Auto Alert November/December 18: A probing review of significant global motor industry news

Auto Alert Nov/Dec 18: a probing review of significant global motor industry news

Mercedes-Benz Unveils the EQC 400

Early in September, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its new EQC 400 all-electric SUV in Stockholm, this being the first product in the portfolio of the EQ all-electric vehicle brand. Visually, the EQC 400 was quite unremarkable, presenting as a typical mid-size two box crossover sports-utility, similar in size to the GLC models from the same manufacturer to be seen every day on our roads. However, under the skin there were significant differences, with twin electric motors driving the front and rear axles, an underfloor 80-kWh lithium-ion battery, and no evidence of “conventional” driveline components anywhere in the package. The combined output of the two electric motors was revealed as a prodigious 402 hp and 564 lb-ft of torque, enabling a 0-100 km/h sprint time of 4,9 seconds, and there were five different driving programmes, claimed to extend the range up to 440 kms on a single full battery charge. The front motor is optimised for economy and is used in normal cruising, while the rear motor kicks in when required to provide additional performance or traction, and a smart coasting function is used to extend the operating range

Electric vehicles are, of course, nothing new, having been around for more than a century, but recent emissions imperatives and the quest for a reduced global dependence on fossil fuels have thrust them more firmly into the spotlight. The EQC is far from being a pioneer in the field of all-electric drive SUV’s, and when it appears on showroom floors it will find that competitors such as the BMW iX3, Audi e-tron and Jaguar i-Pace are already up and running. However, parent Daimler’s standing as a pioneer in the global motor industry, and Mercedes’ reputation for pushing technological boundaries, as evidenced by its participation in Formula One racing, somehow makes the launch of the EQC 400 a particularly significant event.

To those of us who keenly followed the development of the motor vehicle through progressive generations of increasingly efficient internal combustion engines, innovative transmission designs that demanded diminishing levels of driver skill, and the often astonishing evolution of aerodynamic shapes, the latest generation of electric vehicles may present as a slightly alien new trend. Admittedly, there is still some way to go before EV’s can provide the same level of operational flexibility as a state-of-the-art fossil-fuelled alternative, but they are already able to produce mind-boggling levels of performance, smoothness and environmental cleanliness. The main sticking points to their wider adoption remain in the area of battery technology, with excessive mass having been an obstacle to the more universal usage of electric vehicles since day one, and concerns about the safe disposal of spent batteries are still valid. However, new developments are emerging almost daily, and the rate of technological development has been quite staggering, driven by the widely-held view that the electrical traction mode is the automobile industry’s preferred route to the future.  

As a footnote, it is interesting to note that all these early EV offerings from mainstream manufacturers have a decidedly “normal” overall appearance, and are visually very similar to equivalent models with conventional drivelines. This can be expected to change once the market has become accustomed to the new technological direction, and designers become more innovative in their placing of people and components within the overall vehicle package. We could then see the evolution of more radical shapes, in the quest for greater optimisation of dynamic efficiency. When considered alongside the parallel trend to autonomous, or driverless vehicles, who can say just how far this will go?  The possibilities should keep us intrigued and fascinated for many decades ahead.

Volvo Eicher Trucks Expands its Local Footprint

At the end of August, VE Commercial Vehicles South Africa, the local joint venture between the Volvo Group and Eicher Motors, announced the addition of two heavier payload models to its truck range. These materialized as the Pro 6016 eight-ton payload 4x2 freight carrier, and the Pro 6025T 25-ton gross vehicle mass 6x4 tipper chassis, which joined  the Pro 3008 8,5 ton GVM truck series that was launched into the local market in 2017. The new models are powered by VEDX engines, developed in collaboration with the global Volvo Group, and are intended for applications in the distribution and construction areas of the local market. VECV are engaged in a step-by-step roll-out of suitable models for the local market, where it has appointed fifteen dealer outlets to engage with customers and potential users.  

The entry of Volvo Eicher trucks on the South African market followed a protracted process which first began to emerge in 2015. The aura of rumours, delay, denial and, finally, confirmation that surrounded the market entry suggested that the issue had been the subject of some deep introspection within the Volvo Group. In recent years, this group has risen to become a leader in the global truck business, and embraces a number of important brands including Volvo Trucks, Renault Trucks, Mack, and UD Trucks, as well as a growing partnership with Chinese manufacturer Dong Feng. All of the Volvo Group brands have been active in the local market at some point of time, but more recently participation has been limited to products carrying the Volvo and UD nameplates. Clearly, a process of determining the most effective path for group participation in the relatively small but highly diverse South African market has been evolving, and Volvo Eicher was identified as an important element of the future strategy.

