Newsflash: keert de Toyota Celica terug?

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+++ AUDI aims to sell 1 million vehicles in China in 2023, versus 726.000 vehicles in 2020, the brand’s China chief Werner Eichhorn said. Audi, which is making cars in the world’s biggest auto market with FAW Group, will also add more products in China, Eichhorn said. Audi’s rivals include Daimler and BMW. Currently, these competitors sell more cars in China. +++ 

+++ The European Commission gave the green light for supporting a second BATTERY CELL ALLIANCE of 42 companies from 12 member states, including carmakers BMW and Tesla, the German economy minister said. “The approval of the second major European project for battery cell production is a great success and creates the critical mass for the battery ecosystem in Germany and Europe”, Altmaier said. Germany and other European countries will support the development of competitive, innovative and environmentally friendly battery cells which will trigger massive private investments and create up to 10.000 jobs, he added. +++ 

+++ President Joe BIDEN said today that the U.S. federal government would replace its fleet of vehicles with electric vehicles. “The federal government also owns an enormous fleet of vehicles, which we’re going to replace with clean electric vehicles made right here in America, by American workers”. He said the move will create a million jobs in the auto and clean energy sectors. The federal government maintains a fleet of 645.000 vehicles, according to the General Service Administration’s 2019 Federal Fleet Report released in 2020. Those include vehicles assigned to various civilian (like the Postal Service) and military agencies. Of those, the majority (about 412.500) are trucks, with 272.000 light trucks, 102.000 medium-duty and 39.000 heavy trucks. The fleet also includes about 224.000 passenger vehicles and 8.000 other vehicles like buses and ambulances. Biden didn’t provide specifics, such as a timeline for replacement, the automakers that would provide the vehicles, or how much the government would spend on the massive initiative. The announcement comes as part of a larger push to stimulate American manufacturing. Biden signed an executive order aimed at increasing factory jobs, which have slumped by 540.000 since the pandemic began last year. The order increases the amount of production content in a product for it to be considered made in America under current “Buy American” requirements, making it harder for contractors to qualify for a waiver and sell foreign-made goods to federal agencies. Last week, Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee for Department of Transportation, indicated he would work to support Biden’s green transportation plans. Buttigieg suggested the administration would reverse a Trump administration rollback in federal automotive fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and would work to encourage use of electric vehicles through measures such as adding a half-million charging stations nationwide. Buttigieg did not specify where money could come from for big investments in infrastructure, and wouldn’t rule out a tax increase, floating the idea of a “vehicle miles traveled” tax as an alternative to the current gas tax that funds the Highway Trust Fund. +++ 

+++ BMW aims to return to its pre-pandemic operating margin target as the global economy recovers, but big investments in electric cars mean the automaker will have to simplify its vehicle portfolio, its finance chief told. Nicolas Peter said orders had fallen because of the latest pandemic-related lockdowns, but added: “if activity starts again after the middle of February, we should be able to deliver a reasonable first quarter”. Improving market conditions, a Brexit deal and the German company’s plans to increase its share in its Chinese joint venture to 75 % from 50 % in 2022 should all help push BMW back to its pre-pandemic operating margin target of 8 % to 10 %. “We’re not talking about far away in the future, but it is a goal that we’re looking at systematically in the short term”, Peter said during an interview at BMW’s Munich headquarters. The company will publish its 2021 margin target in March. A surge in premium car sales in China, the world’s largest autos market, provided much-needed help for BMW’s business (it also boosted German rivals Daimler and Volkswagen) and it should report a 2020 operating margin of between 2 % and 3 %, Peter said. Changing car line-ups from petrol and diesel to electric versions to meet emissions targets in China and Europe, not to mention trying to compete with electric carmaker Tesla, is hugely expensive, and was a driving factor in the recent merger of PSA and Fiat Chrysler to form Stellantis, the world’s 4th largest carmaker. Further consolidation is expected as carmakers struggle with electrification and investing in self-driving technology, but Peter said BMW could handle the transition. “We are very confident we can make it alone”, he said. But because electric vehicles (EV) are expensive to develop and still account for a small portion of sales, they are less profitable for BMW, Peter said. “That’s why investment is so important”, he said. “We have to find ways to get to a different cost level, especially with cells and batteries”. So the premium carmaker is embarking on a push to cut complexity: reducing engine variants and options for different vehicles, scrapping features customers don’t use, plus overhauling software to focus on a simpler, more efficient way of building vehicles. In 2020, BMW’s global EV sales rose 31.8 % versus 2019 and the carmaker says it plans to double its sales of fully-electric vehicles this year. Traditionally, BMW has considered Germany’s other carmakers as its rivals, but Peter said increasingly it is looking to San Francisco and companies like China’s Nio (with its focus on interaction between car and driver) for inspiration. He said that in polls two thirds of Chinese consumers have said they will switch to other brands and products if they provide a better digital experience. “Those are the themes that have to be in focus”, Peter said. +++ 

