Thailand has two major auto shows on its calender, being the Bangkok Auto Show in March and the Thailand International Auto Expo in early December, and as Thailand continues its rise as both a global top 10 national consumer and producer of automobiles, the two shows held in the "Detroit of the East" grow in importance every year.
The 30th Thailand International Motor Expo has been running this week, with the highlight being the world premier of the Suzuki A:Wind concept, so named because Suzuki believes the car will bring a wind of change to the A-segment.
Before we get into the details of the A:Wind, let's put things in perspective.
The importance of the Thai market on the global stageSeven concept models appeared on the floor of the Challenger Impact Convention Center in Bangkok, despite the concurrent running of two globally important auto shows ( Tokyo Motor Show and Los Angeles Auto Show), emphasizing Thailand's emergence as a global automotive player.
Last year Thailand produced 2.45 million cars, (up 68 percent on 2011), sold 1.43 million locally (up 80 percent), and moved into the top 10 auto producing countries in the world.
This year's show is being staged in the shadow of political unrest in Thailand, but expectations are still high that more than 50,000 cars will be purchased by the event's expected 1.6 million visitors.
Though 85,000 cars were sold at last year's event, those figures are still remarkably high in comparison to the number of cars sold at events such as the aforementioned Tokyo and Los Angeles Motor Shows, held in much stronger economies with far larger, more affluent populations.
Thailand's local new car sales have already exceeded 1.12 million in the first ten months of 2013, and providing political stability is maintained, 1.3 million new vehicle sales look possible for the year.
Developed countries such as the United States (79.7 cars for every hundred people), Australia (71.7), Canada (60.7), Japan (59.1), and almost all European countries already have more than one car for every two people.
Vehicles per head of population is one of those indicators which reflects the status of a nation along the development and prosperity continuum, and the effects of buoyant sales and manufacture of automobiles on a nation are a key drivers of economic growth and the development of technological capability for the nation as a whole.
There is a point though, of diminishing returns. Once more than half of the population has cars, it gets a lot tougher to sell a new car because the most prosperous inhabitants already have one.
Large still-developing countries will make up the majority of global car sales over the next decade as their populations grow rich. Countries such as India, which still has only 1.8 cars for every 100 people, Indonesia (6.0), China (8.5), Russia (29.3), Brazil (24.9), Mexico, (27.5) and Thailand (20.6) will be where the action is for automotive companies wishing to sell their wares.
The United States produced most of the world's cars for the last century, still making more than half of the world's cars each year into the late 1960s. Then Japan's automotive industry boomed during the seventies and helped create a global economic powerhouse, and more recently, China has done likewise, with India not far behind. The full background on the rise and fall of nations in global automotive production can be found in this article.
One of the many fascinations in the global automotive game of thrones is the blurring of formerly national brands – brands selling cars we all assume are made in a particular country because of the nationality of the brands they bear, and the A:Wind is a prime example.
The A:Wind Suzuki may carry the brand of a Japanese company, but it will be produced in Thailand, at least initially.
The announcement of the Suzuki A:Wind in Thailand and not in Los Angeles or Tokyo is a sign of the time because it is a very significant vehicle.
Suzuki sees it as a global car which will go into many overseas markets including the massive Indian marketplace where Suzuki is the automotive market leader.
Market leadership in India is very important for Suzuki's global aspirations as the country's 1,237 million population makes up 17.4 percent of the global population and is growing far faster in population than China (1,361 million) and the United States (317 million). The numbers are so large, they're difficult to comprehend. India has added 208.4 million citizens in the 12 years since its 2001 census – more than the entire population of the world's fifth most populous country, Brazil (201 million people).
What's more, Suzuki will reap massive sales over the coming decade thanks to its dominance of the small car market in a country with so many people who aspire to freedom of mobility and don't have it.
Rumors have immediately broken out following the announcement of the A:Wind that it will replace Suzuki's current offering in India, the three-cylinder, DOHC, four-valve, 1000cc A-Star. The A-Star (pictured below) doesn't look all that different, but the A:Wind is a far more sophisticated machine.
Leading international management consulting firm Booz & Company rates India as a "key pillar of the global automotive market," that will by 2015, "exceed every major European market including Germany, France and UK in automotive sales" and 20 years from now, "will be one of the top three markets for automotive sales worldwide."
The vitally important A-segmentThe A-segment is industry terminology and doesn't translate directly into every national car category definition.
The United States automobile industry, for instance, developed using the assumption that if it made cars that Americans wanted, they'd suit the rest of the world too. Thinking the world had as much money, resources, oil, road infrastructure and public space as the United States worked fine for a long time, but the dominance of the American industry has been on the wane since the mid-sixties. Old habits persist though, and America still lumps A- and B-segment cars into the sub-compact category.
The A segment includes cars like the MINI, Fiat 500 and Panda, Volkswagen up!, Smart forTwo, Toyota Aygo, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Ford Ka, Renault Twingo and Zoe, Chevrolet Spark, Peugeot 107, Citroen C1, Scion iQ and the Opel Adam.
