Chi­nese food is an easy de­ci­sion, but what about a Chi­nese ve­hi­cle, asks Mike Stock.

New Zealand LCV - - CONTENTS - - Mike Stock

Age, ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom, Mike Stock tells it like it is, and was.

BUY­ERS WOULD NEED TO TAKE A LEAP OF faith – that’s the ob­ser­va­tion a mate of mine made when we were pon­der­ing the wis­dom of div­ing in and buy­ing a new, low-priced ve­hi­cle from a non-tra­di­tional car-mak­ing coun­try. Which is a round­about way of say­ing a Chi­nese-de­vel­oped and built car, SUV, van, or ute.

He’s a mo­tor in­dus­try vet­eran, my mate, with ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, and he had a point. But, re­ally, would buy­ers have been tak­ing any more of a chance than if they were buy­ing a Ja­panese used im­port in their early days? The ma­jor at­trac­tion of im­ports was low price of­ten com­bined with a higher spec­i­fi­ca­tion than Nz-new ver­sions of the same model.

The leap of faith was not know­ing the im­port’s ser­vice his­tory or whether parts would be avail­able lo­cally for spe­cific vari­ants of a given name­plate. Or whether the odome­ter had been wound back to show a lower mileage than the ve­hi­cle had ac­tu­ally done. But hun­dreds of thou­sands of Nz­ers have plumped for Ja­panese used im­ports, and gen­er­ally the cars’ re­li­a­bil­ity record has been good.

The im­ports helped push up the spec of Nz-new ve­hi­cles. Im­ports usu­ally had air­con­di­tion­ing for in­stance, and lo­cal new ve­hi­cle dis­trib­u­tors were forced to fol­low suit; other spec fol­lowed and Nz-new cars’ prices lev­elled out to re­tain their com­pet­i­tive­ness. Im­ports helped a buy­ers’ mar­ket de­velop.

Chi­nese ve­hi­cles are cur­rently in the same place Ja­panese cars were in the early 1970s and Korea’s Hyundai was when it ar­rived roughly 15 years later.

There had been the odd Ja­panese car here in the 1960s, no­tably the Dat­sun Blue­bird, but they re­ally came on-stream in the 1970s, coin­ci­den­tally when I started writ­ing about cars.

My first ex­pe­ri­ence with them came when the Auck­land Star news­pa­per added some Toy­ota Corol­las to its fleet of Mor­ris 1100s. The Toy­ota was rear- rather than front-wheel drive, seemed live­lier and more mod­ern than the Mor­rie, but prompted a warn­ing to staff from the ed­i­tor: “Be care­ful in the wet! The back end slides.”

I think they were still per­se­ver­ing with the 1100s when I left The Star in 1972 but I re­call there was usu­ally a scram­ble by re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers to nab a Toy­ota for as­sign­ments. It was an early in­di­ca­tor of the way Nz­ers’ tastes in cars would change.

The sec­ond Ja­panese car I drove was a Dai­hatsu Max, a noisy, hard-rid­ing lit­tle car that was any­thing but Max – ex­cept its heart. The 360cc en­gine made it very en­ter­tain­ing to hus­tle along, but it needed lots of revs even to get off the line to avoid stalling, and you had to wring its neck.

So these early day od­dball Ja­panese cars were im­ported new by car deal­ers who would later start the used im­port trade al­most two decades later.

By then Ja­panese cars – which had evolved into world class, and very re­li­able ve­hi­cles – held the up­per hand in New Zealand, hav­ing dis­placed the Bri­tish makes that had dom­i­nated since the end of World War 2.

The first Hyundais were bare bones of­fer­ings, like the rear-wheel drive but nicely-styled Pony, and the much less-stylish Ex­cel and later Ac­cent four-door based on Mit­subishi Mi­rage plat­form and run­ning gear. The lo­cal dis­trib­u­tor boasted about the heav­ier-gauge steel used in its body­work, which did lit­tle more than dampen per­for­mance. It was a com­pe­tent if unin­spir­ing drive and came in odd colour com­bi­na­tions, like pea green paint with elec­tric blue velour seats.

I got a graphic dis­play of its abil­i­ties one evening bustling through the Waikato headed for a race meet­ing at Man­feild. A gi­gan­tic pig – one of a group be­ing herded to a new pad­dock – ran on to the road and into my path. The pig seemed al­most as big as the Hyundai, and I stood on the brake pedal, the Hyundai smok­ing to a halt and giv­ing not just the pig a sec­ond life, but giv­ing me new re­spect for the Ex­cel.

Since those be­gin­nings, Hyundai and later its sis­ter com­pany Kia have evolved into lead­ing in­ter­na­tional brands with very at­trac­tive mod­els in their range. What had once been ugly duck­lings (the aw­ful Kia Men­tor, based on an old Mazda 323 are now lithe, at­trac­tive swans (Kia Op­tima). Time, de­vel­op­ment and cus­tomer feed­back and de­mand have changed the face of Ja­panese and Korean cars over the past few decades. Ex­pect the same from the Chi­nese; to quote a Ja­panese com­pany ex­ec­u­tive: “give them time, they’ll get it right. We did.”

I’m con­ser­va­tive about spend­ing large amounts of money, so I’m not sure whether I’d take the leap of faith and buy a Chi­nese new­comer.

But I’m look­ing for a ve­hi­cle – used not new and ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing bulky though not heavy items; and there are some sur­prises on my short list of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Some I once would not have touched with a barge­pole; oth­ers I’d have re­jected be­cause their han­dling wasn’t sharp enough. But right now, sev­eral of these for­mer non-con­tes­tants are look­ing ap­peal­ing.

So I’m about to make my own leap of faith - and in a way, opt­ing for a Chi­nese ve­hi­cle wouldn’t be all that dif­fer­ent. Would you take the plunge?

cars are stigma that Chi­nese went through the same Early Ja­panese cars im­port and Toy­ota Corolla with the Dai­hatsu Max ex­pe­ri­enc­ing now, of the early 1970s. mo­tor­ing mark­ers

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