Are Asian Carmakers Really Closing The Gap With Continental Brands?

2 Dec 2020

Are Asian Carmakers Really Closing The Gap With Continental Brands?

From a build quality perspective, I like my cars to feel tanky and solid like the older Jia Jia Liang Teh drink cans, rather than the regular Coke cans.

In the last 5 years or so, there has been much talk about how Asian carmakers from Japan, Korea, and more recently, China, are closing the gap with their European counterparts. There is much merit to this sentiment, and there are plenty of examples of how Asian carmakers have produced cars that punch above their value, and are much closer to their European counterparts than ever before. As we begin to close out 2020 and head towards the turn of another decade, it feels pertinent to explore exactly how the playing field has been levelled, and in what ways, do the offerings from Asian carmakers leave consumers desiring more. 

The reason why this is a topic worth discussing, is because, in Singapore, this comparison exists most prominently for cars that sit between $95,000 and $150,000 - a segment that is very large, and represents a big chunk of car sales in Singapore. Crucially, this is also the segment where one is spoilt for choices between Asian brands and entry - mid level Continental brands. Similar offerings in each segment are being offered at little to no price differentiation (not much when considering your monthly loan repayment quantum anyway), but if you scrutinise your options within a price bracket, you will find that there are actually quite a wide berth of factors that differentiate each offering. This is opposed to when you are comparing premium executive sedan options for example, where there really isn’t a lot of real world difference between a C-Class, a 3 Series, or an A4 (other than brand preference of course). In essence then, this is the segment that the average Singaporean would probably be looking at when shopping for a car. 

The Biggest Leveller: Technology and Equipment

One area where Asian carmakers have really stepped things up and closed the gap with their European counterparts is in the area of technology and equipment. For some time now, proper infotainment systems (not touchscreens from Pioneer) have been making an appearance in Asian cars, and most of the cars you’ll find today, come with these infotainment systems, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. Visually speaking, a standalone infotainment system with a digital display is probably one of the most striking features of the interior of any car, which means that just by including this one component in their cars, Asian carmakers have already managed to bring their offerings to a level that feels relevant and upmarket, thus sort of achieving parity with their European counterparts. Another feature that really helps the overall premium-ness of a car is the inclusion of a digital driver’s display. This isn’t something that a lot of Asian carmakers are doing yet, but you would be able to find full digital driver’s displays in entry level crossovers like the Ssangyong Tivoli, and partial digital driver’s displays on the much anticipated MG HS. Now, if you are the kind of driver who isn’t going to be geeky about car ownership, and does not bother what sort of drivetrain and transmission your car is utilising, then these two key interior features would likely already be enough for you to feel that the more cost effective Asian cars have caught up with the European offerings - which is a point in favour to Asian carmakers. 

Looking a little further beneath the skin, you will also find that most Asian makes and models, at least for those retailing past $100,000, are already equipped with some sort of active safety system - Which can come in the form of any variation or combination of collision warning, lane assist, lane monitoring, collision avoidance, cross traffic detection, and assisted braking. In fact, this is probably one area that some Asian models have utilised to bring better value to their customers, as some of their similarly priced (entry level) European competitors may not come with such features. The selling point here then, becomes that of Asian carmakers providing a better equipped car for a comparable amount of money. The real world implication here is that if you are in the market for a reliable, safe, and well equipped day to day driver, then these Asian offerings do represent a compelling value proposition and present a very attractive package that most consumers will find appealing. 

Interior Quality - Material Use 

This is an area of contention that I feel is pretty subjective. On one hand, I do get the feeling that the general styling attributes in Asian car interiors have taken a big step up (gone are the days of dull grey or beige Toyota interiors). Most of the offerings look much less utilitarian than before, and look like there were efforts to exude some form of styling language - a plus point in my opinion. However, I am also of the opinion that the interiors in Asian cars can lack character, and in certain cars, look like they borrowed their favourite styling elements from other cars and mashed them into their own interiors. It genuinely feels like the design effort only goes so far as to achieve specific points of parity (stitched leather finishing, brushed metal trim, knurled metal knobs and buttons), but never exuding a styling language of its own. Mind you, European carmakers can be guilty of this too, where I feel that the Alfa Romeo Giulia has an interior style that painfully resembles a Mazda. On the flip side, if you look toward the VAG cars, specifically Volkswagen, Skoda, and Seat, you will find that although the interior designs are actually really boring, they do exude a certain character (even if that character is boring and sanitised). You enter the car, and you know you are in a VAG car. Needless to say, cars offered by Marquee players like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Volvo are also instantly recognisable when you step into the cabin. In recent years, Lexus have also immensely stepped up their game in recent years by producing some of the most well appointed cabins in the business. They are often luxurious, plush, and full of soft leather, though it could be argued that despite the luxury provided, there is still a lack of identity, with some models like the Lexus IS donning dashboard designs that can feel cluttered and over-designed. But hey, compare any Lexus interior today, to that of the previous generation that looked extremely Toyota-esque, and you can clearly see how far they have come - But we digress, as the Lexus range of cars are a premium Japanese offering and do not really fit into our spectrum of comparison today. 

