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  • Toyota’s sales success show that we forgive and forget

    January 30, 2011 @ 8:53 am | by Michael McAleer

    Perhaps we are just a little jaded by it all, but Toyota and Lexus’ announcement that they were to recall 253 Avensis and 186 Lexus models has barely raised an eyebrow from either the media or the general public.

    Following what was a mixture of genuine concern and hysteria in the wake of significant numbers of cars being recalled across the globe and here in Ireland last year, the news this week that there was once again an issue which was relevant to the Irish market should perhaps have reignited the story. But one year later this latest recall has passed virtually unnoticed. Sure, it was covered by the main media outlets and even featured on the national broadcaster’s main news reports, but it seemed this time around the public just weren’t that bothered.

    During the height of last year’s recall furore, I personally was getting phone calls left, right and centre asking me to appear on various radio phone-in shows where I was greeted by questions that would have been more relevant to an outbreak of the plague. Words like ‘fear’, ‘danger’ and ‘scandal’ were used in relation to a potential problem on a car, which would probably lead to nothing, but just in case it did, the firm were taking action on.

    Owners of Toyota’s had said that they felt let down by the brand and that they would never buy another Toyota. It had the potential to be a PR disaster for the company. How could the brand, in Ireland, who marketed themselves as ‘the best built cars in the world’ cope with the news that perhaps in the end they weren’t? In fairness to Toyota, who initially in Ireland was a little slow to come out of the blocks, managed to turn things around.

    We soon started to see too, that across the water in the United States, where a lot of the problems had been reported, that not all of the reports were genuine. What better way to get out of your car payments, if you are struggling with them, than to claim that your car was trying to kill you?

    But surely the backlash would continue. Marketing experts and infinitely worse, ‘brand experts’ were wheeled out to forecast the demise of Toyota both here and abroad. Toyota simply couldn’t afford another scandal.

    But then guess what? 2011 comes along and if you look at the sales figures for the first part of January then you find that Toyota are the dominant force at the top of the sales segment. The Avensis, Corolla and Auris are all in the top 5 in terms of sales and this of course is despite the fact that these days you are as likely to find that Renault have given you 85 percent off the price of a new Mégane or Fluence because you once walked past one of their dealerships. Watch TV3 for any great length of time and you soon realise that they no longer have ad breaks, but rather Renault breaks. Toyota are thought you have spent around half of what Renault did on advertising last year, yet the default choice for most family car buyers in Ireland remains the Toyota Avensis.

    I personally have scratched my head a little at the phenomenon of Toyota’s continued sales success in Ireland. I respect their cars immensely, because despite their recall woes, if you want a car that will work longer than most others then you need a Toyota. But personally, I can’t imagine going out to buy any of their cars new, bar the iQ.

    The Yaris, Auris, Corolla and Avensis are not the best cars in their class by any means. Nor are they the cheapest. There is now absolutely no car in their range, which is interesting, apart from the iQ. When I was growing up there were the MR2 and the Celica. There was the amazing Corolla GT too. There was a rally heritage and a decent set of wheels on a Corolla hatchback could have you looking a bit like a rally great.

    But then again, the nature of our job is to test new cars and then give our view on how you guys should spend your hard earned money. We tend to like the interesting car, with the good chassis and the clever new engine technology. This is often slightly at odds with what the family is looking for, who has a set amount of money to spend, wants their car to just work and little else.

    Toyota FR86 II Concept: proof of a new sporty future for Toyota once again.

    And the plain fact of the matter is, that while Toyota at the moment are doing little to give us thrills, although there is a new sports car on the way and talk of them addressing their general lack of performance models, they have done enough in Ireland anyway to ensure several generations more of good will. Despite all the apparent fury that was being directed towards the brand here in the wake of their recall issues, this time around it appears that we have already forgiven and forgotten.

  • Detroit auto show: Hyundai wins plaudits for new coupe

    January 11, 2011 @ 10:23 am | by Michael McAleer

    One of the surprising star attractions at the show is the new Hyundai Veloster, a funky new coupe model with a rather odd format of one door on the driver’s side and two on the passenger’s.