For many decades, the South African truck market has mainly been the preserve of North American, European and Japanese manufacturers, but more recently, the strong US influence previously evident in the Extra-Heavy market segment, which is primarily occupied by long-distance professional hauliers, has evaporated. This is mainly because North American operators have persisted with their perverse demand for bonneted trucks, and American manufacturers have ended production of the forward-control models favoured by most other global markets. Products from Continental Europe soon took up the gap in the EHCV segment left by the American exit, but lost momentum in the Heavy and Medium Commercial Vehicle categories because of increasing complexity and cost. Japanese trucks have long enjoyed a meaningful minority share of the EHCV segment, while being dominant in the HCV and MCV segments, although some Indian, Chinese and Brazilian products have gained footholds in various areas of the market in recent years. This reflects the wide variety of operators active in the construction, distribution, local authority, fast freight and passenger areas of the transport industry, and the tendency for smaller fleets to consider pricing as the main driver in acquisition decisions.

A further factor that has emerged in the marketing mix has been the arrival of trucks that bear familiar Japanese branding, but are, in fact, manufactured in other Asian locations. These include Fuso-branded trucks built at Daimler Trucks’ Bharat Benz operation in India, and UD’s Quester and Croner truck models sourced from the Volvo Group operation in Thailand. This has allowed these Japanese brands to open up new opportunities in terms of pricing and specification detail that are more closely aligned to export market demands. Local operators who have historically favoured Japanese brands are obviously being encouraged by their suppliers to consider these new products, even if they are not manufactured in Japan. The progressive roll-out of Volvo Eicher product availability in South Africa can be interpreted as a further development of this trend, as the perceived and visual links between VECV models and the well-entrenched Volvo and UD (previously Nissan Diesel) brands should present as a powerful argument in favour of their local acceptance.

The Volvo Group’s challenge in South Africa will now be to effectively position its Volvo, UD and VECV products in such a way as to avoid internecine competition, and escape the dreaded “smaller slices of the same cake” marketing outcome. In positioning Eicher at the lower end of its group’s pricing spectrum in South Africa, Volvo has reserved space in the middle and upper levels for UD Trucks’ products and its own branded range. However, it will be interesting to see if the market responds to this strategy, particularly in the distribution area of activity, where the level of vehicle utilisation is relatively low. The high incidence of automatic transmission options in the UD Croner lineup suggests that it has been aimed primarily at more sophisticated operators but there is also a significant number of buyers who could be strongly influenced by up-front pricing. The visual similarity of the Eicher trucks to recently discontinued UD models will also create a perceived link between the two brands, however much differentiated positioning may be intended. This perception is sure to be further strengthened by some shared dealership outlets, and the possible assembly of Eicher products at the UD Rosslyn facility.

VECV’s future planning for South Africa reportedly includes the possible launch of additional bus chassis and light-duty truck models. Should the decision in favour of local assembly be made, it is likely that South Africa could also become an important export base for VECV into Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems highly likely that commercial vehicles of Indian and Chinese origin will become more numerous on local roads in the years ahead, particularly in view of the continuing limited availability of advanced diesel fuel, and the increasing sophistication and cost of vehicles developed for First World markets. There is little indication, at this stage, that electric drivelines will play a significant role in local road transportation for several years to come, so the availability of a range of value products from VECV could well become a significant benefit to the Volvo Group in South Africa in the short- to-medium term.
Volvo Eicher has moved up the payload spectrum in South Africa with its Pro 6000 series models 

Volvo Eicher has moved up the payload spectrum in South Africa with its Pro 6000 series models

Chinese Manufacturers Recruit Western Designers

Back in the March issue, we advanced the idea that Great Wall Motors might become one of the earliest Chinese motor manufacturers to gain meaningful acceptance in the broader global market. The company, which was originally established in 1984 to manufacture trucks, is now China’s major supplier of pick-ups and sports utility vehicles. In 2013, GWM adopted the Haval brand for its sports utility products, and in 2017 added the premium crossover/SUV brand Wey, and Ora as a nameplate for an upcoming generation of electric vehicles. During July, it signed an agreement with BMW to establish a joint venture to build EV’s in Zhangjiagang, which is planned to commence operation in 2021.

At the beginning of September it was announced that Great Wall had secured the services of former Land Rover exterior design studio director Phil Simmons as design director and vice president for the Haval brand. Englishman Simmons is credited with design responsibility for the recent Range Rover Sport, Velar, Evoque, Discovery and Discovery Sport models, and is to henceforth assume leadership of Haval’s design studios in Baoding and Shanghai.

