Newsflash: Skoda komt met elektrische middenklasser onder Enyaq

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+++ Bustling halls and stands packed with new metal: the 2021 Shanghai motor show had it all. Indeed, right down to that fast-emerging staple of any major car event: a huge controversy over Tesla, this one sparked by a disgruntled buyer’s protests. Hard though it is to imagine on Europe’s bumpy road in and out of lockdowns, the car industry isn’t merely back on its feet in CHINA but thriving. May marked the 14th month of year-on-year sales gains, even in the face of the global semiconductor crisis, and while it wasn’t hard to eclipse the dire figures from early in the pandemic, the recovery is now tipped to be deep-set and long-standing. Evidence of that is the fact that new-car sales in the first quarter of this year hit 6.12 million, up 72.2 % on 2020. Talk is now not of recovery but of growth and how far it can go – remarkable, against the pre-Covid backdrop of a shrinking market, driven by a slowing economy, saturation of sales in the major urban areas and state pressure for electrification and sometimes against foreign car makers. Most analysts forecast around 25.7 million sales for the year, and while that would be only a small step up from 2020, it would also be an immediate bounce back to 2019 levels. “The recovery from Covid was quick and accompanied by a rebound of the economy as a whole”, said LMC Automotive analyst Alan Kang. “By the end of March 2020, the virus was well contained and the Chinese government moved quickly to invest heavily, especially in infrastructure. Coupled with the fact that export opportunities were strong, boosted, it must be said, by Covid hitting competitor nations elsewhere in Asia, China’s economy has been strong. Off the back of that, consumers have entered an upgrading period”. Kang highlights the premium end of the car market as the hottest. Evidence of that is provided by surging sales for the ever-present trio of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. “In the sector they operate, those brands have a 66 % share in the premium market”, said Kang. “Their strength is evident: they entered the Chinese market early, their cars are well received by buyers, they were fast to introduce models adapted to the local market and they cover the market, from compact to full size. That strength shows no signs of dimming. The pandemic has driven a consumptive shock; buyers want to spend again”. Adding further momentum to burgeoning premium car sales, according to Kang, is the fact that a new, savvier generation of Chinese car buyers has emerged. “Consumers really know their cars now”, he says. “A few years ago, China was a supply market, but now it has evolved. You can see that with the issues that Jaguar Land Rover has had around quality, which it still suffers from. And you can see it with the current extremely negative headlines about problems with Teslas, although I also think that the brand will have the opportunity to recover. Ultimately, it’s a popular EV brand, and that’s important in this market”. While German companies’ dominance of the premium car sector in China looks solid, Kang highlights the progress of emergent domestic brands as another trend to look out for. “Chinese brands had a Chinese market share of 30 % just a few years ago, focused on the lower end of the market. Today it’s 40 % and across a far greater spread of vehicle types. That’s real progress. “The spend on R&D has grown exponentially; quality has taken a leap forward. But just as crucially, the Chinese makers have been quick to add advanced tech into their cars. “Today, even entry-level models offer connectivity and screen functionality that the global brands offer only on high-end cars. It’s a strategy that plays to the strengths of Chinese knowhow, and it’s cutting through, especially with younger buyers. It could also be a way to differentiate if they launch internationally”. History is less of a blueprint than ever in these turbulent times, but it’s notable that almost every marque that went global in the past century did so off the back of significant sales in its home market. Therefore, with China offering the biggest opportunity for scale bar none, Kang expects international launches to follow. “Changan, Chery, Geely and Great Wall are the mainstream brands to look for, although they will probably look to emerging markets first, such as South America, Iran and the Middle East, rather than jumping straight into the US and Europe”, he said. “It’s significant that the likes of Lynk&Co and Nio could move faster. Watch out for their service and support methods: they have a very different approach to how they nurture and develop their customer bases, using digital communications, apps and more. It’s not certain yet, but that could differentiate them and put them at an advantage”. Kang’s prediction is that the revitalised Chinese car market will hit 30 million annual sales by 2030, and that even then there’s room for more growth. He explained: “The density in China today is around 190 cars per 1.000 adults. We think this has the potential to grow to around 390 per 1.000, so there’s plenty of room to go up. It’s more a case of how long this takes to be realised”. +++