Going back to the topic, it would seem that most Asian manufacturers today present a good use of materials in their cars, and in that regard, have definitely closed the gap to their European rivals. However, they do have the tendency to look good only when new, which is an observation that leaves me a little thrown. When new, most Asian car models look wonderful, and look every bit the part they were designed to play. But after a few years, when they hit the resale market, they start looking drab, discolored, and worse for wear. We’re not just talking about entry level cars here as well. The flagship Mazda 6 and most Toyotas are susceptible to this as well. On the flip side, an entry level Volkswagen’s interior has the capability of retaining its youth and shine well past 5, even 8 years of age. I’m not an expert in material science, but sitting in the same price segment, it becomes hard for me to comprehend why the leather in Volkswagens continue to look sharp and fresh, while the leather in a Mazda or Toyota looks drab after just a couple of years. Is there perhaps a difference in the leather quality? Or perhaps there is a difference in the way Asian car owners and Continental car owners look after their cars? Whichever the case, to me, this represents a gap to me - a gap that Asian car manufacturers still have much to catch up on. 

Build Quality:

Humans perceive quality through a variety of ways. Visually, a quality product stands out to us by providing design elements that are relevant to current trends and expectations. Another way a product can stand out is through the features and functions offered by the product. These are two ways in which Asian carmakers have done extremely well, with regard to closing the gap to its European competitors. The final, and perhaps most important indicator of quality, is the tactile quality of the product - how a product actually feels in your hands, and personally, this is a hit and miss for the Asian carmakers. Certain carmakers like Subaru and Mazda have taken very calculated steps in pursuing a more Continental feel to their cars. The easiest and surest way that one experiences this difference is by opening and closing the doors. While the car doors on some Mazda, Kia and Subaru models are beginning to close with almost the same resounding thud that Continental cars do, there are still many, many bread and butter brands out there like Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota who produce models that still close like a poor quality airtight container, and you feel like you could rip the car door off if you tried hard enough. I’m pretty sure that this isn’t due to technical inadequacy of any form, but rather a deliberate choice to make their cars feel this way - Perhaps some drivers in Korea and Japan like their doors to feel flimsy? After all, the cars that are most questionable in terms of build quality are mostly from the JDM pool brought in by parallel importers. From a build quality perspective, I like my cars to feel tanky and solid like the older Jia Jia Liang Teh drink cans, rather than the regular Coke cans. 

Another area where differences in build quality is apparent is in the cabin. In Singapore, our roads can get pretty pockmarked and uneven in certain areas, due to the massive amounts of digging and roadworks that go on. Because of that, our cars are subjected to quite a lot of rattle-inducing scenarios which most European cars deal very comfortably with (even the older ones), without any rattles and squeaks within the interior. Asian cars, on the other hand, have the tendency to rattle and squeak even when brand new. Another quick way to test this, is to use two hands and try to shake the centre panel between the driver and the front passenger. The panels on some cars will bend (and squeak) to your will, while some stay firm and resolute without a noise. The real kicker is that when it comes to build quality, both ends of the spectrum can exist on cars within the same price segment. As such, it is important for the consumer today to stay “woke” about what they are buying. 

