Korea’s sa­mu­rai spirit

NT News - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - COM­MENT By PAUL GOVER www.nt­news.com.au

JA­PANESE car com­pa­nies are in trou­ble and most of them don’t even know it.

They are caught in a vice that is chang­ing the rules in show­rooms glob­ally, but es­pe­cially in Aus­tralia. Korean brands are ris­ing fast and Euro­pean pres­tige com­pa­nies are drilling down, cre­at­ing large 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, but the new rules will change the game for the Ja­panese.

Far too many Ja­panese car­mak­ers — Toy­ota and Honda, for sure— are also about to feel the ef­fect of their cost cut­ting through the GFC.

All of the ma­jor Ja­panese brands cut spend­ing and sev­eral can­celled new-model pro­grams and ur­gent update work to save money, leav­ing them with­out any­thing new to draw buy­ers.

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

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

The Euro­peans are chas­ing more sales at ev­ery level and know there is de­mand they can tap with smaller cars that suit peo­ple down­siz­ing world­wide.

In Aus­tralia, they could even jump from a Com­modore or Fal­con into an A1 for city-first work.

But the chal­lenge is com­ing from the Kore­ans, as Kia showed with the Op­tima.

It’s do­ing a great job in tweak­ing Hyundai me­chan­i­cal parts into ve­hi­cles that peo­ple want, in­clud­ing the classy Sportage that was run­ner-up in last year’s Cars­guide Car of the Year con­test.

The things that once made Ja­panese cars so de­sir­able — cabin qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and great air­con­di­tion­ing — are avail­able in Korean mod­els that cost less and have the ad­van­tage of five-year war­ranty.

In short, Korean com­pa­nies now make bet­ter-value Ja­panese cars than the Ja­panese do.

That means the Ja­panese brands need to find a point of dif­fer­ence, and a rea­son for peo­ple to buy, and fast.

Lots still won­der about the long-term ben­e­fit of buy­ing Korean, or re­mem­ber the days of a Hyundai Excel that was a dis­pos­able car, but things are chang­ing and chang­ing fast.

Korea has al­ready put a sword through Ja­pan’s elec­tron­ics busi­ness and the cars are next.

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