—and while it’s easy to understand Kas, Fiestas, Focuses and Mondeos, it’s not as second-nature to utter EcoSport, Puma, Escape and Mustang Mach-E. It is no surprise to see Mercedes-Benz stick with its A, B, C, E and S pecking order, even for its SUVs (prepend GL). The next generation of motorhead will have no such issue: they’re used to these big line-ups and where everything sits.
   I’ll keep building, and there is plenty of exotica that hasn’t been entered. Perhaps between those and the Chinese crossovers, it can remain interesting.

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