+++ Automakers around the world are struggling with the CHIP SHORTAGE created by the pandemic, but as record sales early this year wiped out inventory, the downside of a run on the dealerships is starting to rear its ugly head. Ford in particular has suffered as a result of the chip shortage. May was the worst month for the F-Series pickup line in more than 9 years as sales plummeted 29 % even as compared to the pandemic-affected 2020. The Mustang’s assembly line, meanwhile, has been down for all but 2 weeks since April. In all, AutoForecast Solutions estimates that Ford production has gone down by 400.000 vehicles as a result of the chip shortage. That means that, although Ford sales are up 3.7 % overall from 2020, some people who have ordered a Ford are left waiting. Fortunately, people who are waiting for a new model, like the Bronco or the Mach-E, might not have to wait as long as Ford chose to prioritize those cars’ chip needs. Still, though, Ford has reportedly told its dealers not to expect a big bump in inventory for a while. “It’s almost like the Indy 500”, Richard Bazzy, owner of Shults Ford-Lincoln group in Pittsburg, told. “ ’We’re only giving you enough fuel to win; you can’t cruise afterward’. Now I’m pretty much out of gas”. Indeed, he reports that Ford told him not to expect inventory to start streaming in again until at least the third quarter of the year. The hardest part, according to Bazzy, is managing customer expectations and responding to angry calls when customer orders can’t be filled. The lack of cars is so severe, though, that many buyers are coming in and settling for their third or fourth choice and buying it quickly. “They’re basically saying, ‘What can I get?’ and not thinking about it very long because if they wait a couple days, that car might not be here”, said one of Bazzy’s general managers, John Huselton. “It seems like they’re a little more nervous they’re not going to be able to get a car”. Others are just waiting patiently, like Malcolm Stallons, who sold his 2018 Mustang in March in preparation for his new 2021 Mustang in Antimatter Blue. Left without a sports car, he says that every beautiful day, he becomes a little frustrated that no one told him how long it would take to get him his new car. Still, he’s not about to give up his order. “Lexington (Kentucky) has 320,000 people”, Stallons said, “but I am certain that if I don’t buy it, that the person who does will pass me every morning as I go to work”. +++

+++ Apple might reportedly be in talks with various automakers as well as battery suppliers for its Project Titan autonomous EV, but it’s far from the only tech company in that race. China’s HUAWEI , for one, is already looking to put an autonomous vehicle in the market in the near future. It is well known that Huawei is venturing into the automotive market and during a recent industry conference, senior executive at its smart vehicle unit, Wang Jun, revealed just how ambitious the company’s autonomous vehicle plans are. “Our team’s goal is to reach true driverless passenger cars in 2025”, he said. Huawei revealed in April that it is investing $1 billion into research into electric vehicles and self-driving car technologies. It has forged partnerships with the BAIC Group, Chongqing Changan Automobile and the Guangzhou Automobile Group to develop self-driving vehicles. It is understood that these vehicles will sport Huawei badging and help the company rival fellow Chinese tech giant Xiaomi that is investing $10 billion into the manufacturing of electric cars. After Huawei’s global smartphone business was stifled by U.S. sanctions imposed on it during the Trump administration, billionaire founder Ren Zhengfei has started to expand the Huawei business into smart agriculture, health care, and electric cars. In April, Huawei rotating chairman Eric Xu claimed that the company’s engineers had already developed a semi-autonomous driving system that can work without any human intervention for up to 1.000 km. Huawei first ventured into the automotive industry with the launch of the Seres SF5 that it has co-developed with car manufacturer Cyrus. Deliveries of it started recently kicked off and it can be viewed at various Huawei stores across China. +++