    Hyundai's new coupe, the Veloster, is due for Europe by year's end

    Something similar was tried by Mini with its Clubman with limited success, but whereas the Mini has a small rear-hinged door, the Veloster has a proper rear door. It will also produce two different bodies for left and right-hand drive versions, overcoming one of the criticisms of the Clubman in that it left the rear door on the right side for right-hand drive markets, meaning that backseat passengers exited into traffic rather than onto the pavement.
    The Veloster’s a very smart little package that was the talking point of many at the show. It’s due for a European arrival at the end of this year following its US launch this summer. Irish buyers can probably expect to see it in November.
    Based on the same platform as the current i30 hatchback, the new coupe will also feature Hyundai’s new dual-clutch DSG six-speed automatic gearbox, alongside a more standard six-speed manual. The engine line-up for Europe has not been confirmed but expect both diesel and petrol models to go on sale. The car features a new 1.6-litre petrol engine with either 140bhp or 208bhp. Diesel powertrains have yet to be confirmed. It’s destined to compete with the likes of the VW Scirocco and Renault Megane Coupe, but is expected to have a price advantage over both.
    The car also boasts a smart new 7-inch touchscreen system that mixes the usual array of sat-nav and other controls with the ability to load images and music directly on the car’s hard-drive, so the screensaver can be one of your personal photos, while your music can be loaded onto the car even if you don’t have your iPod or MP3 player to hand.

  • Detroit auto show: Toyota adds new models to Prius range

    January 10, 2011 @ 7:56 pm | by Michael McAleer

    After what could best be described as a “challenging year” for Toyota, particularly in the US, the Japanese firm has unveiled a new family of hybrid models, creating what it calls an enlarged Prius family.

    The new Toyota Prius V

    The new Prius V is a five-seater family car with nearly 1,000 litres of bootspace,  up 50 per cent increase on the current Prius model. The car is powered by a 1.8-litre 98bhp petrol engine combined with an 80bhp electric motor.
    Due to go on sale this summer in the US, it’s unlikely to make it to Irish forecourts before the end of 2012, but it signifies the start of a major hybrid offensive by the brand. According to Bob Carter, head of Toyota US, the brand will introduce 11 new models to its hybrid line-up in the next 23 months, seven of which will be entirely new.

    New Toyota Prius C supermini concept - due for production in 2012

    An indication of what else will come after the Prius V was the Prius C Concept, a small supermini hybrid that is due to go into production – with probably limited market access initially – in the first half of 2012.
    For Irish buyers, the first of this onslaught of new or revised hybrids is likely to be the hybrid version of the Auris hatchback, followed by the plug-in Prius that has already been on extensive trials in Ireland for several months.
    The new models brings offers some welcome good news for the brand after last year’s recall woes that saw it feature on the front pages of the US media for all the wrong reasons. The Detroit show also market the first appearance of company president Akio Toyoda since he was a guest on the Larry King Live show in the US at the height of the controversy. Speaking today a Detroit he said: “Let me promise you that all of us at Toyota are determined to continue earning the trust and confidence of American consumers and the American community.”
    Despite the publicity Toyota remains the major non-domestic brand in the US market. Toyoda said: “We are all honoured and humbled that Toyota was the number one “retail” brand in the US last year, regaining the highest consideration among customers.

  • Detroit auto show: Electric Focus gets the green light

    @ 7:48 pm | by Michael McAleer

    If you were looking for a symbol of the seismic change taking place at the heart of the US motor industry, it came at the end of the Ford press conference at the Detroit auto show, where instead of the usual array of gurgling V8s, roaring Mustangs, or enormous pick-up trucks, the stage was filled with hybrid and electric models, while thousands of blue paper butterflies fluttered down on the crowd. The blue oval is determined to go green.
    Savvy management, led by former Boeing boss Alan Mulally, guided the firm through the worst years in the US auto industry, making it the only one of the big three car giants that didn’t need government assistance to survive. While the others struggled for survival, Ford set out on a strategy to prepare it for the advent of a cleaner, greener motoring future.
    The fruits of these efforts will be seen on forecourts in the coming months, with the launch of three new variants all based on its new C-platform upon which the new C-Max and upcoming Focus range are built.

