Posts tagged ‘exporting’


Why the next Holden Commodore will have a traditional boot

01.12.2016


Above: The Holden Commodore SS-V, facing its last year of manufacture.

The current wisdom appears to be that when the Holden Commodore VF leaves production in 2017, it’ll be replaced by the liftback version of the Opel Insignia B. After all, the only big sedan Ford Australia’s offering in place of the now-defunct Falcon is the liftback version of the Mondeo, a car that’s wider, taller, and with a longer wheelbase than the supposedly larger Falcon. I think the crystal ball-gazers are wrong.
   I could say that the Australian and New Zealand big car buyer is very traditional and would balk at the idea of the big Holden being a hatch. But that’s not the only reason. There’s a bigger one: China.


Above: GM currently makes the Opel Insignia A-based Buick Regal in China, after initially beginning with German production.

   At the moment, China makes a version of the Opel Insignia A locally, and it’s a four-door sedan with a traditional boot. They badge it as a Buick Regal, a nameplate that’s arguably got stronger goodwill in the Middle Kingdom than in the US, even if it’s been running Stateside since Kojak drove it on the streets of Manhattan. And the Chinese like their traditional sedans: it’s a market where liftbacks aren’t kosher.
   While Holden says the next Commodore will be sourced from Germany, and the media speculate that the Germans won’t get a four-door sedan, it’s not to say that one hasn’t been developed. And we’re not exactly missing precedent for a country to tool up for a body style that isn’t offered domestically. We need look no further than GM itself, which was selling the Opel Antara into Europe, exporting it from Korea, years before the same model was available domestically as a Daewoo.
   While Australia and New Zealand will account for quite tiny numbers, you have to think about where else a Stufenheck Opel Insignia B might sell. How about the Middle East, where it could complement the Chevrolet Malibu and Impala as a sportier counterpart? Or South Africa, which would also welcome right-hand drive? Could China take some as Regals in advance of SAIC–GM tooling up for its own version? It’s all conceivable.
   There’s also a possibility that Holden will start off sourcing the next Commodore from Germany, and switch to Chinese production when the Buick Regal is ready. SAIC owns the majority of its venture with GM these days, and calls the shots. What’s good for General Motors is good for China, as the saying goes. And it could well determine that one of its plants, either in China or in Thailand, where plenty of Australasian-market cars are sourced from, could be the production site of the 2019 or 2020 model. (Korea has been ruled out already, according to The Wall Street Journal.)
   GM has switched sources mid-run before, and happily used the goodwill of German engineering when introducing a vehicle made with cheaper labour. Forty years ago, after selling German Opels for years, it began selling the Opel Isuzu from Japan: it was the Isuzu Gemini, the Japanese counterpart to the Opel Kadett C world car. The following year, 1977, the Opel Isuzu became the Buick/Opel. The Japanese origins were eventually hidden. The 2008 Regal, meanwhile, was originally sourced from Germany until SAIC was ready with its locally made version.
   In this day and age, when global-market Renaults and Fords come from Turkey, Nissans and Suzukis from India, and Fiats and Volkswagens from México, no such name changes will be needed. If the quality is good enough, ‘made in China’ won’t be that strange a concept. No one seems to have much of an opinion, or a stereotype, over ‘made in Thailand’—yet we buy plenty of product from them.
   GM isn’t likely to sleepwalk into this transition as it did pre-GFC. Then, the company was ill-prepared, prepared to splash money around on different platforms. The leaner 2010s GM will want to grab every sale it can, and I don’t think Aussie or Kiwi buyers are going to flock to the showrooms for a Commodore hatch, even if it looks like a Porsche Panamera.
   They won’t necessarily care that the new model is a better handler, with powerful engines, better economy, a lighter weight, and a decent interior. They could notice that shoulder room has gone down a fraction. There’s a certain conservatism to this market, and the idea of a hatchback just might be too foreign for this group.
   And if they can supply it, with the Chinese Buick Regal waiting in the wings, then why not maximize sales?
   When the four-door Commodore débuts in Australia next year, after its début in Genève as the Opel Insignia, the General will again have one over arch-rival Ford when it comes to big cars.

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Posted in business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »


Brexit reminds us that we need to take a lead in making globalization fairer

28.07.2016

Brexit was an interesting campaign to watch, and there’s not too much I can add that hasn’t been stated already. I saw some incredibly fake arguments from Brexit supporters, including one graphic drawing a parallel between the assassinations of Anna Lindh in 2003 and Jo Cox MP, saying how the murder of the former led Sweden to remain in the EU.