+++ LEXUS vehicles are renowned for their comfort and reliability, but they’ve been plagued by infotainment systems that range from acceptable to awful. Lexus knows this all too well and officials referred to them as their “Achilles heel” in a briefing last week. The honesty is refreshing and the company acknowledged infotainment issues are a big reason why Lexus hasn’t fared well in initial quality studies. As J.D. Power noted last year, “infotainment is the most problematic category” as “almost one-fourth of all problems cited by new-vehicle owners relate to infotainment”. The automaker is now addressing the issue with an all-new infotainment system known as the Lexus Interface. It debuts on the 2022 modelyear NX and will be joined by a similar Toyota system in the 4th quarter. I checked out the Lexus Interface last week and it’s clear the system will address many of the complaints lodged against its predecessors. The Interface was created in-house and features “multiple touchscreen options” ranging from 8 to 14 inches. Each features optically bonded screens with glare reducing technology, and the company says this allows for an experience that mirrors smartphones. Furthermore, the system boasts 5-times the processing power of the previous-generation infotainment system and this promises to deliver faster and more responsive touch functionality as well as a better overall user experience. Speaking of the latter, the system features a vastly improved user interface and animations which give the infotainment system a bit of personality. While Lexus is finally abandoning their love affair with touchpads and overly complicated controllers, a Virtual Assistant is “intended to be the primary way occupants interact with the new multimedia system”. It’s a bit like an automotive-specific version of Alexa and it can understand natural language requests such as “Hey, I want coffee”. Furthermore, the Virtual Assistant has simple wake words (such as “Hey / Hi / Hello / OK”) and can easily recognize your requests thanks to dual microphones and enhanced noise-cancellation technology. While many people use Apple and Google for navigation, Lexus is fighting back with an all-new nav function that uses Google data for points of interest. The system has “100 % cloud capability” and this allows for faster and more accurate directions and mapping. To avoid the loss of navigation when traveling in areas with spotty cell coverage, the system has an offline mode. It detects when the vehicle is near or entering an area with low connectivity, and will automatically download applicable maps and services before the connection is lost. Digital keys are becoming increasingly popular and the Lexus Interface will allow people to lock/unlock and start/stop their vehicle within Bluetooth proximity. The digital key can also be shared with up to seven different users at one time. Even the audio system has been improved as the usual AM and FM stations are joined by standard SiriusXM as well as streaming music sources such as Amazon Music and Apple Music. Users also benefit from cloud connectivity as the system is always up to date and features enhanced programming details. Another interesting touch is User Profiles, which store your preferences (such as preferred radio stations and climate settings) in the cloud. This enables drivers to easily switch vehicles and take their settings with them. Given the focus on cloud connectivity, it comes as little surprise the Lexus Interface supports over-the-air updates. The company noted these can be delivered in “smaller, more manageable pieces” and suggested they could include relatively minor changes to update the look, feel and colors of the system. This should help to prevent the Lexus Interface from feeling dated after a few years on the market. The company is taking security and privacy seriously as there’s a separate team whose goal is protecting your data and personal information. Officials also indicated users will be able to request their information, and we should learn more about that process closer to launch. Speaking of safety, the system features Service Connect and Safety Connect functions which can deliver personalized maintenance updates and vehicle health reports as well as a 24/7 connection to an emergency response agent. The latter can assist police with locating a stolen vehicle or provide the vehicle’s exact location to emergency services. TMNA Connected Technologies group vice president Steve Basra said, “With this new system we are jumping into the future, from larger touchscreens up to 14 inches to having a 100 % cloud-navigation for more accurate and faster directions.” He added, the system will eventually spread across the company’s entire vehicle lineup “regardless of screen size or model grade”. Officials also told us that while Apple and Google are competitors in the infotainment space, the companies also work together in some areas. They went on to say the Lexus Interface will be so easy and intuitive to use, that consumers could prefer to use the system over wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. +++