    Bill Ford unveils the firm's new range of electric and hybrid models

    First up will be a petrol-hybrid version of the recently launched C-Max range, followed by a plug-in hybrid version of the same car, and then a full-electric version of the new Focus.
    The hybrid C-Max is claimed to be able to manage short distance at speeds up to 75km/h on electric mode before calling upon the car’s petrol ending for support.
    The electric Focus is aimed directly at Nissan’s Leaf, promising a full-electric range of 160km on a single charge. It claims a significant advantage over its Japanese rival as it will take three or four hours from a regular electric plug socket, half the time that’s claimed for the Leaf. Ford predicts sales of between 5,000 to 10,000 annually in the US – but is not making predictions on global numbers as yet – and says it has the production capacity to meet excess demand should the situation arise.
    Aside from these electric and hybrid models, the firm’s new strategy to reduce its carbon footprint is also evidenced in a new 1-litre three-cylinder petrol engine coming our way, that promises emissions likely to come close to the likes of the current Toyota Prius and which may well feature in models such as the new Focus model in the not too distant future.
    Alongside the new range of electric and hybrid models, Ford also unveiled a near-production version of its new Kuga model, due for launch later this year. Also based on the global c-platform, the car takes some of its design cues from the new Focus.

    Ford's Vertrek concept, showing what the new Kuga will look like

    Petrolheads need not feel entirely dejected in the greening of Detroit and the blue oval brand. While the dominant theme was the arrival of its new hybrid and electric models, Mulally arrived on stage in the new Focus ST, a car that proves it’s not abandoning it’s racing pedigree anytime soon.

    Ford chief executive Alan Mulally shows off the new Focus ST

  • Detroit auto show: Chrysler fight back with new 300

    @ 6:44 pm | by Michael McAleer

    Chrysler has come back off the ropes fighting: that’s the message from its chief executive Olivier Francois, who called on everything from Eminem to Robert Frost and 10 year-old children, some of whose parents work at the local Chrysler plants to launch the new 300.
    In what was an emotive – and sometimes cheesy – presentation of the latest generation of the brand’s most iconic model, Francois spoke of a confidence returning to the brand rescued by the US government and then taken over by the Fiat Group.

    Chrysler vice president of design, Ralph Gilles with the firm's new 300 model

    So what of the new car? Well in terms of styling it’s not the bold and brash motoring statement of old, with the defining front grille slightly shrunken and the overall effect is less reflective of the US muscle cars that were evoked by the outgoing model. The jury is out on whether this approach will work. While the current climate has moved away from such bold and brash motoring statements, it was a look that defined the car. Without it – or at least with it softened – it risks losing its identity.
    Chrysler’s chief designer, Ralph Gilles said he has been working for six years with his team on coming up with the new 300 and spoke of the real challenges faced by designers when trying to change a definitive model.
    Perhaps the most telling example of this problem was in his description of the revised wheel arches as being “bolder and reserved”. It sums up the seeming confusion with what exactly the 300 is meant to be. Inside it has dramatically improved as a comfortable family saloon, but on the outside it has lost much of the aggression that won it so many admiring glances.
    Earlier Francois had referred to a Robert Frost quote that described taking the middle of the road as the most dangerous place to drive, suggesting Chrysler was taking a firm line on its future. The problem it faces is that its poster model that could never be described as “middle of the road” looks a bit like that’s where it is pointing.
    Irish buyers will have to wait until diesel versions are introduced and Chrysler’s European strategy is finalised. At present the plan is to retain the brand in Ireland and Britain, rebadging some Lancia models to add to the range. On the continent the reverse is planned, with cars like the 300 falling into the Lancia family.
    If and when it does arrive, it will need to overcome not only its image issues, but also some buyer concerns over residual values. Chrysler might have come out fighting from two terrible years of turmoil, but the battle is far from over.

  • Detroit auto show: strange air or optimism

    @ 1:26 pm | by Michael McAleer

    The honour of kicking off the 2011 Detroit auto show went to Porsche this morning, with a red-eye press conference at 6.30am local time where the German supercar brand unveiled its hybrid race car, the 767bhp 918 RSR hybrid race car.