   The trouble with the graphic is that the only thing it got right was that two women were killed. Sweden wasn’t having a referendum on whether to leave the EU, it was about whether it should adopt the euro. The closest British parallel would have been when then-PM John Major negotiated the Maastricht opt-out in 1991. It also claimed that the polls were for leaving; notwithstanding that that wasn’t what the Swedes were voting for, the polls for and against adopting the euro were roughly neck in neck, though the wisdom was that the pro-euro camp would win. By the weekend, the result was that Sweden would keep the krona.
   When I argued with some pro-Brexiters about this, they, like most pecksniffians, demanded I check my facts. I didn’t have to: I have a memory that goes back further than one month, and unlike them, I know what went on in their own backyard because, in 2003, I kept my eyes open.
   I should point out that I am not summarizing all Brexiters as dimwitted Britons who wanted Johnny Foreigner to go home. I count among my closest friends someone who voted leave, and for very substantial, well thought-out reasons. He felt that the European Union had become an unwieldy bureaucracy which benefited Britain little, and while I felt the benefits outweighed the detriments, I respect his opinion and his vote. At least it was considered, and at least it wasn’t one that was based on the ramblings and rants of Farage, Johnson, Gove et al.
   Appealing to nationalism, as the likes of Farage did, is a cheap trick in politics: it stirs a wave of nostalgia, and people might love chanting at how great their nation is, but it doesn’t address the core issues that put them into the poo to begin with. Of course the UK has a great deal to be proud of; but like many countries (including ours) the globalist technocratic agenda are what have made things untenable for a growing part of the population. It’s why real wages haven’t risen yet certain corporations profit aplenty; it’s why we work more hours today than we ever did, despite futurists of a generation ago predicting all this leisure time that we would all have thanks to automation.
   But is retreat the right thing to do? The remain camp believes that it wasn’t: to influence Europe you must be in Europe. It wasn’t that long ago that not being in Europe was fatal to British exports—the failure of the British motor industry, for instance, was in part due to its late recognition that the UK needed to be part of the EEC or, at least, produce vehicles there. Globalization’s positives should be the free movement of people and of capital; and economic union to permit that greater freedom seems a sensible thing to pursue, not to run away from. The trick is how to make this work for everyday people, the growing number who are impacted by globalist forces; once there were few, now few escape them. It is, then, the role of government to either protect those who are most vulnerable, to champion (either through private enterprise or on its own accord) real innovation and industry that can create jobs, and to cut through the BS where both public and private enterprise simply reinvent the wheel from time to time, putting lipstick on the bulldog.
   I am ambivalent about it because I’ve seen our own governments, National and Labour, be particularly weak when it comes to dealing with globalization, succumbing to foreign takeovers and allowing the little guy to be run over. The deals haven’t been good for New Zealand in many respects, a small country that believes in its place in the first world but which can be deluded about this very fact. Our economy just isn’t that solid to take it on the chin. Look at our banks, mostly foreign-owned and more unreliable than ever: remember how 40 years ago cheques would take 24 hours to clear? Yet now our computerized systems take three to five working days? Insiders tell me this is the consequence of less reliable Australian systems being foisted upon us; so much so that we have a wire transfer that has been taking weeks, and no one knows where the money has gone. Just how do you misplace tens of thousands of dollars? Why do we assume Australian bankers are smart enough to answer? And those who question such agenda don’t get much truck in a media landscape also dominated by foreigners: I’m looking at one newspaper publishing group at the least. The ways of the big countries are not always the best—yet somehow the powers-that-be in this country have been hoodwinked by this consistently since 1984. I can’t understand it, and my initial reaction when there is such a lack of logic is to follow the money.
   Brexit has made me refine my thinking: I might not like a system where New Zealand’s the little player that doesn’t benefit from a level playing field, but at the same time I believe we need to find ways to influence the globalist game for the better. We love looking at Scandinavian countries because of their comparable size. They may have higher taxes but at the same time they don’t seem to balk at innovation for the greater good; they believe in the freedom of movement of capital and of people, and, despite their general humility, they actually aren’t afraid of creating global companies that take on the rest of the world. Look at Vattenfall or Statoil. We might not like Statoil for what it wants to do to our own environment, but we do have to ask what our equivalent is. We lost our lead in hybrid cars, which we held for most of the 1980s, but it’s an example of what we can do when government and private enterprise cooperate on something that is future-oriented. What’s the next big thing? Is it renewable energy tech that we can export? There are companies here already doing frictionless exports, and more need to be encouraged. Government shouldn’t try to create groups of them or force mergers upon them; that can be left to the market. But there needs to be a vision or a direction that we take to create a new brand for our country where people naturally think: innovation for the greater good = New Zealand. And, maybe, to go with that, a fairer version of globalization can emerge, certainly one that is not coloured by the next quarterly result demanded by Wall Street.
   Yes, there is some national fervour involved here, too, but applied correctly, it won’t be false flag-waving that’s dependent on the past. I’m all for being proud of your country when the victories are real and measurable—like on the sporting field. There it’s real, and it’s often about the next game or the next season: it’s future-oriented, too. With Brexit, I can’t see the vision; and the most visible foreigner among this, the Turkish-American politician, Boris Johnson, hasn’t communicated one that I can discern.
   And maybe this confusion is the opportunity we need for New Zealand.
   After the UK abandoned the Commonwealth markets in favour of one right next door, our country found new export markets, so much so that the UK accounts for 3 per cent today. Even in 1973, when it was 40 per cent, it had been falling consistently for half a decade, if I recall correctly, and the notion that Britain would reach back out toward the Empah for trade is fanciful at best.
   Being someone who has enjoyed looking at world history play out through maps, ever since I discovered a book on the subject as a third former at Rongotai College, it hasn’t escaped my thoughts that this is a further retreat for the UK in terms of its global influence.
   So who’s on the rise? It might be us. The centre of the global economy has been shifting eastward in recent times and we’re well placed to take advantage of it. We’re part of the Anglosphere so we bridge the past, where it was the dominant global culture, with those trading partners who might be on the horizon. But it has to be real. We’re nimble enough, and I can’t see why we’ve been so fascinated with apeing the US and the UK for so long. Once again we need to set our own direction: we have a culture that’s ready for it with a greater sense of identity than we’ve ever had. I just wonder if we have a government, local or national, courageous enough to embark on this.