+++ SKODA will expand its electric car line-up in the next few years with a coupé version of the Enyaq iV and a new smaller model that’s set to take the form of a crossover. The Czech firm recently launched the Enyaq as its first bespoke EV on the Volkswagen Group’s MEB platform. While virtually identical in size and specification to the Volkswagen ID.4, the Enyaq features a stretched wheelbase and a boot 42 litres larger, at 585 litres. Skoda design chief Oliver Stefani said that focus on luggage space reflects the popularity of the Octavia and Superb estates, adding that it will remain a design priority for the firm’s future electric cars. “Spaciousness is very important for us”, Stefani told. “It’s functionality. People love it, and it’s not something we want to give up. Every brand must play its roles. “The big loading area and boot is something you find on the Enyaq. And compared with other partners who share the MEB platform, it has the longest rear overhang. “We’re 100 % convinced that even with a big boot, we can make a nice, attractive car”. The Enyaq coupé has already been seen testing ahead of its planned arrival next year. It’s expected to be followed by a smaller MEB based car that will be close in dimensions to the Volkswagen ID.3. As with that hatchback, the new Skoda will offer only rear-wheel drive but 3 battery pack capacities and 2 power outputs. With Skoda focusing on interior space, it is expected that the car’s dimensions will be stretched, giving it more of a crossover form to maximise interior capacity without dramatically increasing the footprint. Stefani also hinted that future electric Skodas will feature a more “emotional” design that builds on the Enyaq while moving further away from its combustion-engined range. “The Enyaq is clearly related to our ICE cars, because it’s the only EV we have and we wanted to make it a member of the family”, said Stefani. “Once we have more electric cars, we will develop the idea of these electric cars much further. We don’t know exactly where to go, but we aren’t standing still. We will make them more modern and more appropriate to the market and customer expectations, but they must always be a Skoda”. +++

+++ As part of its move into electric mobility, STELLANTIS is looking for European and North American locations to build battery plants. Italy has emerged as a top contender as the country raises funds to court the automaking conglomerate. Sources close to the project told that Italy’s government is looking to raise €1 billion to build a factory for electric car batteries with Stellantis. Already, the government has budgeted €600 million in public funds for the project, per a plan it sent to the EU in April. Now, though, sources say that Italy plans to set up a public-private partnership with a major stake being held by Stellantis. 5 meetings between Stellantis‘ top management and Energy Transition minister Roberto Cingolani have reportedly taken place in recent months and ACC, a battery joint venture set up by PSA, one of Stellantis’ founding entities, has also been included in the meetings. Stellantis already has 2 gigafactories in the works in Germany and France while other EU members, like Spain, are interested in investing in them. “There’s a lot of competition. We’ll have to offer a strong strategy and a credible team”, an Italian ministry source told. Stellantis was formed this year as a merger between PSA and FCA. Together, they have become the 4th largest automotive company in the world and a move to electric mobility is increasingly seen as a necessity for a sustainable future. +++

+++ VOLKSWAGEN ‘s U.S. unit said a data breach at a vendor impacted more than 3.3 million customers and prospective buyers in North America. Nearly all those impacted were current or potential customers of Audi, one of the German automaker’s luxury brands. Volkswagen Group of America said an unauthorized third party obtained limited personal information about customers and interested buyers from a vendor that its Audi Volkswagen brands and some U.S. and Canadian dealers used for digital sales and marketing. The information was gathered for sales and marketing between 2014 and 2019 and was in an electronic file the vendor left unsecured. The company told regulators the vast majority of customers only had phone numbers and email addresses potentially impacted by the data breach. In some cases, data also includes information about a vehicle purchased, leased, or inquired about. VW said 90.000 Audi customers and prospective buyers had sensitive data impacted relating to purchase or lease eligibility. VW said it will offer free credit protection services to those individuals. The sensitive data was comprised of driver license numbers in more than 95% of cases. A small number of records included additional data like dates of birth, Social Security numbers and account numbers. The automaker does not believe sensitive information is involved in Canada. More than 3.1 million people affected are in the United States. VW believes the data was obtained at some point between August 2019 and May of this year, when the automaker identified the source of the incident. +++

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