+++ The 8th generation CHEVROLET CORVETTE is a mid-engined masterpiece that is so far pretty great in both base and Z51 flavors. And it will have even more variants in the future. That much is almost certain. What exactly these variants are, however, remains an open question until Chevrolet makes it official. That said, information that I’ve gathered suggests a Z06 is on the horizon. While the C8 Z06 is an extremely exciting proposition, it’s the so-called “E-Ray” that truly has my attention. To be very clear, nothing’s official until Chevrolet tells us so. And at this early date, I have only rumors and a few scant firm details to work with. Still, this combination gives us a reasonable idea of what to expect from the gasoline-electric hybrid Corvette. For one, General Motors has held the “E-Ray” trademark since 2015. It renewed it in August 2020. Automakers hold trademarks for lots of reasons, and it doesn’t always mean they intend to produce a vehicle so named. However, with the latest GM push toward electrification, the stars are aligning for an electrified C8. If the C8 E-Ray will be a hybrid, is rumor at the moment. We’ve heard the E-Ray will adopt a pair of front-mounted electric motors, which will provide low-speed motivation, as well as an extra kick in various performance scenarios. The layout would be loosely reminiscent of the recently-departed BMW i8: an internal combustion engine aft of the cabin and 2 electric motors powering the front wheels. That means the E-Ray would be all-wheel drive. The E-Ray is anticipated to use the stock 6.2-liter V8 engine found in the regular C8. For such a large engine, the V8 returns reasonable fuel economy thanks to a bevy of advanced fuel-saving features, such as Active Fuel Management (cylinder deactivation). GM could detune the engine slightly for better economy, considering the E-Ray’s electric motors will likely add a good deal of power to the powertrain stable. I’m confident that if an E-Ray comes to market, it’ll best the stock C8’s 495 hp and 630 Nm (when equipped with the performance exhaust). I envision power numbers that slot it firmly in between the regular C8 and the high-zoot Z06. I’ve heard that the E-Ray’s electric motors could be paired with a twin-turbocharged version of the Z06’s flat-plane crank V-8. The resulting all-wheel-drive hybrid monster could be called the “Zora” to honor the “Father of the Corvette”, GM engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. I expect it to have more than 900 hp. In other words, it’ll be a true monster of a Corvette. It’d be a smart way for GM to re-use some of the development dollars spent on the E-Ray, too, giving the C8 a variety of mix-and-match powertrain components to dial in several performance price points. Again, GM hasn’t confirmed the Corvette Zora, so things may change in the future. It is not clear when the E-Ray will arrive. As soon as I find out when it is due, I’ll let you know. The C8’s been out for a while, and after GM’s recent EV and electrification announcements, the time is certainly ripe for the company to announce the addition of the E-Ray. Unfortunately, with most auto shows canceled due to the pandemic, we can’t point to a particular show that might serve as the likely reveal date. Stay tuned. +++  

+++ The world’s biggest DIESEL engine factory in Tremery, eastern France, is undergoing a radical overhaul: it’s switching to make electric motors. From less than 10 % of output in 2020, electric motor production at Tremery will double to around 180.000 in 2021 and is planned to reach 900.000 a year (or more than half the plant’s peak pre-pandemic output) by 2025. The shift is testament to a car industry in flux. Demand for diesel cars has slumped since a 2015 pollution scandal, while tough new EU regulations, which fine carmakers for exceeding emissions limits, are pushing them to make more electric models. So, in the midst of a pandemic and with the level of consumer demand for battery-driven cars still uncertain, automakers from Volkswagen to Nissan are ditching diesel models and ramping up output of electric drives. “2021 is going to be a pivotal year, the first real transition towards the world of electric models”, said Laetitia Uzan, a representative for the CFTC union at Tremery. But for Tremery’s 3.000 workers, and the wider car industry, there’s an added complication. Electric motors only have a fifth of the parts of a traditional diesel engine, putting a question mark over jobs. Uzan acknowledged a risk that fewer staff may be needed, but was optimistic that could happen “quite naturally” as workers retire without being replaced. Tremery’s owner Stellantis (newly created from the merger of Peugeot maker PSA and Fiat Chrysler to help tackle the industry changes) has said it won’t close factories and will seek to protect jobs. But some industry researchers warn Europe’s car manufacturers, already suffering from overcapacity, will have to make big cuts in order to deliver the investments needed to catch up with U.S. electric car pioneer Tesla. French car lobby group PFA estimates 15.000 jobs linked to diesel are at risk in France, out of 400.000 employed by the industry as a whole. IAB, a German labour research institute, calculates the arrival of electric vehicles could threaten 100.000 jobs in Germany, or about 1 in 8 German auto industry jobs. The transition from diesel is particularly marked in Europe, where sales of diesel vehicles made up at least 50 % of the total as recently as 2015, according to data from research group JATO Dynamics, far higher than in both North America and Asia. At least 20 car models will no longer offer diesel versions in 2021, from Volkswagen’s Polo and Renault’s Scenic to Nissan’s Micra and Honda’s Civic, according to researchers IHS Markit, which says 2021 will be “an unprecedented year” in the shift away from diesel. Meanwhile, a slew of new electric models will hit showrooms. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Britain’s car lobby group, expects 29 new fully-electric and 7 plug-in hybrid models will be launched in the country this year, compared with 26 internal combustion engine models; only 14 of which will have diesel variants. There are encouraging signs that consumer interest in electric vehicles is picking up. In September, EU registrations of electrified vehicles (fully electric, plug-in hybrid or hybrid) overtook diesel registrations for the first time, according to JATO data. EU sales of fully-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles surged 122 % in the first 9 months of 2020, at a time when overall vehicle sales fell 29 % due to the pandemic. But they still only accounted for around 8 % of total sales, with some drivers put off by the limited availability of charging points and higher cost of many electrified models. At Renault’s Cleon plant near the northern French coast, the switch from diesel is well under way, with only half a building housing the assembly lines for diesel motors while hybrid and electric motors are spread over 2 whole buildings. “If an employee came back after several years away, they wouldn’t recognise the place”, said Lionel Anglais, a union representative with oversight of manufacturing at Renault. +++ 

