Ur-Turn: American Cars In Asia: A Layman's Observations

by Ur-Turn
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ur turn american cars in asia a layman s observations

Ur-Turn is your weekly opportunity to contribute to TTAC. Every Weekend we select a piece submitted to our contact form, and publish it as a showcase for the diverse perspectives of TTAC’s readers. Today’s contribution comes from Nick Naylor, who explores the street-level reality of American cars in Asia, and the prospects of American exports to Asia.

As a frequent TTAC poster and lifelong enthusiast, some of my favorite topics and articles are the ones in which vehicles are found outside their cultural context. Paul’s classic Mustang on the streets of Paris, for example, struck me as a particularly beautiful image. “Real” American cars are of special interest to me—cars designed predominately for the North American market, built there, and exported. You don’t see too many of these outside of North America–for a myriad of reasons I need not get into here. That said, when I see a Cadillac, or an American Ford product in an Asian or European city—it invokes a similar feeling to what Paul experienced seeing the Ford and the Hummer in Paris. In this time of Obama’s pledge to double exports in 5 years, with cars being a particular sticking point with Korea, it is American made vehicles that he must be most interested in selling, not Chinese-made Chevy Sails. Is it possible?

With this on my mind, and camera in hand; I recently spent three weeks between China (Hong Kong and Guangdong province), Korea (Seoul) and Japan (Tokyo). What I observed follows below. There’s no reports, sales numbers, or data here…just observations and supporting photos.

Hong Kong: There are zero American cars in Hong Kong. Not just zero real exports, but zero brands. I don’t recall seeing a single GM, Ford, or Chrysler vehicle. Of course, Hong Kong drives on the other side of the road, and with a population of 7 million or so, the city represents a limited market in a crowded metropolis. Basically every car is Japanese or high-end European. Not so promising so far!

Shenzhen/Guangzhou (China): Across the border, and the whole world changes. Back on our side of the road. I see Buicks, Chryslers, a few Cadillac CTSs, a new Cadillac SRX, even a 90’s Lincoln Town Car (how the hell they drive that or get it serviced, I don’t know) [Ed: Panther Love is a strange and wonderful thing]. Hummer H2s appear here and there. There’s even an occasional Dodge Caliber. None of these vehicles appear in the same copious volume as local Volkswagens, Buicks, Audis, etc. But I did count about ten sightings of the Enclave in only a week or so here. The Enclave is an export from the states, the only Buick sold in China that is.

The Buick lineup in China is similar to ours, with the exceptions of the smaller Opel Astra-based Excelle, the Holden-based Park Avenue and the GL8 minivan. Uncharacteristically for GM, this brand seems very coherent as a mid-upscale aspirational brand in China. Their new models look classy, sharp, and stand out on the streets in China noticeably. But only the Enclave counts as being a true American export. Chevy has taken up GM’s battle for the massive low end of the Chinese market, and as a result every Chevy you see is a warmed over Daewoo. So no Chevys count for this practice—neither do Fords, as their familiar Fiestas, Focii and Mondeos are not of the American kind either (though they’re vastly better than the Chevys–the Chinese must think the two brands don’t compete directly). It is likely that neither the Chrysler 300 or Sebring are exports, either, both supposedly are assembled in Beijing. According to Wikipedia, the Caliber is only produced in Illinois, and the CTS was only assembled by Shanghai GM in 2006, and although it is apparently assembled from CKD kits in Taiwan and Russia, I would guess the units seen on the streets of here are likely US exports, or possibly the Taiwan CKD versions.

You see plenty of American branded cars in China. The Chinese auto market is much more similar to the US market than either the Japanese or Korean. You see a lot of Camrys and Accords, only slightly modified from their US versions. The Chinese are quite open to a variety of brands and styles, and the market is still so new that brand-based prejudices buried deep within the US consumer conscience have yet to be set there. They are not averse to buying big cars for their big new highways…In addition to the H2s I also saw (American made) BMW X6s there, in more numbers than I’ve seen here in the states. That said, compared to the overall size of the market, our exports are miniscule. If Obama wants to export more US made cars to China, then he better push the Buick Enclave, Dodge Caliber, Cadillacs, and yes, BMW SUV’s.