So let's use the term "city car."
City cars make up a small percentage of the automobiles sold in most developed economies, but a significant proportion in developing economies where space on the less robust road infrastructure is limited, and running costs (the costs of running a car rise roughly at the square of the size) can make the difference between having a car or a scooter or walking.
Accordingly, this class of vehicle will be the most important class globally in the near future, if it isn't already.
Honda's just-released Fit is a new player in this category and is currently causing problems for Honda as sales have far exceeded supply and production is maxed out. The Fit, like the A:Wind, uses a Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT).
The Suzuki A:Wind concept will be needed by Maruti Suzuki in India to maintain its market dominance against an influx of new highly-efficient city cars such as the Fit.
The Suzuki A:Wind uses a three-cylinder, one liter motor and Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT) and it is due to begin production in 2014, though the delineation between concept and production model appears blurred in this instance. It's Suzuki's way of saying it reserves the right to change certain specifications, but that this concept car is the fundamental blueprint. Whilst the yellow beauty on display certainly appeared production-ready, there may be minor changes as it is readied for some serious mass production.
The A:Wind's Constantly Variable Transmission
The trend in recent years towards the use of the Constantly Variable Transmission to achieve efficiency in small cars and hybrids is fascinating, both in engineering and historical terms. It also offers some compelling solutions to many of the challenges faced by automotive engineering over the last century.
Conceived by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago, the CVT effectively provides an automatic gearbox with an infinite number of gears.
Since its emergence little more than a century ago, the automotive internal combustion engine has traditionally been asked to provide a spread of torque over a wide range of revolutions per minute using initially one or two gear ratios, moving through three, four, five and even six fixed ratios to cater for engines with increasingly higher efficiency and power, which has meant ever narrower power spreads.
The CVT enables the whole game to be reversed. The engine can operate in a narrow power range where it achieves peak efficiency while the CVT does the job, with the help of some computing power, of translating that into the perfect gear ratio at any given road speed.
The other benefits are many and include smoother and greater power delivery and less fuel consumption because the engine is operating at peak efficiency all the time. The CVT's biggest advantage though, is ensuring the motor is always running “in the power band” and as the infinitely variable gear ratios change, it delivers one smooth rush of power from standstill to top speed.
In the last decade, nearly every major manufacturer has introduced CVTs to the smaller models in their range, and Honda and Suzuki both offer CVTs on some of their motorcycle offerings. It appears the CVT's time has come.
Musical FlagsThe globalization of the automotive industry has spawned some strange bedfellows and the blurring of brand nationality.
As large companies optimize their global production facilities and supply chains, and purchase other car companies, we are witnessing an ever increasing situation where the owner of a brand is synonymous with a country other than the brand's national origin.
MG capitalized on its near century-old British heritage at the show with a strong national theme. Yet a decade from now, when MG's centenary comes around, it will be celebrated not only in its motherland England, but in the land where the brand is now owned by one of the world's most prominent companies, Shanghai Automotive (SAIC). SAIC also owns Rover, another celebrated British marque of yesteryear. The t-shirts that came in the MG press kit proudly displayed the MG logo alongside the Union Jack (the British Flag).
Is this clever or disingenuous? Given SAIC's investment in facilities within the UK to further its R&D for future MG product, it is perhaps not entirely insincere, as it can rightly point in its defense to many precedents. If it is misleading, then it isn't the first company to leverage the values of another nation's brand.
The Italian Ducati marque now has a German owner in Volkswagen, the Italian Fiat Group owns the distinctly American Chrysler and Dodge brands, Japan's Nissan is owned by a French company (Renault), Sweden's Volvo is owned by the Chinese company Zhejiang Geely and another Swedish marque, Saab, left that country decades ago and was owned by American (General Motors) and Dutch (Spyker) companies before ownership settled in China.
Great Britain was once the home of the European automotive industry and the default supplier to the British Empire, but the migration of many of Britain's iconic marques has been so great that it represents a trend in its own right. MINI is now owned by BMW (Germany), Jaguar and LandRover by India's Tata Group, Lotus is owned by the Malaysian Proton, Rolls-Royce by Germany's BMW, Bentley by Volkswagen (German) and MG and Rover by SAIC.
Building a definitive and successful brand, with widespread global recognition and clearly defined values is a difficult process. As time goes on, existing brands will become even more valuable, and perhaps it's just that the British automotive industry got into trouble and the iconic names we once recognized as representing quality and freedom of mobility were the first available at an affordable price.
Doing things differently in the Detroit of the East
Compared to the current Tokyo Motor Show, which is the showcase for a nation with one of the largest and most technically-advanced automotive industries in the world, the Thailand International Motor Expo is a mixture of both developed and developing worlds.