+++ FLYING CARS (and jetpacks) have fascinated the public and press for decades and are a surefire way to get crowds and coverage at an event. At this month’s virtual CES, General Motors scored big buzz (and a significant stock-price bounce) from its numerous announcements, one of which was unveiling a flying-car concept that carries Cadillac styling cues. Like most modern so-called “flying cars,” GM’s concept isn’t really designed for roads or being driven at all, but is an autonomous, single-seat, electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle (eVTOL). Dubbed Vertile and just a rendering at this point, GM says it will be powered by a 90 kWh battery and is meant for short-distance travel, reaching a torpid top speed of 90 kph. Stellantis (née FCA) also jumped on the flying-car bandwagon at CES by announcing a partnership with California-based Archer Aviation to launch what Archer calls “the world’s first all-electric airline”. But the Stellantis-Archer eVTOL is designed for shuttling passengers short distances between, say, a city center and outlying airports, not long distances. These 2 companies join a fledgling flock of personal-aircraft concepts and partnerships among major automakers. Last year Hyundai displayed in its CES booth an eVTOL designed for four passengers and a pilot, while Toyota announced a nearly $400 million investment in eVTOL piloted air-taxi startup Joby Aviation. At the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show a few months earlier Mercedes-Benz, trotted out an air taxi developed by its partner, the German company Volocopter, and at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, Audi teamed up with Airbus and Italdesign to display an electric and autonomous quadcopter/city car combo. Dubbed the Pop.Up Next, if the car part gets stuck in traffic, the Airbus-developed drone can be summoned via an app to lift the passenger compartment pod, leaving the self-driving chassis and rush hour behind. GM vicepresident of global design, Michael Simcoe, said during a CES video presentation the company’s Vertile “meets you on the roof and drops you at the Vertiport closest to your destination. As a passenger”. He added: “it represents personal space and a panoramic view of the world passing beneath you”. Sure, sounds cool. But the dream of personal vehicles taking to the skies precedes passenger cars as we know them; back to when the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage was patented in 1841. And ever since then, we’ve been waiting for flying cars. The auto industry’s interest in flying vehicles as part of their mobility and logistics portfolios comes at a time when tech giants and others are curtailing their own ambitious personal-aviation plans. Uber announced at the end of 2020 that Joby Aviation was acquiring its Uber Elevate division, only weeks before the ride-hailing company jettisoned its autonomous-vehicle division to help stem its endless river of red ink. Kitty Hawk, the flying-car startup launched in 2010 by Google cofounder Larry Page and self-driving car guru Sebastian Thrun, announced this summer the company was grounding its Flyer, an ultralight, single-seat, pontoon aircraft designed for recreational use over water rather than soaring over gridlocked urban traffic. Kitty Hawk, however, is moving ahead with development of Heaviside, a larger single-seat eVTOL with a range of about 160 km for short city-to-city flights. But while deep-pocket tech titans can pour time and money into pet projects, it’s more difficult for shareholder-beholden automakers to sink resources into potential pie-in-the-sky flying-car concepts. After a little more than a year, for example, Audi suspended work on its Pop.Up air taxi and hit pause on its partnership with Airbus. And while automakers are used to dealing with the onerous regulation that it takes to manufacturer and maintain cars, taking to the skies presents a whole new level of rules. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency both are moving slowly on regulation that will open the skies to nouveau personal aircraft, with the pace of technology outpacing policymaking. Former deputy administrator of the FAA and current global head of policy for Hyundai Urban Air Mobility division Mike Whitaker told eVTOL.com he recognizes both “the cautious approach of the FAA as well as the frustration of the OEMs that want clarity and speed to certification”. Whitaker added: “At the end of the day, neither the regulations nor the technology is quite ready for prime time, and industry and the FAA will need to continue working together to bring this technology and the supporting ecosystem online as fast as can safely be achieved”. So while Simcoe said in GM’s virtual CES presentation that the Vertile is “a glimpse of what autonomy and Cadillac luxury might look like in the not-too-distant future” and given we’ve been waiting almost 200 years since the introduction of the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage to see flying cars achieve liftoff in large numbers, don’t hold your breath. Or sell your car just yet. +++ 