Korea: My eyes tell me that 98% of cars on the road in Korea are Korean. And all of them are black, white, or grey. Yet I can’t believe what I see when I do see a foreign car…yes, BMW, Honda, and….is that a Lincoln MKS? The high-end German cars seem to be the most popular imports, but then you see almost as many American cars as Japanese, which, given the lack of exportable American cars vis-a-vis the Japanese, is quite surprising. Maybe it’s just the fact that the American cars stand out, and the Japanese blend in so much with the local Korean makes? I saw Lincoln MKX’s, Ford Taurii, Ford Escapes, a new Cadillac CTS wagon. And I’m not counting the large amount of American SUV’s I saw near the military base. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t see these cars frequently, but there seems to be sufficient “market access” to American cars in Korea. The problem with selling to the Koreans is breaking their super-conservative culture, which dictates that a good Korean only buys a Korean car, and one in black, white, or grey. Americans no longer think like that, and maybe in 30 years the Koreans won’t, either.

Japan: In Korea, the American cars I saw were actually bought for practical use. In Japan, the American cars you see tend to be kept more as hobby or museum pieces. In Tokyo proper I saw one beautiful, jacked-up 4-door new Wrangler, one or two current generation Ford Explorers, one Jeep Liberty, and one 90’s era Chevy Blazer. Then I took the train out to Enoshima, which is a bohemian beach town suburb of Tokyo, where love for California culture runs deep. This place was a jackpot…here I saw classic old Ford Broncos and Chevy Blazers in beautiful condition, jacked up with surf racks. A 2005-era F150 with huge rims. A Ford Mustang, and even a late 80’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera woody station wagon. Cool.


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  • Jkk6 Jkk6 on Nov 16, 2010

    With recent introduction of foreign car brands offering premium "imports" at the $30k range which used to be boss level salary in South Korea, consumers want to sample sedans which aren't your normal taxi or climb the stereotype tree (accent->elantra->sonato->xg350), like said above 98% of cars being domestic. So Ford, with the new FTA may have a chance at penetrating a near exclusive market of middleclass consumers which still have intimate attachment to post war american made goods and muscle car stigma, not to mention the youth offspring living amoung the "wealthy" middle class. On a side note a certain dictator P. rode a Limo version Town Car that is extended iirc six inches. Mitsubishi showrooms the Eclipse with neon flowers. In the city of Seoul, it's means nothing to bragg about owning a Merc unless it's AMG.

  • Thomas Kreutzer Thomas Kreutzer on Nov 16, 2010

    Japan is pretty much as you guessed. There is a lot going on, pedestrians, bicycles, scooters etc and you have to be pretty careful. When the light changes I always take a breath before I start to accelerate - it pays to be cautions. Most roads are narrow and there are often cars stopped at odd places. You find that cars need to dodge in and out of the other lane so there is a real need to pay attention to the entire road. For example, a car stopped on the opposite side of the road may mean that oncoming cars will be taking a part of your lane. That's disconcerting for Americans because we don't like oncoming cars in our lanes, but in Japan you just slide over a little and let them come on through. Congestion on main streets is commonplace and Japanese drivers tend to take a lot of alternate routes that lead down narrow little streets. Knowing your way around is a huge bonus, but as always, there is a lot to watch out for on those narrow streets. But I figure if Luke Skywalker can fly an X wing down a trench on the Death Star, I can use the force to get through an alley or two. At least no one shoots lasers at you. Once you get out in the country, the roads open up and traffic moves better. Still, there are a lot of little narrow roads you probably shouldn't go down no matter what your car navigation says so good judgment is a must. Also, it’s important to pay attention to the whole road here too as big trucks often intrude into your lane. Its good crazy fun. I'll give you a link to a video I took driving over the Uji River line near Kyoto - http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-823555920032920867#

  • Carsofchaos Bike lanes are in use what maybe 10 to 12 hours a day? The other periods of the day they aren't in use whatsoever. A bike can carry one person and a vehicle can carry multiple people. It's very simple math to figure out that a bike lane in no way shape or form will handle more people than cars will.The bigger issue is double parked delivery vehicles. They are often double parked and taking up lanes because there are cars parked on the curb. You combine that with a bike lane and pedestrians Crossing wherever they feel like it and it's a recipe for disaster. I think if we could just go back to two lanes of traffic things would flow much better. I started coming to the city in 2003 before a lot of these bike lanes were implemented and the traffic is definitely much worse now than it was back then. Sadly at this point I don't really think there is a solution but I can guarantee that congestion pricing will not fix this problem.
  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.