    Porsche unveils a new 767bhp hybrid race car at Detroit auto show this morning

    Surrounded by jetlagged journalists, the German executives – who seem to believe in a Gordon Gecko style ethos that sleep is for wimps – the unveiling was symbolic for a number of reasons, not least because it was the first time in four years that the brand has bothered to attend the Detroit show.
    The car itself was launched with all the glitz and theatrics one comes to expect from a car show in the heydays and reflects a quietly spoken belief that while many markets remain in the doldrums, there are strong signs of recover in the US market at least.
    Porsche’s chief executive Matthias Mueller said at the presentation that the brand increased 2010 sales by more than 25 per cent to about 95,000 vehicles worldwide, while orders jumped almost 50 per cent to more than 110,000 vehicles.
    The latest Lazarus-like recovery of the US motor industry proves its incredible resilience. While both Chrysler and General Motors had to call upon Government bailouts to survive in 2009, there’s a real sense of recovery here. General Motors, rebaranded by some as Government Motors when the US authorities ended up taking a 61 per cent stake in the firm, has made the most remarkable recovery, with the government stake now reduced to 33 per cent and its debt levels expected to drop from $14.2 billion at the start of last year to $5 billion when it reports its final numbers for 2010.
    Meanwhile Ford, the posterboy of the US motor industry, who didn’t need Government help to ride out the recession, is reportedly preparing to announce the creation of 7,200 new jobs, including 750 senior engineering positions.
    Over at Chrysler, now under the effective control of the Fiat Group, plans to close one of its plants in Detroit have been shelved as its recovery plans take hold.
    The cautious air of optimism is all the more surprising when you consider that for the last four years the mood at Detroit auto shows has resembled the waiting room of an intensive care unit.
    And there’s a strange new word being used on the stands of US car brands: profit.

  • A busman’s holiday where petrol costs 37 cents per litre

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:07 pm | by Michael McAleer

    I got a little fed up of snow and ice over the last few weeks so decided that it was time for some sunshine. A family gathering meant that Dubai, where many of my wife’s family reside was going to provide a welcome break from skidding into hedges.

    We abandoned the car in Dublin airport just as the snow was beginning to thaw and a mere 12 hours later landed into 25 degrees of sunshine. My brother in law does the same sort of job as I do here in Ireland, except the magazine he writes for happens to be his own. And he doesn’t do Micras. There isn’t much call for them in Dubai.

    Sure enough, Dubai has struggled over the last couple of years and the empty shells that we pass on the way from the airport, which were supposed to be the next biggest and best development mean that Dubai has its own ‘ghost estates’ – these ones are just a little more spectacular in their emptiness.

    Within seconds of being here, though, you see that there is still immense wealth when it comes to automobiles. That doesn’t necessarily mean that taste comes with the wealth. Sure enough, there is plenty of nice metal around. You can see why Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche still exist when the world seems to be falling apart. They could just sell cars to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and still stay in business.

    But, when rich oil barrons get bored, they run out of things to spend money on and that is where things get ugly. Prestige Cars, a dealership in Abu Dhabi is one example of where these cars can be bought by the rich in cash but not taste. There are no prices on any of the cars, but then if you have to ask the price, well – you know the rest.

    Rolls Royce Phantom Ghost Mansory Edition: Tastefully adorned.

    Take this beauty. Someone has managed to imagine that a blue and gold Roller would be just the ticket. Stroll down the road to Princess Cars and you will find a Ferrari Enzo on sale beside two McLaren SLRs.

    Ferrari Enzo - ten a penny

    My car for my first few days in Dubai was rather fitting. It was a Bentley. A Continental SuperSport in Dubai costs AED 1,000,000, which is €207,000 and this is a country with no tax. I was pretty scared when I rolled up to the petrol station, clutching my Dirhams preparing to pay for a tank full of Bentley. 90-litres later and I handed over €33. That’s right. In Dubai, where they are moaning about fuel prices, it costs the equivalent of 37 cents per litre. In Ireland it would cost €126 per fill up.

    Driving here isn’t much fun. There are speed cameras everywhere and you get fined around €200 per time, which is over 100km/h. There are few corners here either. The roads are lined up like American highways and the driving is boring and terrible. There are some of the world’s finest supercars here and you can’t drive them properly.

    Dubai Speed Cameras: Everywhere

    Bentley: €33 to fill

    I swapped the Bentley for the Nissan 370Z Roadster later in the week and that felt much more like home. It is regarded as pretty cheap in the UAE and with a mere 3.7-litre V6 it is cheap to buy and cheap to run.

    Nissan 370z Roadster

    What they make of the Fiat 500 here is a mystery then. The car has just gone on sale for around €9,000 and looks fiercely out of place next to the Hummers and Nissan Armadas that dominate the highways.

    As for me. I like Dubai in the same way I like Disneyland. It is a theme park for the rich and undoubtedly somewhere that you can make lots of money very quickly.

    It is time to return to Dublin Airport tommorow, to snow, ice and a Volkswagen Golf diesel. And I can’t wait.

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