+++ HYUNDAI said it expects sales in United States and China to surge this year, driven by the launch of new electric cars and SUVs, after reporting its best quarterly profit in over 3 years. Hyundai’s holiday-quarter profit jumped 57% on more demand for premium-margin SUVs, but overall sales volumes fell 5 % amid a broader economic weakness due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The promising outlook is a testament to Hyundai’s big electric vehicle (EV) push. The company, which together with affiliate Kia is among the world’s top 10 automakers, is soon expected to introduce an EV-only platform that will use its own battery technology to cut time and costs. Hyundai, however, did not provide on its earnings call any update on recently reported talks between it and Apple about an electric car and battery tie-up. On sales, the automaker said it expects a 12 % jump in its biggest market, North America, in 2021. Its sales in the 4th quarter ended December slipped 2 % in the region. “With our lineup with new models ready to launch in the United States, we aim to increase our market share to 4.8 % this year”, senior vice president Koo Za-yong said on the call. Last year, the company managed to slightly advance its U.S. market share to 4.4 %, helped by sales of the Palisade SUV and Kona Electric, he said, despite a 10 % fall in sales. Analysts expect a boost to Hyundai’s EV sales this year despite a global recall of Kona Electric due to fires. Hyundai said it expects sales to jump 28 % in China, the world’s top car market where it also plans to release the electric version of its Mistra sedan this year. “Last year, Hyundai basically didn’t do much in China, while other automakers launched new models as the Chinese auto market saw a rapid recovery amid the pandemic. Hyundai’s China strategy seems to focus on electric cars”, said Lee Han-joon, an analyst at KTB Investment & Securities. Hyundai expects to sell 562.000 vehicles in China in 2021, and estimates sales in North America will jump to 909.000. In the 4th quarter, Hyundai earned 1.3 trillion won ($1.18 billion), the highest since at least early 2017. But it fell short of an average analyst estimate of 1.5 trillion won, due to a strong won. The South Korean currency rose about 7 % against the dollar in the 3 months to December. A stronger won erodes the value of overseas sales for South Korean companies. Hyundai’s quarterly revenue rose 5 % to 29.2 trillion won as it saw solid demand for its cars in the United States and emerging markets such as India despite the pandemic. While demand for its vehicles from car-rental companies that purchase in bulk is still tepid, analysts said, sales of its luxury cars are expected to remain a bright spot. Hyundai had delivered a loss in the October quarter as it provisioned for a big engine-quality related bill. “Hyundai had a good 4th quarter, especially in the United States, where higher average-selling-price cars such as SUVs saw increasing demand as consumers shun public transit because of Covid-19 and low gasoline prices”, KTB’s Lee said. “Holiday deals helped as well”. +++ 

+++ A HYUNDAI KONA ELECTRIC caught fire last week in the first-ever known case of a recalled Kona catching fire, prompting authorities to investigate the adequacy of the recall, a South Korean transport ministry official said. A series of fires prompted mass recalls of Hyundai’s best-selling Kona EV in South Korea in October. The latest Kona fire, in the city of Daegu, is among 11 reported so far in the country. But this incident was different as it was the first Kona EV to catch fire after undergoing the recall process, the official said. In South Korea, Hyundai has recalled 25.564 Kona EVs built during September 2017 to March 2020 due to the risk of short circuit possibly caused by faulty manufacturing of its high-voltage battery cells. Recalled Kona EVs in South Korea get software updates and some receive battery replacements after inspection. The recalled Kona that caught fire had only received a software update but no battery replacement, the official said on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to media. Korea Automobile Testing & Research Institute, which has been investigating the fires, is now looking into the adequacy of Hyundai’s voluntary recall process, the official and an institute official said. Hyundai did not have an immediate comment. Hyundai is expected to launch a new electric vehicle, the Ioniq 5 (its first model using a new EV-only platform) next month. +++ 

+++ KIA said it’s reviewing cooperation on self-driving electric cars with multiple foreign firms, making no mention of a report linking it to a project with tech giant Apple. Kia’s comment, issued in a regulatory filing as its shares surged nearly 20 % in Seoul, came after a domestic online publication reported that Kia’s parent, the Hyundai Motor Group, had decided Kia would be in charge of proposed cooperation with Apple on electric cars. The report cited unnamed industry sources. Hyundai Motor declined to comment. Apple was not immediately available for comment outside of U.S. business hours. Kia’s sister company Hyundai said earlier this month it was in early talks with Apple, after local media reported the firms were discussing an electric car and battery-tie up, sending Hyundai shares up nearly 25 %. Apple declined to comment at the time. In December, Autointernationaal reported that Apple was moving forward with self-driving car technology and was aiming to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology as early as 2024. +++ 

+++ MERCEDES-BENZ has unveiled the EQA, a new electric compact SUV as part of plans to take on rival Tesla and offer more emission-free vehicles to consumers to meet targets in Europe and China. The EQA, the first of several electric models Mercedes-Benz plans to launch this year, will initially have a range of 426 km, with a 500 km model coming later, the premium brand carmaker said in a video presentation. The SUV will go on sale in Europe on February 4 at what board of management Britta Seeger described as “very attractive price points”. Electric vehicle (EV) sales took off in Europe last year as carmakers scrambled to meet European Union CO2 emissions targets. Sales received a boost from subsidies included in economic stimulus measures rolled out in France and Germany, in particular. Sales of fully electric and plug-in hybrid models rose 122 % across the EU through the first 3 quarters of 2020. Mercedes-Benz describes the EQA as an “urban entry model” and board member Seeger touted its “sustainability, versatility and fresh look”. Electric carmaker Tesla got a head start on traditional carmakers with their vast investments in fossil-fuel vehicles and has dominated global sales. The mass-market Model 3 is the world’s best-selling EV, followed in distant second place by Renault’s Zoe. As well as emissions targets, carmakers face bans on fossil-fuel vehicles that come into effect as early as 2030 in some markets. +++ 

