Monday, January 23, 2012

Maxima Touring: SFO-LAX

It’s August 2010, and I’m heading to the USA for the annual automotive festivities on California’s Monterey Peninsular, which includes MotorWorks at the Monterey Executive Jet Airport; The Quail ‘A Motorsports Gathering’ at the Quail Lodge Golf Course; the Monterey Historic Races at Laguna Seca; and of course the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – the world’s most fantastic annual tribute to automobile history!

The trip takes me from Brisbane to Los Angeles, then a short commuter hop to San Francisco. Sounds simple, but co-ordinating and catching the flights, along with the inevitable air traffic delays in American skies is a pain in the backside.

Also, the dreary landscape of the long term parking lot near San Francisco Airport is hardly a location to glamorize an automobile described by its maker as a four door sports car - which is how Nissan North America labels its latest Maxima.

Settling into the bumper to bumper stream of southbound peak-hour traffic on Highway 101, you just get to take in the interior view, and quickly come to grips with the comfort and convenience features in this smart, compact car.

Splitting from the inland freeway to join the fabulous Skyline Drive, we hit the coast at Santa Cruz. There’s time to stop for a Starbucks coffee (yuk!), and study the exterior as we pause by the Pacific Ocean. Immediately the word ‘sculpted’ comes to mind, and this latest version of the US Maxima certainly looks a whole lot more visually interesting than the rather bland version we get Down Under.

In fact the American Maxima is a pretty snazzy-looking car.

Nissan’s Maxima has been its mainstay in the hotbed of the American medium car market since it debuted in 1976, based on the ‘Bluebird’ platform, and in fact was called the Bluebird 810. It was a pretty ordinary front-drive-wheel sedan with a two-litre four cylinder engine, and it was also a pretty ordinary drive too. Talking of ordinary, Toyota’s competitor, the Cressida, was a car that gave ‘bland’ a bad name. Distinguished it was not! However, by 1984 the Maxima featured a V6 engine, and a fresher-looking exterior and interior styling job, but the first serious makeover came in 1989, when it was launched in Europe and Australia.

In 1995 the Maxima in Australia and the USA became a V6 only model, and sales began to increase.

After a number of facelifts engineered in Japan, Nissan North America won the right to redesign the Maxima for its own market, and in 2000 a new model, designed at Nissan’s La Jolla studio in California was born, resulting in two different Maxima model lines. The US model shared its platform with the smaller Nissan Altima and Murano SUV, whilst the Australian Maxima sat on the existing platform, and continued to be sourced from Japan.

The most recent restyle of the US Maxima has been dramatic and well-received in the American marketplace. However, styling-wise it’s a bit of a three card trick. The car sits on the same underbody dimensions, but the ‘sculpting’ of the external panels has given it an apparent greater substance.

It’s significantly wider than the previous model, but the interior package remains the same. It’s not ‘squeezy’, but not as generous inside as some of its competitors, nor its exterior shape might suggest.

However, in equipment terms the Maxima is a class leader. The standard car comes with iPod/MP3 connectivity, SatNav, Bluetooth and a great stereo, with Bose speakers. The transmission is one of the best-developed CVT types I’ve tested, and the Maxima even has steering column-mounted transmission paddles!

The transmission is very smooth in operation, and most drivers would be unaware they were driving a CVT-equipped car. Whilst the change is nowhere near as fast as a twin-clutch type, it performs admirably when driven on the ‘paddles’.

Nissan seems to have achieved its aim, in separating this car from its (mostly) Japanese competitors, and endowed it with a powerful and quite frugal V6, the snappy CVT transmission, excellent ride comfort and passably good handling.

The US Maxima still exhibits more understeer than I’d like, but it’s very responsive and the rack and pinion steering has quite good feel, thanks to a very ‘fast’ steering box ratio.

After taking in the auto festivities in Monterey and Pebble Beach, I headed east along Route 68 and then across to Highway 101 South. This freeway is the main (and most direct) link between LA and northern California. Leaving Highway 101 just north of Santa Barbara I climb into a mountain range, and pass through the village of Solvang, which is one of those backwoods oddities you find sprinkled around the USA.

Solvang is what you might call ‘Little Denmark’ and is populated by Danish settlers who began arriving in America between 1896 and the early 1900s. Solvang was established in 1915, and the restaurants, cuisine, architecture and customs have created a pocket of Danish culture high in the hills of the Santa Ynez mountains.

Using all the standard equipment gear like SatNav, Bluetooth and the iPod connector is easy, intuitive and very welcome - there are no mysteries to befuddle the pilot, whilst concentrating on driving. The drive south heading towards Los Angeles along Highway 154 is just the right sort of road to test the “Four Door Sports Car” and the Maxima did not disappoint. There’s no point comparing this car to a dedicated sports sedan like a BMW 5 Series, or an Audi A5, but the Maxima points precisely, performs well, rides comfortably and inspires confidence.