Driveability & Powertrain

When it comes to day to day cars (not including sports cars and supercars), Continental cars have traditionally always dominated in this regard, and Asian cars have always been the utilitarian things powered by slow, naturally aspirated engines mated to dull, rubber-banding CVT gearboxes. That is still true for some car makers, but there are encouraging signs that the trend is bucking, with the latest Mazda 3 offering a very continental feeling drive, while also being the first Asian carmaker to utilise mild hybrid tech in their cars. This addition of mild hybrid tech not only signals Mazda’s forward thinking, which is keeping pace with the European carmakers, but also a testament to Mazda’s focus on driving dynamics. While a regular hybrid is a dull and soulless proposition of a car to drive, a mild hybrid complements the internal combustion engine and gives it an additional dimension. Car makers like Honda, have also slowly been stepping up their focus on driveability, by introducing components that weren’t previously well utilised on Japanese cars. Though not a new offering per se, the Honda Civic 1.5L Turbo is a wonderful day to day car to drive, and is an antithesis to the bland and boring image carved out from previous generations of day to day Japanese cars, which have never ever featured turbocharged engines before. While the Civic doesn’t really drive like a Continental car, it does represent an alternative type of positive driving dynamics other than the type that is already well established by the European carmakers. On other platforms like the Jazz / Fit, a dual clutch was adopted and it immediately brought some new life to the car, although this seems to have come at the expense of transmission reliability. The Koreans seem to be quick to catch on here as well, with Kia and Hyundai both adopting the small engine + turbocharger setup in some of their newer models. This is opposed to the 1.6L naturally aspirated engines that Toyota so painfully hangs on to, which brings me to my next point. 

In Singapore’s car ownership and urban driving environment, there is less and less room for the comparatively larger naturally aspirated engine. The concept is less powerful, less economical, more expensive to finance, and not as fun to drive as their 1.0L / 1.4L turbocharged counterparts, which makes it less relevant to society today. It is actually almost appalling to see a 2.5L Toyota Camry being offered on sale today, when it is long proven that a 2.0L turbocharged powerplant can do a much better job at powering a car that size with both power and comfort. Where regular day to day passenger vehicles are considered, I would level the same criticism at any SUV, or MPV that utilizes anything larger than a 2.0L turbocharged engine to power the vehicle. Think about it - there are plenty of reputable automakers that utilise 2.0L powerplants to power their full sized offerings, such as Audi, BMW, Volvo, Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Skoda to name a few. In fact, if you consider that the latest Honda Accord is powered by the same 1.5L turbocharged engine on the Civic, it is a strong endorsement by the Japanese maker that this is the way going forward. If a turbocharged engine is not their thing, then perhaps a mild hybrid version would be a good alternative to a 2.5L powerplant (I am pretty sure we’ll see this on the future Mazda 6). The reliability of a turbocharged engine has also been addressed by Lexus’ foray into the turbocharged engine game - proof that one can indeed have a turbocharged set up that is as reliable as its naturally aspirated counterparts.

Closing The Gap - Go All In Or Go Home

So, a lot has been said about the various ways that Asian carmakers have made good progress in delivering better automobile packages for the average consumer. A lot has also been said about the various ways that Asian carmakers still fall short. With the wealth of technology available in the world today, it does make you wonder if this half-stance toward closing the gap is a genuine one, or if it is just a ploy to package in some extra bits of trim and a new infotainment system to refresh what are essentially some very outdated platforms, to attract the undiscerning consumers. What I am saying is that the whole business of advancement and closing the gap, can seem like a farce sometimes and there isn’t any real desire for their cars to be better. Some factors look like they could be addressed by certain automakers very soon, while some look a little further away, with brands like Toyota seemingly stubborn in making their offerings more relevant. So, using Toyota as a benchmark (seeing as they are the largest automaker in the world), what if Toyota just stopped trying to be more interesting, more fun, and more refined in their offerings? What if they just went back to making utilitarian and absolutely boring cars, and in the process, could make their cars more affordable for the average salaryman. Would that not be a good thing? After all, even with the not-so-recent proclamations that Toyota were going to make cars that are more fun, they haven’t really done much with their cars have they? The cars look better for sure, but don’t exactly offer a much more compelling package. The cars aren’t particularly fun to drive, they are not of particularly good build quality (most key models are not even built in Japan), and possess drivetrain technology that is just as reliable as it is boring. In this is the case, then perhaps brands like Toyota should just stop trying, and continue to play on their strengths of making cars simple and reliable and therefore cheaper to buy in the first place. I mean, do you really think the loyal Altis driver is going to care whether the Altis looks like the current Altis or the Altis from 2 generations ago? I personally do not think so - they would buy the Altis anyway. Same thing with the Camry. 

Once again using the Altis as a benchmark, for about $20,000 less, you can purchase a Mazda 3 sedan with the latest mild hybrid technology, and what I would consider to be very edgy styling, and a very well appointed cabin. For about the same money as an Altis, you could get a Volkswagen Golf, which despite its previous brush with condemnation due to its gearbox issues, has continued to be an icon of progress as it sets exemplary standards in drive quality, comfort, value, fuel economy, technology, and design. Perhaps, for the rest of us, we should be more discerning about exactly how much and what form of advancements have been made by the automaker and in so doing, discourage the token improvements so touted as vast improvements by certain automakers.

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