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.