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Posted in branding, business, China, culture, globalization, marketing, New Zealand, politics, social responsibility, Sweden, UK | No Comments »


How will things play out at Fiat?

02.04.2016


Above: The current Fiat 500. A year shy of its 10th anniversary, is it still cool in 2016?

The Detroit News reports that Fiat has been having trouble Stateside, with dealers now permitted to sell the cars alongside Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram instead of at stand-alone showrooms.
   It’s been worrying seeing Fiat’s plans unfold since it decided to take control of Chrysler, a firm that was once the darling of the US car industry, with its industry-leading R&D times, to one that was starved of investment in the 2000s.
   Those initial plans, sold as a long-term strategy, turned out to be a short-term Band-Aid. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t too much of a surprise, since Fiat was still grappling with understanding just what it was taking on.
   Fiat needed to do something given that things at home weren’t looking too good, with a model range that wasn’t very cohesive, and with its entries into the Chinese market having faltered a few times. To the casual observer, Fiat saved Chrysler, but there’s some truth in saying that having the company that controls the Jeep brand was a lifeline to Fiat itself.
   What we’ve seen since those days was the failure of the strategy of twinning Chrysler and Lancia. While this was a marriage of convenience, I could see this having some long-term gains with Lancia focusing on smaller cars and Chrysler on larger ones, but the result in 2016 is that Lancia has been reduced to an Italy-only marque, the equivalent of what Autobianchi was a few decades ago. Once the Ypsilon is deleted, then Lancia is consigned to the history books.
   The winner has been Alfa Romeo. It has only just returned to the junior executive segment with the new Giulia, after an absence of several years, and its 4C is a cracking sports car. Things are looking up, and rumours that Alfa and Dodge would be paired up in the same way Lancia and Chrysler were mercifully haven’t come true. The Giulia platform could be used for future models. Jeep has benefited from Fiat platforms, and Ram has gained some Fiat vans.
   But the parent brand, Fiat, has looked very uncertain for a while.
   For a start, there’s little uniformity globally. Fiat has the opportunity to offer the Viaggio and Ottimo in more places than China, slotting above the Ægea, for example. While having unique models for South America makes some sense, because of Fiat’s strength there, there’s an opportunity to globalize, with the Toro pick-up truck looking very appealing.
   Without having more of its self-developed products, the Fiat range in Europe doesn’t inspire too much confidence. While most manufacturers have one or two joint-venture models, Fiat’s range is almost exclusively made up of vehicles that have shared tech. The famous 500 and Panda are on a Fiat platform which has Chrysler input (before the takeover), and is shared with Ford for its B420 Ka. The Punto, 500X and 500L are on another platform shared with GM. The Doblò is also offered to GM. The Qubo is the product of a joint venture with Peugeot. The Freemont is a rebadged Dodge Journey from México, which Fiat gained after the takeover. The 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5, and built in Japan by that firm. The Fullback pick-up is a Mitsubishi Triton twin and made in Thailand by that Japanese firm.
   Fiat, in other words, is holding down more relationships than Casanova.
   As a casual observer, there’s an opportunity for a massive streamlining of platforms, and offer more in-house models. That may well be happening, and let’s hope its current strategy is more long-term than its last.
   Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Fiat hasn’t had a great reputation of being able to carry out long-term sales’ strategies in many of its markets. Take New Zealand, for example, where Fiat was offering its (Grande) Punto and Bravo models, before it decided to pull everything and offer only the 500.
   The Punto has returned after a hiatus, this time as a budget model, along with the Tipo 139 Panda, but those who bought Puntos in the 2000s might think twice about returning to a company that abandoned them and offered no direct replacement for their car when it came to trading up.