The suspension is very well sorted, and the secondary ride quality is outstanding for a Japanese-designed car. Rarely have we encountered such an excellent ability to handle small deflections as well as this car does.

Okay, truth is, it’s not a sports car, but who are we to argue with the success of the ad agency’s campaign. The American Maxima is a neat package, well-sorted and we believe is streets ahead of the model Australians have been offered.

Back onto Highway 101 and it’s traffic tailbacks all the way into the northern approaches of the City of Angels. We join US 405 South (the San Diego Freeway) and pass by one of the most significant landmarks in LA today. Just near Brentwood is the fabulous Getty Museum, which opened in 1997, and definitely worth a visit.

On the lumpy, bumpy Highway 405 these are the conditions where the Maxima really shines. It’s comfortable, well-equipped and good value. What more could you want? If it’s brand caché, or European breeding you’ll pay a lot more, so Nissan North America seems to have made its mark with the Maxima.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Patience Pays Off - for Skoda

Can Skoda succeed in Australia for the third, fourth or fifth time? Short answer is, it has already. My prediction is that it will continue to prosper – for a very unusual reason – patience.
When Volkswagen Group Australia (VGA) announced Skoda’s re-entry into Australia in 2007 the new Chief Executive Matthew Wiesner was appropriately evasive about sales numbers, and the figure postulated by automotive journalists was 2,000 units a year.
Matthew Wiesner
The first year saw a modest 900 cars sold, the second was 1300, and in 2010 that number rose to 1700. That’s certainly slow and steady growth, but this has laid an excellent foundation for the future success of the brand. Skoda sells on quality and value, and the message seems to be hitting home with Australians.
It’s a position the Koreans, like Hyundai and Kia, could only dream about. It has taken them almost 20 years to land in this sweet spot of the market, where you can charge a higher price for a presumed ‘cheap’ car! And, get away with it.
Jutta Dierks
So, back to patience. In 2007 Skoda Australia launched into the teeth of the growing global financial crisis. Then-VWA Chief Jutta Dierks and Matthew Wiesner had made the initial commitment to Volkswagen AG in late 2005, so in effect given the turmoil created by the GFC there were no big expectations of a spectacular launch, and subsequent high sales.
Wiesner and Skoda Australia were thrown a lifeline of low expectations, and a period of grace to get the act together. It’s rare in the automotive industry that you get such a holiday from the demand for immediate results. The time has allowed the company and its experienced and energetic CEO to build the product line, the ownership proposition, the brand values, and the modest expectations, uninhibited by a clamour from Wolfsburg for better sales numbers.
Matthew Wiesner forecast in July last year that Skoda could sell 3400 cars in 2011, and in fact it bettered that number by 100 cars. Wiesner says he is looking for a market share of around 2.5% by the end of the decade. That’s still not outrageously ambitious for such a big (volume) division of the giant Volkswagen Group, but it’s in line with the performance to date, and the growing number and variety of models Skoda will introduce from this year on.
Skoda Australia’s market share in 2010 was 0.2% and last year it was 0.3% - so there’s a way to go, but look how the model lineup has changed since launch.
Launching in 2007 with the Octavia sedan, based on the VW Golf; and the quirky, but highly practical Roomster, Skoda has added the Superb sedan and wagon, the Yeti SUV, the Scout allroad wagon, plus the Fabia small car - and there’s a good-looking concept car which appeared in Geneva last year, revealing a new design language to flesh out the future range with stylish, contemporary eye-grabbing appeal.
2011 Vision D Concept Car

Skoda Australia is showing greater stability than similar-sized markets in Europe (but we know why they’re having trouble!), and with just 10 dealers handling the brand in 2007, there are now 38 at the end of 2011. That number will grow to 47 by the end of 2012, 60% of whom are joint VW dealers. That allows a good spread in the major metropolitan markets, without the marque being over-represented, meaning dealers are not cutting each other’s throats for a deal. Weisner is quick to praise them as being a big contributor to the firm establishment of the brand.
Much of this outcome however must be credited to Matthew Wiesner, who at 42 is a widely-experienced, and very smart operator. He is paying back Jutta Dierks' confidence when she  appointed him to this important brand development role.
His armory is sound, and he not only has excellent credentials, but also a wise head, developing the brand values backed by Volkswagen’s excellence in product development.
1955 Skoda
Since Skoda launched in Czechoslovakia in the late 1940’s (see separate history post), and after many unsuccessful forays into Australia, Skoda today now boasts a sound foundation based on distinctive European values, and advanced technology transfer from VWAG. Treating the re-entry of the marque to Australia like a completely-new brand, Skoda has now launched into sponsorships which link to its European background, as well as integrating with the Australian community.