This appointment certainly suggests that Great Wall is deadly serious about developing world-class products and has its sights firmly set on global market participation. In addition to his Land Rover credentials, Simmons also spent time at Ford Motor Company, so he will bring considerable expertise and experience to the Great Wall management team.

Following close on the heels of the Great Wall announcement came the news that the FAW Group had appointed former Rolls-Royce director and Jaguar chief designer Giles Taylor as its president for design, and chief creative officer. The report stated that Taylor would be based in Munich, where he is to develop an advanced design centre using international philosophies, work on design and styling of FAW’s Hongqi luxury brand, and also provide inputs to a full range of products including autonomous passenger cars. The Hongqi, or Red Flag brand was first created by FAW in 1958, when the company was still primarily a builder of trucks, to supply limousines for government agencies, but the nameplate has more recently appeared on compact vehicles offered to the private buyer market. FAW’s chairman Xu Liuping made the announcement in 2017 that eight new and redesigned Hongqi models would be launched by 2020.

Goodbye Beetle……..One More Time!

As the world approached the end of the 20th Century, a fashion of “retro styling” took firm root in the global motor industry. In essence, this manifested as a combination of a body shape reminiscent of some past iconic model from the  nineteen-thirties, ‘fifties, or whichever era spawned the inspirational design in the first instance, with the very latest in technology to provide modern standards of performance, ride, handling and economy. Volkswagen started the ball rolling in 1998 with its “New Beetle”, with its retro characteristics restricted to a basic echo of Professor Ferdinand Porsche’s original shape for Hitler’s “people’s car” of the late nineteen-thirties, and this was followed by the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Jaguar X and S -Types, BMW’s Mini One, various recycled American muscle cars and Fiat’s Nuova 500.

The levels of success achieved by these retro models varied widely. Whereas the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Jaguar’s retro range faded away, the reincarnation of Ford’s Mustang established a good global market niche for itself, and Fiat’s Nuova 500 spawned a family of products under FCA stewardship. However, the most commercially successful of the retro brigade has undoubtedly been BMW’s reinvention of the BMC Mini, which sprung from the German manufacturer’s earlier ownership of Rover. The resulting Mini One and its numerous spin-offs never pretended to be anything other than highly fashionable state-of-the-art products dressed in a familiar and ageless body shape, but were considerably larger than the progenitor.

Volkswagen’s 1998 attempt at a “New Beetle” emerged as something of a caricature of the original 1930’s rear-engined design. It had a totally different mechanical layout, with front-mounted engine and front wheel drive, and a squat appearance that was not characteristic of the somewhat upright original. It also seemed miles away from the “people’s car” positioning that was the raison d’etre for the original, which went on to sell 21,5 million copies worldwide. During 2011, Volkswagen unveiled a further replacement model simply called “The Beetle”, which was larger than the 1998 New Beetle in two dimensions, but lower in height. The specification, included three engine choices, covering the power spectrum from 140 to 200 hp, which drove through a choice of 5 or 6 speed manual, 5 speed automatic or 6-speed dual-clutch DSG gearboxes. During September, it was announced that production of this series would end at VW’s Puebla, Mexico plant in 2019, suggesting that the whole Beetle saga may be finally reaching its conclusion. This event would be commemorated by a “Final Edition” lineup featuring coupe and convertible body styles, a range of special body colours, and special embellishments, finish and equipment. The standard driveline specification will consist of a 174 hp, 2,0-litre engine driving through a six-speed automatic transmission.  

Will this really be the final chapter in the Beetle saga? We are not so sure, in view of the original model’s truly iconic place in VW’s history. However, we cannot imagine that there will be huge volumes of tears shed at the run-out of the present model, as it has attained nothing approaching the sales success of the original, and we suspect that it is regarded by most VW enthusiasts as nothing more than a curiosity (the annual sales volume in the US market fell from 43 000 units in 2012 to only 15 166 last year).  Although conceived as a “people’s car”, the original Beetle enjoyed great popularity among younger motorists, and most of that demographic have moved on to city cars and super minis, while the previous generation of owners are now firmly ensconced in their SUV’s and crossovers. However, with a company with the size and influence of Volkswagen, there is a distinct possibility that some future product may inherit some element of the Beetle identity. Will an electric Beetle eventually emerge? We would not bet against it!

Volkswagen’s Beetle is nearing the end of yet another chapter in its history. Will this be the last?

Volkswagen’s Beetle is nearing the end of yet another chapter in its history. Will this be the last?

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