Bangkok ex­press

Free trade has opened Aus­tralia to a grow­ing stream of Thai-made cars, writes Mark Hinch­liffe

Herald Sun - Motoring - - First Drive -

BANGKOK is the Detroit of Asia. It’s the hub of the new­est car­mak­ing em­pire in the world and one that sup­plies a grow­ing num­ber of cars to Aus­tralia with a va­ri­ety of badges, in­clud­ing Honda.

This year alone the num­ber of Thai-built ve­hi­cles sold in Aus­tralia hit 96,603 by the end of July, up from 82,656 in 2009.

Honda Aus­tralia was the first com­pany to im­port pas­sen­ger cars from Thai­land, back in 1998, but it has taken an­other 12 years for the Ja­panese brand to feel se­cure enough about Thai-built qual­ity to boast about the prod­ucts.

So this week cars­Guide is vis­it­ing Bangkok and Honda’s fac­tory at Ayut­thaya, 80km north of the cap­i­tal, to see the cars and qual­ity.

Honda Aus­tralia boss Satoshi Mat­suzawa says there has never been any re­sis­tance to the com­pany’s cars be­ing built in Thai­land be­cause they are built by Honda.

About 80 per cent of Honda ve­hi­cles now sold in Aus­tralia are made in Thai­land.

They are the City, Jazz, Civic sedan, CR-V and Ac­cord. The Civic hatch is made in the UK and the Ac­cord Euro, Leg­end and Odyssey are still made in Ja­pan.

Honda spokesman Mark Hig­gins says more man­u­fac­tur­ers are build­ing cars in Thai­land. Ve­hi­cles in­clude most pick-up trucks sold in Aus­tralia, the Mazda2 and, soon, more small cars by Ford led by the next Fi­esta, and Suzuki.

The Thai-Honda story be­gins in 1998 with 778 ve­hi­cles. In 2005, the free-trade agree­ment be­tween Aus­tralia and Thai­land and the shift of Jazz pro­duc­tion from Ja­pan to Bangkok dra­mat­i­cally in­creased ex­ports to 14,071.

In 2007, Thai­land’s Honda ex­ports to Aus­tralia tal­lied 51,424, be­fore drop­ping sub­stan­tially dur­ing the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. This year they are ex­pected to reach 40,197.

But that num­ber is only a tiny pro­por­tion of the to­tal 240,000 an­nual ca­pac­ity of the Thai Honda fac­tory.

The plant oc­cu­pies 851,800 sq m and em­ploys about 5000 Thai staff and 80 Ja­panese man­agers. They work two to three shifts a day with two weeks’ hol­i­day a year and free meals pro­vided by Honda.

But work­ing con­di­tions are not ideal, with Thai­land’s op­pres­sively hot and hu­mid cli­mate dealt with in the body and frame plant by open­ing up a wall to pre­vail­ing winds in­stead of us­ing air­con­di­tion­ing to save elec­tric­ity.

Honda Au­to­mo­tive Thai­land Cor­po­ra­tion vice-pres­i­dent Makoto Morii says the plant is 50 per cent au­to­mated, com­pared with Ja­panese fac­to­ries at 90 per cent.

‘‘We use more hand-weld­ing be­cause the salary is lower here. In­stead of in­vest­ing in ex­pen­sive ma­chin­ery, we can hire more peo­ple here,’’ he says.

He also de­fends the level of hu­man in­volve­ment and rates his Thai work­ers highly.

In me­chan­i­cal terms, the Thais and Ja­panese are on the same skill level.

Hu­mans can be more flex­i­ble than ro­bots, he says.

How­ever, he ad­mits that for the plant to pro­duce more com­plex, hy­brid ve­hi­cles, it will re­quire full au­to­ma­tion.

‘‘The fac­tory would have to grow, but we don’t have that plan,’’ he ad­mits.

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