Skoda Australia sponsors professional cycling, like the Tour Down Under, and if you watch the Tour de France and other European cycling events regularly, you’ll see Skoda support cars mixing it with the pelaton, and this represents a logical marriage for Skoda Australia. The company is also a foundation sponsor for the new Greater Western Sydney AFL team, which is a no-brainer for a company seeking low-cost of entry sponsorship, matched to highly anticipated interest in the performance of a new football club.
All this makes perfect sense, and my prediction is that whilst Matthew Wiesner stays at the helm, and VWAG invests in him, and Skoda Australia with confidence and unstinting support, then this brand will continue to build a strong base of fans and owners Down Under. Wiesner wants Skoda’s models to eventually cover 85% of the market here, from Small/Medium, to Compact, to sub-Luxury, SUV and 4x4, and this will solidly extend its reach without overplaying it.
Skoda is mixing it with the established Japanese and Koreans, but given its sensible and patient approach I don’t think its anticipated market share, and sales performance, is in any danger of not being achieved.

Add to this the outstanding design, engineering and manufacturing quality at the heart of VWAG’s model development, and the company is definitely looking good for a solid place in the hearts of Australia’s Euro-centric car buyers, who are demanding value and quality.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Automotive Industry Road Map for Australia

This week’s announcements of Kim Carr’s success in Detroit in obtaining future funding from Ford and GM for their Australian manufacturing activities should probably be applauded. However, like the inevitable Greek debt default, it’s just kicking the stones a few more metres along the road.

Fairfax business journalist Ian Verrender is correct when he opines the Federal and State governments are tipping taxpayers money into a bottomless pit, but he’s a dedicated business journalist.
The Australian’s automotive writer, the respected Philip King takes a more balanced, albeit car industry-centric approach, when he writes that the death of Australian car manufacturing is not imminent, but that it is inevitable.
However, for the 60,000 or so people employed in dedicated car making, and the supporting automotive component parts industry, it is nonetheless welcome news. But those people, and the Federal and State governments need to start thinking right now, about what happens after 2017. Face the fact - after that date we will NOT be able to sustain full-blown car manufacturing. What do we do with all these experienced and talented people?
The governments are right to be worried about job losses, so they need to be developing a road map in concert with the major companies.
Here’s a plan. Last year the authoritative automotive newsletter Go-Auto devoted almost an entire week’s edition to highlighting talented, inventive and visionary Australians leading the technology advances in parts and components. We recognise that we already have those same skills in automotive design and engineering, residing inside the major car makers.
Why doesn’t Australia set itself a course for developing a series of small, niche automotive design, and production companies which could sell their expertise around the world? We have a hotbed of people with vision, expertise and energy who could fuel such a plan.
It is far easier for governments to support a range and number of small, specialist companies developing ideas and projects which would be of use to car companies in China, Japan, Germany, Italy, Korea and the USA, as well as in automotive countries like Brazil, India, Thailand and Indonesia.
Let’s admit that car manufacturing as we have known it since 1950 is going to die, and begin developing the strategies to absorb all these talented people into a globalised, high-tech group of companies creating ideas for future mobility. This also opens up opportunities for schools and tertiary colleges to develop upcoming genii to grow into jobs in this range of companies.
Many years ago in France I uncovered an overt plan between Automobiles Peugeot in Mulhouse, and the education decision-makers in the Montbeliard region, to ‘design’ their curriculums  to ensure the colleges and university turned out graduates with expertise and diplomas aimed at getting a job with Peugeot (or even other car companies). This marriage of needs and training worked fantastically. The car companies got graduates whose talents fitted their needs. The tertiary institutions grew, the car companies benefitted of course, but the community came out a winner too - by offering jobs which, more importantly, kept talented, increasingly wealthy young people in the region contributing to the local tax base.
My plan suggests that we don’t even need to localise this range of high-tech, niche companies in the accepted auto industry towns and cities. Indeed, they could be located anywhere in Australia, serviced by the fibre-optic NBN, and putting a lot of emphasis into an important part of the business community - ‘small business’.
There’s no reason Australian cannot remain deeply involved in the mainstream of the automotive industry of the future, not just in car-making - which we know is going to be dead here after 2017.
Let’s invest in people, and a diverse range of skills, ideas and innovation which makes Australia a really clever country!


Senator Kim Carr is the latest champion for Australia's car industry of which the Labor Party can be proud. Some may think he's misdirected by pouring so much energy into retaining car manufacturing in Australia, but it's a fact he has worked tirelessly to try and protect thousands of skilled jobs.

Many years ago another Labor senator brought rational debate and innovative solutions to help that same thrust, protecting jobs, by defining a path for car makers which made them competitive and confident about investing in Australia. The man was John Button, and Australia should never forget the important contributiomns he made to this important industry.