+++ NISSAN is accelerating the rollout of electric vehicles in China under its main brand and its local, no-frills Venucia marque as it overhauls its strategy in the world’s biggest auto market, 4 sources told. Besides the focus on green vehicles, the plan involves using more locally made parts and technologies to reduce costs and help the struggling Japanese carmaker compete better with lower-cost Chinese firms and major global rivals, the sources said. The China strategy is a key pillar of Nissan’s turnaround, which involves focusing on producing profitable cars for China, Japan and the United States, rather than chasing all-out global growth as it did under disgraced former boss Carlos Ghosn. “Before we were saying global, global, global, and China was just part of that strategy”, 1 of the 4 people familiar with the plans told. “With regionalisation now replacing globalisation, we have to improve the cost competitiveness of all the components and technologies that go into a car by going totally local”, he said. Both the Nissan board and the board of its China joint venture Dongfeng Motor have backed the plan and some elements of the new strategy will be unveiled at the Shanghai auto show in April, the sources said. Nissan plans to launch 3 cars in China this year: the new all-electric Ariya crossover, a significant redesign of its X-Trail and a hybrid Sylphy compact car using its e-Power technology, the sources said. At least one new Nissan car will hit the Chinese market each year through 2025, with most either fully electric or hybrids equipped with autonomous and smart driving technology, the sources said. One is likely to be an e-Power X-Trail. 2 of the sources said the plan also involves turning Venucia more into a brand for affordable electric vehicles (EVs), though details are still being worked out. The idea is to price new Venucia EVs well below its current cheapest EV (the e30 mini car) which starts at 61,800 yuan ($9,540). All 4 sources work for Nissan and spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to reporters. Nissan declined to comment on its future product strategy. “China is a core market for Nissan and Nissan is getting prepared to launch a slew of technologies including e-Power technology to fulfil customers’ aspirations”, a Nissan spokesman said. He also confirmed the Ariya would be launched in 2021. Despite being one of the world’s first automakers to fully embrace fully electric cars with its best-selling Leaf, Nissan has fallen behind Toyota and Honda, analysts said. Both launched a slew of new hybrids in China in 2019 and 2020 which has helped boost their sales. “Nissan has nothing to show off in terms of green cars in China today”, said Yale Zhang, head of consultancy Automotive Foresight in Shanghai. “That’s hurting their image and, most importantly, sales”. Nissan’s new China strategy is also a response to growing competition from price-competitive Chinese automakers such as Geely, GAC Motor and BYD, 2 of the sources said. 1 of the sources said a new focus on “China-specific” cars designed to appeal to local tastes underpinned Nissan’s more decisive turn towards electrified models. That should mean bolder grilles, sharp-looking headlamps and tail lights as well as richer, softer and more sumptuous vehicle interiors. Many local brands are now producing better-quality cars and that’s putting pressure on Nissan’s mainstream cars, as well as vehicles produced by other global automakers. The most critical part of Nissan’s China-specific strategy, however, is to make cars with more parts and technologies procured within the country to slash costs. After posting its first loss in 11 years, Nissan is scrambling to slash its production capacity and models by about a fifth and to cut fixed costs by 300 billion yen ($2.9 billion) over 3 years. Nissan expects to post a record operating loss of 340 billion yen in the year ending March 31. 2 of the sources said there wasn’t necessarily a cost-cutting target for the China initiative. However, Nissan is worried about the potential hit to profitability from increasingly stringent emissions and fuel-economy rules, as well as a likely rise in the cost of materials such as steel, other metals and semiconductors, they said. Under the new China plan, parts engineered and procured locally should go well beyond bumpers, seats and lamps to include more complex technologies such as sensors and electric power inverters, 3 of the sources said. Batteries for Nissan’s e-Power models, for example, will be locally developed and sourced from China’s Sunwoda Electric Vehicle Battery. Nissan’s new plan is modest in terms of volume growth. It is simply aiming to outpace the overall Chinese market for cars and light commercial vehicles, which Nissan expects to grow by about 10 % to 25 million vehicles by 2025, one source said. Nissan’s previous “Triple One” China plan aimed to boost annual sales to 2.6 million cars by 2022 but the Covid-19 pandemic derailed it. Nissan sold 1.46 million cars last year; down from 1.56 million in 2018 when that plan was unveiled. While Nissan’s performance in China last year was broadly in line with an overall 6 % decline in passenger car sales due to the coronavirus, its Venucia brand fared particularly badly. Established in 2012 to compete with local brands making cheap, gasoline-fueled cars, Venucia’s sales peaked in 2017 at 143.206 before sliding to 79.000 last year. The plan is to relaunch Venucia more as a brand for affordable EVs though it won’t be going fully electric for now, 2 sources said. Carmakers in China need to make enough so-called New Energy Vehicles to win green-car credits which then offset negative points from their production of combustion engine vehicles. Nissan looks set to fall short of credits so it would either have to buy them from rivals, or step up its EV production. As buying credits would eat into profitability, it is favouring the second strategy, 1 of the sources said. Cheaper EVs made locally by global rivals such as General Motors through joint ventures have also proved to be a success story with customers, especially in big cities. Launched in July, GM’s tiny Wuling Mini EV has already become China’s best selling electric vehicle, knocking Tesla’s Model 3 sedan off its perch. “We don’t have enough electric cars in China. The new plan for Venucia is all about changing that more decisively”, said one of the sources familiar with Nissan’s plans. +++ 