   That lack of continuity could have some buyers worried, and Fiat needs to regain their trust in a big way.
   Being the Five Hundred Car Company, which Fiat certainly was in the US, cannot help, if buyers expect Fiat to offer more. We’ve seen it fail here, and Fiat’s had to back-track. Even in Hong Kong, where Fiat had also been reduced to flogging only the 500, it has had to add the Freemont.
   Fiat will argue that as it had been absent from North America for so long, it could re-enter the market-place with a single, fashionable model: after all, Mini and Smart have done.
   The trouble is that Fiat isn’t known as a niche brand: there was enough in the US media to indicate that this was an Italian giant, and the perception of such a large company didn’t gel with it offering a niche range anywhere. It lacked the cachet of a brand that was created to be fashionable and funky from the outset. You just can’t do it when that’s the name of the owner (think: can you sell “cool” cars with GM as the brand—that had been tried in New Zealand and failed dismally; or, going back a generation, Leyland? Volkswagen surely is the sole exception with its Beetle), and FCA, which the parent company is called, isn’t a consumer-facing brand. It’s just a company name with no brand equity.
   In the same vein, average punters might not know of BMW’s connection with Mini, or Daimler AG’s connection with Smart. They stand alone with plenty of brand equity, helped by identifiable products, and, in Mini’s case, even helped by its image outside North America.
   I also question whether the 500X and 500L are cute cars in the same vein as the original 500. Getting Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander character to advertise the 500X seemed good in theory—till it dawned on the public that the new Zoolander film was a bit naff, cashing in on last-decade nostalgia. I’m not a fan of retro design, either, and I would have hoped that Fiat would have renewed its 500 by now, since we’re on to newer versions of the Beetle, Mini, and Smart. It’s no surprise that Fiat sales are down 14·6 per cent so far this year.
   If Toyota could not sustain Scion with all its muscle, then Fiat retail really should be integrated into dealerships selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Stateside. And I’d argue that Scion couldn’t remain because the brand had lost its coolness among the college kids who bought the XB in the first place. Buyers in this consumerist game, and at the fashion end it is more a game than in any other, are notoriously fickle.
   I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Fiat’s a brand I’ve grown up with, and I’ve been visiting their dealerships since I was two years old. Back in the 1970s the showroom in Homantin, Kowloon had everything from 127s to 130s. Fiat was doing a brisk trade on 124s. I came close to buying various Fiat Group cars over the years, including a Tipo and a Lancia Delta, and more recently I had considered Alfa Romeo Mitos and Giuliettas. I briefly toyed with importing a Tipo 844 Lancia Delta from the UK badged as a Chrysler, but decided having a $75 1:43-scale one was enough.
   To see Lancia decimated and now on life support as Fiat concentrated on making Chrysler and Dodge work, to see the home brand filled with other people’s products in the interim, and to receive news that US buyers weren’t flocking to its showrooms in the same numbers any more, all make me concerned. Go to Italy and the taxi ranks no longer are dominated by Fiat Group cars: the cabbies have gone French and German. It’s all very well Maserati and Ferrari doing well but the former’s volumes won’t have a huge impact, while the latter has been separated and now has a different parent. The only continent where I think Fiat is making a decent bash of things is South America. I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture, not least because I have fondness for all the brands that now fall under the Fiat umbrella. But the weaknesses, at least to an outsider looking in, outnumber the strengths. My gut says Fiat will work through it all, but will it do it in a fast enough fashion, or is there more pain to come?

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »