Wednesday, May 18, 2005

OPINION: Suzuki’s ace

By Michael Banovsky
Photos Courtesy Suzuki

Suzuki has a bit of explaining to do, simply because I'm a bit jealous.

The days of the crazy-fun early-90s Swift GTi are gone. Now Suzuki peddles the more benign Swift+ - a competent vehicle, but unfortunately a far cry from what driving enthusiasts believe Suzuki is capable of.

“What they’re capable of?” you ask. Suzuki has an excellent record in racing; they captured the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC) last year with the Ignis Sport, while the Swift+ was the basis for Bill Bacon's P3-class title in the Canadian Rally Championship. They have also engineered two notably monstrous machines: The Hayabusa motorcycle and the Escudo Pikes Peak rally car.

They are capable of making a great car – that something I firmly believe in. The evidence lies with what they have replaced the Swift in Europe with. It's a brand new car - also called the Swift – and the press are comparing the driving experience to a Mini Cooper. The new Swift looks excellent, handles well, and with the upcoming model, will have some power.

The new performance derivative (which will probably be called the Swift Sport) is the basis for Suzuki’s new JWRC car. It will feature a 1.6L twin-cam 4-cylinder engine, a full bodykit, twin exhausts, lowered suspension, close-ratio 5-speed transmission, and sport seats will be on offer for the top model.

If Suzuki brings this car to North America (don’t hold your breath), it would give serious heartburn to all of the current and upcoming small-car champs: the Toyota Echo Hatchback, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Scion xA, and Scion xB.

Let’s hope Suzuki lets us drink from its newest vintage.

NEWS: Toyota’s new hybrid…and new recall

By Michael Banovsky

Middleweight hybrid

As if it wasn’t expected already, Toyota has confirmed it will build a hybrid Camry. Production will start in late 2006, in a supposedly re-freshened or redesigned Camry for sale in 2007.
Expect the powertrain to be similar to the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX330h – a 3.3L 6 cylinder engine with variable valve timing mated to their Hybrid Synergy Drive for a combined output of around 268 horsepower.

Also expect prices to increase accordingly – about $2-4000 over the V6 model. The new model should be previewed at the Detroit International Auto Show in January 2006.

Award-winning trucks get recall

Toyota is recalling 880,000 trucks, 789,000 of which were sold in North America. Affected models are the Tacoma, Tundra, Sequoia, Land Cruiser, and 4Runner built between May 2001 and December 2003. Toyota has discovered a front suspension issue that could lead to steering problems. The fix is for front-suspension ball joints that could fail prematurely.

One accident has reportedly occurred in Japan, and information on expected recall costs has not been disclosed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Opinion: The Mitsubishi Motors Recovery Plan

By Michael Banovsky
Photos Courtesy Mitsubishi Motors

Despite the fact that Mitsubishi’s sales plunged about 37 per cent in the U.S. for 2004 – which means dealers in North America are finding difficult to shift product – there are a few bright spots in the lineup…globally, that is. And although Canadian sales are up slightly, Mitsubishi Canada's marketing strategies are directly tied to the U.S. Besides, plummeting sales in the U.S. will never be offset by strong Canadian sales. Not by a long shot.

I understand selling cars is difficult when your executives work in revolving doors –in-out, in-out – and that building brand awareness is difficult when your products are mostly bland, but there are only a few ways to gain back market share in the current market.

1) Go high – Offer high-spec luxo barges like the Diamante and offer top-spec sports cars like the Eclipse (like the 2004 Eclipse Convertible, which topped out at close to $43,000). This strategy won’t work. The current market is too dependent on gas prices, and without a solid marketing gimmick (i.e. HEMI), customers won’t be able to justify buying a thirsty V6 or V8 – รก la the new Raider pickup truck. Mitsubishi’s top-spec model should be the four-cylinder Eclipse – with an optional Ralliart supercharger (for someone who wants the power) at the high-end. No V6s!

2) Go low – Mitsubishi has three awesome products for sale in various countries that would make excellent candidates for Canada. They are (drum roll please): The L200 pickup truck, the Colt supermini, and the Space Star.

The L200

Offered as either a regular, extended, or crew cab, the L200 would have only one competitor in its market segment: the Ford Ranger. If it was priced well, the L200 could compete for customers that need a real “small truck”, in a segment (the truck segment) that has grown substantially in recent years.

It would appeal primarily to rural types that need a tough truck – and also to people that don’t have the space to justify buying a big truck. Bringing over the diesel version would mean at least 10,000 annual sales in Canada.

The Colt

The Colt is an award-winning car, developed in the middle of a huge financial crisis. It would compete directly with the Toyota Echo Hatchback, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Honda Civic. The Colt would appeal to first-time car buyers, and people that want a small diesel car for city driving.

The small car market in Canada is booming right now, yet most “small” cars (Corolla, Civic, Golf, Sentra, etc.) have grown substantially. The diesel model would offer fuel economy on par with the Smart CityCoupe, but with much better performance. Then there’s the Colt CZT…

The Space Star

The Mazda5 is the first of the new-wave small wagons (the Mercedes-Benz B-Class is another) that will invade this country. If Mitsubishi offers the Space Star, it should figure on at least 40,000 units annually – making it its best seller. Again, with fuel at a premium and an aging population, many people don’t need the space of a full-sized minivan.

3) Offer competitive pricing – Can the new warranty. A 10-year, 160,000km warranty sounds good now, but the legacy costs will be astronomical. Ford, GM, and Chrysler are finding out the hard way right now that pensions are costing them an arm and a leg. A crazy warranty is the same. Offer a solid warranty; that’s it. Can incentives, and use Saturn’s no-haggle pricing policy. After a few years, the residual values will increase to make lease rates and finance rates attractive. Incentives only hurt residuals anyway…so can them, and your cars will be worth more in the long run.

Conclusion – Mitsubishi is Japan’s oldest automaker, and is a company rooted in engineering. Believe me: they can engineer great cars. Well, they do engineer great cars. But selling vehicles to North American tastes is getting a little bit old now…and the bigger ones are hurting owners with fuel costs. There are many Canadians that just want an honest-to-goodness car or truck. That is Mitsubishi’s market, the one all but abandoned by other carmakers.

NEWS: Hyundai top quality survey

Courtesy Hyundai Canada

Toronto, Ontario, May 17, 2005 – Hyundai garnered two segment winners in the 2005 Strategic Vision Total Quality Study. Tucson and Accent topped the small SUV and Small car segments respectively.

“Hyundai is certainly doing a lot right to grow its position in the U.S. market and provides another blueprint for domestics with its superior interior craftsmanship reported by its owners,” said Daniel Gorrell, Partner-in-Charge of Strategic Vision’s automotive division. “Hyundai is within striking range of Toyota and Honda with respect to problems reported. With resolve, Hyundai may match these two quality leaders soon.”

Monday, May 16, 2005

NEWS: Audi Q7

By Michael Banovsky
Photo Courtesy Audi (though not willingly)

Aaah, the Internet. I suppose automotive journalism isn't the same now - with
press embargos and such - but sometimes you'll find a gem among all of the message boards
and consumer sites.

Case in point the new Audi Q7. It has been among the most-photographed upcoming model; so
frequent is it caught on camera that prospective owners are already measuring for garage
space. But we've never seen it sans-cladding...until now, of course.

Details are sketchy, but it will be built off of the VW Touareg/Porsche Cayenne Platform,
and feature a range of engine choices from a 3.2L FSI V6 (a la the Audi TT 3.2 and most
likely only available in Europe) to either the Tourareg's TDi V10 or a new FSI V8 to
feature in the new Audi sportscar (see a few posts below).

Expect conventional gas shocks/springs for the base model, up to a fully-adjustable air
suspension on the top models. Audi's range of Bluetooth accessories and MMI interface
will (of course) be thrown in the SUV.

Don't expect performance to fall outside of the window set (on the slow side) by the base
VW Touareg, or (on the fast side) by the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S.

Well, maybe by a QS7, RS7, or an RSQ...