Walking, struggling, fighting through the São Paulo car show put me into a somber mood. I can’t help it. With a baby on the way, a new President of the country and seeing the cars I’m seeing, I can’t help but think about the future. I’m thinking the party is over. For most “domestic” car makers that is.
First off it’s a car show. But they make it awfully hard for car drivers! Traffic to get there is unbearable. Parking is inadequate and expensive. The show’s organizers do recommend getting there by public transportation, but I’d expect a modicum of car-friendliness! There is none. Paradoxes… Follow me …
After those hassles and obstacles you get there. The people running the show thump their chests and proclaim this is the biggest event ever! Most cars shown ever! Most visitors ever (650,000 visitors to the 2 week event)! The way they treat visitors though makes me wonder if I’m ever going through the pain again.
The venue where the show is held is São Paulo’s largest. The Anhembi Expositions Pavilion it’s called. São Paulo is (?) a world-class city so world-class accommodations would be de rigueur, right? Wrong. The venue’s shortcomings are as old as the building itself, bad location, bad parking, no air conditioning (or at least it feels like there’s no A/C), no control of how many people get in, price gouging on anything you eat or drink. The organizers claim that due to its size, the São Paulo show is on par with the Detroit, Paris, Frankfurt and Tokyo shows. I beg to differ. Though I haven’t been to any of those shows, I bet they are not held in what is essentially an old warehouse, albeit a very big warehouse.
Walking through the show is another misnomer. You have to push to get anywhere you want. Or you just let go and let the human tide take you where it may. You can’t really get close to most cars and a lot of the exhibitors make it almost impossible. I mean the objective of the show is to get close up and personal with the cars right? Well, Ferrari for one thinks otherwise. The models though are attractive. Plus we are Latin so there are no inhibitions on putting them in skimpy clothes. Take that as you wish.
But the cars you ask? That’s what got me thinking. Brazilian car taxes are crazy-stupid, but there has got to be another reason for these prices. Very healthy margins on steroids are probably it. This market is protected by very high import barriers. So the local makers are protected. Even the Chinese feel the need to build locally, which is probably good. The downside of this is that the local makers are free to charge crazy prices.
Brazilian consumers, though it’s slowly changing, are basically suckers. I mean we have the privilege of paying Fusion (American) prices for a Fiat Palio 1.4. Brazilians think it’s normal to pay around US$70,000 for a BMW 3. How about US$40,000 for a Corolla? Of course! Don’t you know? That’s an executive car! How about that Hyundai ix35 (no Sir, it’s not a Tucson! It’s a brand new car!)? For 50,000 bucks! It’s a steal if you ask the Hyundai people…and the Brazilian consumer concurs. Ferrari and such can be yours. Prepare that 500,000-dollar check! The Bugatti Veyron has finally found its way to our friendly shores. VW do Brasil will sell it to you for an Arabian-princely 7.7 million reais (no, I’m too depressed to do the math).
On the “real” side of the show, where more than 75 percent of buyers shop, the pickings are slim. Go over to Fiat. They’re showing off their new line. You can now buy a New Uno in “Sporting” drag. Sadly, that sums it up. Lipstick on the regular car. No mechanical changes. The new Uno also shows off a topless version. Don’t get too excited. It’s just for show I’m told. No way on earth it’ll make it to production. The rest of the line is there. No big changes. New e-Torq engines making all the line 5 to 10 percent more expensive. VW must be happy.
Oh wait, there’s the new Fiat Bravo! Bravo! 4 years after it debuted in Europe, it’s here! No, not the new facelifted version, the old one. Ahem! It won’t kill the Stilo, either. And it starts at US$33,000. Thanks, but no thanks.
On to VW. Nothing. Really, nothing. I mean there’s the Fox and Gol blue motion. No, no diesel. Only aerodynamic appendages and “eco” (skinny) tyres. Improves economy (in the real world) 5 percent, but the prices gets bumped some 10 percent. Losers. Oh, the new imported from Mexico decontended Jetta is here! The face is the same as the Fox’s! How (un)exciting!
Third place in the ranking of sales GM do Brasil is proud to present: The Camaro! It can be yours for almost 100,000 American dollars! Or alternatively you can buy one of their ho-hum, run-of-the-mill offerings and keep your fingers crossed. They’ll draw a Camaro at the end of the year. If you win…The downside is that you’d have to drive a Celta (1st generation Corsa), Classic (old Chinese Sail), Vectra (also known as Astra in Europe), S10 (yes the 1995 S10 lives on down here) – you get the picture. Embarrassing show. Does GM even care anymore? Twilight zone.
Ford. Better. Exhibits the Start concept. The Explorer America concept. Old concepts already shown elsewhere. The Start is smart though. However, I’m afraid much of what’s attractive will be lost in the translation into the production car. Anyway, I could see one in my future. As to real, saleable cars there’s the new Edge. For over 100,000 reais. And the new Ford Fiesta. For over 50,000 reais. Again, no thanks. For show there’s the Mustang GT 500. But just for show (and not to be outdone by Chevy and its Camaro).