+++ Unveiled at CES 2020, and road-tested in Austria in 2021, the SONY Vision-S looks ready for series production. And yet, the Japanese consumer electronics giant said it’s not planning on leaping into the automotive industry. “At present, we have no plans to mass-produce or sell the vehicle. With mobility expected as a major megatrend into the future, we’re exploring how Sony can contribute in a meaningful way to the era of autonomous driving”, a company spokesperson told. Note that the statement stresses there are no current plans to build the Vision-S or something like it. It does not fully rule out moving into the EV segment in the coming years. Sony went through the trouble of building a fully functional car, hiring Magna Steyr to fine-tune it, and registering it in Austria to put it through its paces in real-world conditions. What’s the point, then? Officially, the firm simply wants to test new technologies, notably features related to autonomous driving and in-car entertainment. One possibility is that, when cars drive themselves, passengers will be able to play their favorite PlayStation games online while they’re traveling thanks to an in-car 5G connection. Building a car from scratch gives Sony the ability to control what it develops without having to work around hardware and software created by another company. I’m still rather perplexed by the Vision-S. Carmakers test futuristic new features on a regular basis, yet they rarely create a completely new car for the sole purpose of evaluating what it’s like to embed an armada of sensors underneath the bumper or to hardwire a gaming console into the wiring loom. Even Google, whose revenues comfortably eclipse Sony’s, didn’t start from scratch. It began testing its technology in a Toyota Prius. Design fuels our doubts, too, because Sony’s first car looks pretty good. It appears almost ready for production. At 4.850 mm long, it’s not overly forward-thinking, and it’s not a science experiment-esque sedan cobbled together with parts from various bins. It even has an independent air suspension that adjusts the ride height. Time will tell whether Sony’s ambitions are bigger than it lets on, or if the Vision-S will be remembered as the exception to the rule. In the meantime, motorists who want to drive a vehicle developed by a company better known for music players than Nürburgring records will need to wait until the long-rumored Apple car makes its debut. It’s allegedly being developed by Kia, and it could land in Apple stores in the first half of the 2020s. +++

 

+++ Asked 7 years ago why Mercedes-Benz was so determined to chase success in China, then boss Dieter Zetsche waved aside accusations of risking boom and bust as the market grew exponentially, referring instead to the opportunity to plant his firm’s fortunes on a tripod rather than stilts. It was an eloquent reference to having strong bases in Asia, Europe and the US, thus diluting the risk of regional economic fluctuations. To date, even during a global pandemic, this strategy has looked sound. Mercedes’ resilience in 2020 was thanks in no small part to its performance in China, where it set a new sales record, remarkably shifting 11.7 % more cars than in 2019 in a market down 6.8 %. Underlining the benefits of the tripod idea perfectly, almost exactly one in three of the 2.1 million Mercedes sold found a home in China. It’s little wonder, then, that Carlos Tavares, now the boss of 14 marques after the PSA Group and FCA merged, is also looking east. For all the advantages of scale, to stretch Zetsche’s analogy, the new Stellantis firm’s global base currently sits on stilts of different lengths and strengths. Dominating in volume on one side is Europe, a market so challenged and regulated that some firms are leaving it, while on the other is the potentially more lucrative but often tribal US market. China should provide the answer for Mercedes, yet nobody knows the risks there better than Tavares; PSA’s fortunes slumped catastrophically in China in recent years, chiefly in the face of competition from rapidly improving Chinese manufacturers competing in the mid-market. At its peak in 2014, PSA sold a Mercedes-eclipsing 730.000 vehicles in China; last year, it sold fewer than 50.000, having declared its break-even total to be about 150.000 after an emergency restructuring in 2019. The FCA side of Stellantis, meanwhile, has little more to speak of, having been slow and short on funds to enter China with a flourish. Asked late last year if he would consider shuttering operations in China, Tavares replied: “We need to find a formula to succeed”. The logic is clear, but whichever brand leads the way, seeking redemption, a relaunch or a fresh start is going to be expensive and hard work. With the pressures of Stellantis’s restricted global spread now sharply in focus, the challenges of formalising the merger now pale in comparison to the difficulties (and opportunities) ahead. As a man who is fond of justifying hard decisions on the basis of building a sustainable future for his employers and employees, Tavares has no option other than to make it work. +++ 

