Full throt­tle

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Onroad - Paul Gover Na­tional edi­tor

JA­PANESE car com­pa­nies are in trou­ble and most of them don’t know it. The rules are chang­ing in show­rooms across the world, and es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia.

Korean brands are ris­ing fast and Euro­pean pres­tige com­pa­nies are drilling down, cre­at­ing pres­sures in the mid­dle ground that has been a happy place for the Ja­panese for more than 30 years.

It’s good news for buy­ers, who will get more choice and bet­ter value at both ends of the mar­ket.

Far too many Ja­panese car mak­ers are also about to feel the ef­fect of their cost-cut­ting through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. The big Ja­panese brands cut spend­ing and sev­eral can­celled new-model pro­grams and update work to save money.

Honda has the new Civic com­ing but not much else, Toy­ota has the (yawn) new Camry this year but the FT-86 sports car is more than a year away. Suzuki is run­ning out of am­mu­ni­tion af­ter the Kiza­shi and com­ing Swift.

In the op­po­si­tion camps, Hyundai and Kia are get­ting bet­ter with ev­ery model— the Kia Op­tima is a Camry ri­val with more style and value from just $36,990— and BMW, Audi and Mercedes are com­ing down with a sub-1 Se­ries, the A1 and com­ing B-Class hero.

The Euro­peans know there is de­mand they can tap with smaller cars that suit peo­ple economis­ing around the world.

But the real chal­lenge is com­ing from the Kore­ans, as Kia shows again this week with the Op­tima. It’s do­ing a great job in tweak­ing solid shared Hyundai me­chan­i­cal parts into ve­hi­cles that peo­ple re­ally want, in­clud­ing the classy Sportage that was run­ner-up in last year’s cars Guide Car of the Year con­test.

The el­e­ments that once made Ja­panese cars so de­sir­able— cabin qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and great air-con­di­tion­ing— are now avail­able in Korean mod­els that cost less and have the big ad­van­tage of a five-year war­ranty. And they keep on com­ing.

In short, Korean com­pa­nies now make bet­ter­value Ja­panese-style cars than the Ja­panese do.

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