The Japanese now. Next to their Brazilian line (Civic, Fit and City – a Fit in sedan guise for “lucky” 3rd World sucke…I mean, consumers), they show what we don’t/won’t get. There’s a Clarity, a CR-Z, and an Insight, plus an electric EV-N, which would interest me and could be sold here with a regular ICE engine. Would be a hit! Toyota also shows some concepts from other places we’ve already seen (how does an 8 year-old concept sound? When I heard it was 8 years old I didn’t even bother to write down the name) and their regular line. Nothing to see here, either. Mitsubishi is present, too. They launch some crossover car, too. Too expensive for most consumers and largely forgettable. I already forgot the car’s name.
Nissan is a different story. They show the March. Imported from Mexico, it’s supposed to transform Nissan into a real volume producer in Brazil. The design is ok, but the back end is weak. Inside there’s a big black empty space on the right side of the instrument cluster…Guess it’ll come down to price. My take, close but no cigar. But at least they’re trying. They’re also showing the Leaf (and not in that blue shade, either). Interesting.
The French! Almost forgot them. They basically show concepts and some cars we won’t/don’t get (like the sweet Peugeot RCZ). Some are pretty interesting, though old. In fact, at least, they’re trying, too. Peugeot is using the show to launch the 3008. Renault is launching their (ahem, Samsung) Fluence. It’s hoping this car will fare better than the old Megane sedan. Too derivative, too bland. Not enough to upset the Japanese leadership in this market segment.
The German lux makers? They’re here, too. Audi is launching a bunch of new stuff at the show and so is BMW. Mercedes is just showing concepts. Impressive. But their pricing in Brazil keep them away from the mass of consumers. Good to show us how humble our real cars are. Maybe one day we’ll get there. Hopefully, though, we’ll get there with some joy and color. Why are these cars and their presentation always so somber? Ain’t cars supposed to be fun?
Hyundai and Kia show they care for the show. They’re launching important and maybe game-changing (in limited market segments) cars. They’re sure to impress us impressionable Brazilians. They are getting greedy on pricing though. It’s no longer as attractive as it once was. Sigh! Guess they’re taking a leaf out of the other makers’ playbook down here. No game busters though. Small, compact Hyundais are still a way off. They’re promised for 2012. They may well rock the market.
Finally, a realization. Guess who is rocking the market? Right now? Making waves and shocking people? Ruffling feathers in Brasilia to the point people are talking about messing with the exchange rate (an almost universal lament from “Brazilian” makers and other industrialists) in order to “help” “local” makers? The Chinese. Yep, much like in that old horror movie (in a creepy, childish voice), they’re here!
It’s funny. You can see people who suspiciously look like they work for the competition all day at the Chinese makers’ stalls. Jotting down notes and observing people’s reaction. At the Lifan exhibit I could see and hear some Italian execs talking excitedly (and in loud whispers) about the cars. They were poking fun at the car, but were dismayed that they thought, as I did, too, that most of the buyers there were approving of Lifan’s Mini-look-alike 320. At the Chery stand, some German executives were also checking out the cars. Sorry, I can’t understand German so I didn’t even try to eavesdrop. They looked worried and rushed though.
How were people reacting? Chery, Lifan, Effa, JAC, Changhe, Haffei and others are there. Sometimes they weren’t mobbed like their more famous European, American or Japanese counterparts. But there were always people there. People however don’t march up to them like they do at other stands. I think it’s a little like going to some stranger’s house. At first we are shy. People are wary as they approach the cars. They are impressed though by the latest designs. You hear things like, “It looks European!” in admiring tones. You also hear, “What a rip-off!” People actually start debating with strangers if they’d buy one or not. And why. When prices are mentioned even the most hardcore, anti-Chinese guy raises his eyebrows and gets a pensive look. Then you start hearing phrases like, “Fiat and Volks are dead!” Or, “I’ll wait and see, maybe in a year or two”.
Out on the streets, and in the streets of my hometown, too, I suddenly start noticing all the Chinese cars. Used to be you’d go days without seeing one. Nowadays, you see one in almost every outing. Specially, work trucks and vans. However, more and more, private passenger cars, too. The Chery Face is becoming an alarmingly or pleasantly (depending on which side of the fence you’re on) common sight. I bet the QQ will be too. Much more so than the March mentioned before.
My final conclusion then is that we won’t be going Japanese as that old 80s song said. They missed. We’ll all be going Chinese though. With all the good and bad that could entail. Brave new world indeed.
Thanks to bestcars.com.br and msn.icarros.com.br for the pics. It’s almost impossible to get good shots with so many people pressing and jabbing at each other when up close to the cars. I guess in this aspect, at least in São Paulo, we’re already Chinese, packed too full!