+++ SUBARU ’s European operation is being radically overhauled after the Japanese firm suffered a “ridiculous” year for sales in 2020, according to its UK managing director. While most brands recorded substantial falls in registrations across the country, due to the pandemic, Subaru was the hardest hit of any, with a year-on-year decrease of more than 68 % compared with 2019. “2020 was a horrible year”, admitted John Hurtig, who moved from heading up Subaru’s Nordic operation to become UK boss last summer. “What can you say? It’s just an embarrassing number. There’s no more context, to be honest”. Hurtig details some specific reasons that contributed to 2020 being one of the brand’s worst on record here, stating that “it’s not really as bad” as the numbers make it seem. “As a brand, we had a very high registration number in December 2019”, he explained. “In fact, it was actually the best month Subaru has had in the UK ever. So we went into 2020 with a big backlog”. Hurtig admitted this was entirely down to the company pre-registering cars en masse to avoid being handed hefty fleet-average emissions fines when the European Union’s new CO2-cutting regulations came into force in January 2020. All of those cars were sold throughout the year as discounted pre-registrations. There were 2 other crucial factors, Hurtig claimed, that meant Covid-19 and associated lockdowns did greater harm to Subaru than to other brands. One was its customer base. “Our target audience, is, to be honest, older people”, he said, “and those are the biggest risk group for the disease. So they have been very concerned about getting out there and doing business; that has been the feedback we get from customers. This might be one of the reasons it’s hit us more”. Perhaps even more significant, however, is what Hurtig describes as a need to “rebuild the dealer network from the roots”. He explained: “We’ve changed a lot of things within Subaru. We also need to change the structure of our dealer network entirely. There’s a lot of things we lacked in the past, from both sides of the business. I’m not just blaming the dealers; 50 % of the blame goes back to us as an organisation as well”. While he acknowledges that there’s a “core” need for more Subaru presence in Europe, both in terms of dealers and investing more in marketing and brand awareness activities, more pertinent is actually getting those dealers engaged in the brand and on-message. “We need the right dealers”, he said. “It comes back to that. We can have the best marketing and brand awareness, but if the dealers aren’t on the same page, it’s useless. So this has to be developed hand-in-hand”. Hurtig has an “aggressive” plan to expand the network in the UK, hoping to establish 15 new sites this year alone, as well as bringing a “new attitude” across the board. Subaru also still finds itself suffering from a confused brand image that it must overcome. In the 1990s and 2000s, its reputation was firmly bolstered by the rallying success of the Impreza WRX STi, a model with a huge legacy that gradually fell out of favour in the face of a European hot hatchback boom and was killed off in the UK entirely in 2018. “Subaru has made a lot of mistakes in the past, to build Subaru’s brand to be something it isn’t any more”, said Hurtig. “The Impreza was a performance car, a rally car. It was a good era. But it’s history; it’s a long time ago now. It has nothing really to do with the Subaru brand as it is today”. Even the standard Impreza is no longer offered, which Hurtig admits was a strategic decision to allow Subaru to focus on its core values as a crossover and SUV brand. On the other hand, the new BRZ sports car was never an option for any European market. Overall, though, Hurtig is honest in admitting that no one area of the business is to blame. “I’m not defending us. The numbers are insane and ridiculous. There’s not just one thing; it actually boils down very much to our organisation, our aggressiveness, our way of working. We’ve changed the management, we’ve changed the team, we’ve changed a lot of things during the second half of 2020. That’s why we’re now starting the recovery scheme”. It’s a pity, then, that plans to turn over a new leaf in 2021 have already hit a roadblock in the form of the third national lockdown to face Europe in the last 12 months. “I have to admit I didn’t expect a lockdown three, to be honest”, said Hurtig. “But it is what it is again. We were due to have the 4th dealer conference to draw up the plans and everything, but we had to postpone it in the morning, because Boris was talking the night before”. Ambitious targets remain in place, however. Subaru lacked the required online presence in the previous lockdowns and didn’t offer ‘click and deliver’, but that’s now up and running. “I had a very good rollout plan before the lockdown came; now we have to be more realistic”, said Hurtig. “But we’re still looking for growth: 30 % in the first quarter is the target. We were looking for far more growth during 2021, but I have to be a bit humble in this situation. However, we can’t just sit and relax and wait for the lockdown to open up”. New cars in the pipeline are hoped to pick up some of the slack of the sales recovery. These include an updated XV, a facelifted Forester and the new Outback landing on European shores in May. Furthermore, Subaru will detail its first battery-electric car: an SUV, developed as part of a joint venture with Toyota, that will go on sale by 2025. There are further positives in the fact that Subaru’s volume in Europe is so small that it’s classified as a ‘niche manufacturer’ so avoids the most draconian EU CO2 target. Brexit will also have “not really any” significant effect to the business, according to Hurtig. While some have already written off Subaru’s long-term chances a new golden age in Europe, Hurtig is optimistic for the future and wants last year to quickly become history. “2020 was a disaster for us”, he said. “But from our perspective, there’s a good way forward and a good future for us, which we are very much committed to”. +++ 