Scooters, tuk-tuks, light commercial vehicles and small economy cars make up the vast majority of the personal transportation sold in Thailand each year, yet the focus of the show is undoubtedly on upmarket, stylish and exotic automobiles.
The show also boasts something which is less and less a feature of other major shows around the world – hundreds, maybe thousands of "booth babes." The "sex sells" theme is still the dominant at both Thai Motor Shows and the automotive models are almost permanently covered in beautiful women with dress ranging from elegant through to provocative.
The problem is that it's hard to actually get a photo of many of the automotive models without a provocatively dressed female model draped across it. Accordingly, given that Gizmag's focus has always been on the technology, rather than the window-dressing, we apologize in advance if you venture into the image library for the show.
Seven Concept Cars on show
Mercedes-Benz Concept GLA
It may have already been seen at important motor shows elsewhere (Shanghai and Tokyo), but the Concept GLA is a compact SUV designed for urban use, using a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine producing 211 hp via a 1.9 liter engine, a 7G-DCT dual clutch gearbox and Mercedes 4MATIC all-wheel drive system.
Chevrolet SS V
The Chevrolet SS V is a pimped version of General Motors big bore, rear-wheel-drive performance SS budget supercar. Its 6.1 liter V8 pumps out 415hp with well over 500 hp on offer with some performance modifications.
Honda Concept NSX
Still on display in the halls of Big Site at the Tokyo Motor Show, Honda's V6 petrol-electric hybrid Concept NSX also took pride of place on the Honda stand in Bangkok.
The Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Super Handling - All Wheel Drive) hybrid uses three motors – two electric motors for the front wheels and a twin-turbo 3.5 liter V6 for the rear. A DCT (double clutch) gearbox of an unspecified number of speeds (thought to be seven or eight) delivers the 500 hp to the rear wheels and we can expect to see this very sophisticated supercar on roads around two years from now.
I'm not sure if concept cars have a use-by date, but though the hydrogen-powered experimental fuel-cell HND-6 is definitely cutting edge, does it having been around for two years take the shine off it?
It didn't take anything off the car from my perspective. It's striking vehicle, and when you see all the technology inside the cabin, it is even more impressive – haptic steering wheel, an entertainment system controlled by a motion sensor system and a cluster air-ionizer.
One of the stars of the Shanghai and Frankfurt shows in 2013, Nissan's Friend-Me concept is a four-passenger saloon connected, with four individual seats, each with its own display.
The result of a collaboration between Nissan Design China and Nissan Global Design Center, the low-slung sedan concept's infotainment system is one of the highlights, as it gives all passengers the ability to share smartphone-sourced content via their screens, and also offers access to information normally reserved for the driver. The motive power is supplied by Nissan's Pure Drive 2.0-litre hybrid powertrain.
MG Icon Concept
Designed to celebrate MG's fiftieth birthday in 2012, the MG Icon Concept is MG's first SUV, and though only a concept, it's been seen in enough places in the last 18 months to suggest it will see production.
If it does, it'll be a real head-turner on the roads. On top of that, Asia with its rough and not-so-ready roads and penchant for SUVs is one way for the newly resurrected brand to gain some real presence as it begins its second coming.
MG claims the car borrows inspiration from the MGB and MGA, but as the company featured both of those classic vehicles on the stand too, a direct comparison was possible. I must say, it was hard to see the connection.
Other highlights of the show
A more upmarket Tata Nano
Tata's Nano was hailed as the world's cheapest car and it will be one of those marketing mistakes that lives in textbooks for the next century.
Thanks to the downmarket image this created, the Nano has been a sales disaster. It seems you don't drive cars, you wear them, and no-one wants to wear the cheapest car in the world.
The Subaru XV is expected to sell well in the region, offering exceptional suitability to Asian roads, durability and fuel efficiency thanks to its hybrid power train. The focus of the Subaru stand at the show, the only genuinely new announcement was a new color availability, but heh, trot out the chorus and you can sell the sizzle, not the sausage.
Ford's EcoBoost-powered Fiesta
Ford put on a massive show in introducing its new 1.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine which will go on sale in Thailand powering the new Fiesta. The International Engine of the Year winner in both 2012 and 2013, the 999cc three-cylinder turbo offers exceptional economy and is expected to be a top seller in the country.
Thailand's fledgling Electric Vehicle Infrastructure
Thailand is now addressing the challenges of creating an EV charging infrastructure with the Bangkok Metropolitan Electricity Authority having opened ten EV charging stations so far with plans to sell home charging stations in the near future.
The E50 is a four-seater EV City Car and although it may wear an MG badge, but is entirely developed in China by SAIC, and has also worn Roewe, Rover and SAIC badges depending upon the audience it has been shown to. It runs a 71 hp electric motor, has a 120-mile range and a top speed of 81 mph.
A quick 30-minute charge from a standard home power outlet is enough for a 90 mile range, while fully charging the battery requires six hours.
Head through to the gallery for more of the sights from the floor of the 30th Thailand International Motor Expo.