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