+++ TESLA is gearing up for an India launch, but the U.S. electric carmaker is likely to remain a niche player there for years, catering only to the rich and affluent in the world’s second-most populous nation. India’s fledgling electric vehicle (EV) market accounted for only 5.000 out of a total 2.4 million cars sold in the country last year. A lack of local production of components and batteries, negligible charging infrastructure and the high cost of EVs mean there have been few takers in the price-conscious market. It’s also difficult to see how Tesla’s sought-after and expensive autonomous driving features will work on India’s congested roads. Ammar Master, a forecaster at consultancy LMC Automotive, said he expects Tesla to annually sell only 50-100 of its Model 3 electric sedans in India, at least in the first 5 years. “As a country, India is still not so environmentally conscious to pay that much of a premium”, Master said. “It always comes down to the price point. There will be some high net-worth individuals like movie stars and top business executives who will look at it for the brand value. But then, how many buyers are there?” The world’s most valuable automobile manufacturer registered a local company in India earlier this month, a step towards its entry in the country, expected to be as early as mid-2021. Tesla plans to import and sell the Model 3 in India for around $65,000 – $75,000; roughly double the price in the U.S. market, sources familiar with the plans said. This means it will compete in India’s even smaller luxury EV segment that has recently started seeing interest from the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz. The Mercedes-Benz EQC, India’s first luxury EV launched in October for $136,000, and has since sold 31 units, according to auto researcher JATO Dynamics. British luxury carmarker Jaguar Land Rover, owned by India’s Tata Motors, plans to launch its I-Pace before March. It sells in the United States for around $70,000. Although India’s road infrastructure has improved in recent years, traffic discipline (like lane driving) is still rudimentary. Auto analysts say that means many of Tesla’s features like the automatic lane changing function will be tough to deploy on crowded Indian streets. Stray animals, including cattle, and potholes on the road are a further problem. “Most of Tesla’s high technology features will be redundant and users will not get the bang for the buck despite paying premium prices”, said Ravi Bhatia, president for India at JATO Dynamics. Rohan Patel, a senior public policy executive at Tesla in the United States, is among those leading efforts around its India launch, the sources familiar with the plans said. The EV giant is looking to hire 15-20 people mainly for sales and marketing, one source said. Tesla and Patel did not respond to a request for comment. India has some of the world’s most polluted cities and wants more clean cars on its roads, but the federal government still does not have a comprehensive policy like China, which mandates carmakers to invest in the segment. One reason is that auto manufacturers have pushed back saying there is no demand for EVs in India as costs of components like batteries remain high, and push up prices. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk has himself expressed concern about India’s high import taxes on cars. In contrast to India, China sold 1.25 million new energy passenger vehicles, including EVs, in 2020 out of total sales of 20 million. Tesla is a major player in China, which last year accounted for more than a third of the carmaker’s global sales, according to JATO Dynamics, and where it also has a factory. Daniel Ives of U.S.-based Wedbush Securities said however that within 7 – 8 years, India could account for 5 % of Tesla’s total sales. The key to success, however, will be local manufacturing, he said. “It is a matter of when, not if, they build out a factory in India”, said Ives, adding that building out a local supply chain will be a multi-year effort. “India is a potential sweet spot, and Tesla does not want to be late to the game”. +++ 

+++ TOYOTA has filed a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the name Celica. While the idea might stir excited thoughts of another sports coupe from Aichi, I think this is rather unlikely, given the extraordinary lengths Toyota has had to go through to build the Supra. What I do know is that the filing is quite recent: dated January 15. Another possibility is that it will simply use the name on another car that’s already in the works. The upcoming GT86 successor would be a natural guess, as it shares many characteristics with early Celicas. Both are lightweight, rear-wheel-drive sports coupes. However, the GT86 is already a well-known twin to the Subaru BRZ and is named after another enthusiast favorite, the AE86 of the 1980s. Swapping names willy-nilly would be akin to rechristening the Camaro the Nova as it switched generations. Perhaps Toyota is mulling it over, as it has yet to say a word about the next Toyota GT86, even though the BRZ has already been revealed. The original Celica recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, having debuted in Japan in December 1970. It became a popular sports coupe in Toyota’s lineup for 7 generations until its demise in 2005. The original Supra was a 6-cylinder offshoot of the Celica, but Toyota has already nixed the the idea of giving the 4-cylinder Supra that moniker. The actual explanation is probably much more mundane. Automakers periodically file trademarks to simply to retain the rights to names the might use in the future, even if the chance they actually will is almost nil. Also, it’s a way to prevent another company from nabbing the name and using it for something that would be deemed negative for Toyota. Although, if Toyota wanted to revive an AWD turbocharged monster like the Celica GT-Four or an FR coupe with the retro styling of the original, I welcome it with open arms. +++ 

+++ A Spanish court has ordered VOLKSWAGEN to pay €16.3 million in compensation to people in Spain who bought cars with emissions-cheating devices installed, consumer group OCU said. The company will appeal the ruling, a spokesman said. After a 5-year legal battle, a Madrid court found Volkswagen had engaged in anti-competitive business practices and ordered the carmaker to pay €3.000 in damages to each OCU member affected, the group said in a statement. Volkswagen admitted in 2015 to using illegal software to cheat U.S. diesel engine tests, a scandal that has so far cost it more than $30 billion in vehicle refits, fines and provisions. Nearly all U.S. owners of affected cars agreed to take part in a $25 billion settlement in 2016. Last year Germany’s highest court for civil disputes ruled Volkswagen had to pay compensation to owners of vehicles with rigged diesel engines in Germany. +++

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