Highlights of the year’s major events in the Asian auto industry:
• The first 17,600 winners of Beijing’s license-plate lottery are selected in January. The Chinese capital city plans to limit vehicle registrations to 240,000 for the year to curb congestion and emissions.
However, the law does not prevent current vehicle owners from buying a new car or anyone from purchasing a car outside Beijing. Seeing little success in easing congestion, the Beijing government in September reportedly launches plans for congestion fees to be levied on cars using certain roads.
• Adam Opel announces plans to enter Australia in 2012. General Motors’ European brand is to be sold under the Opel moniker and not GM Holden. The cars will include the Insignia, Corsa, Meriva and Astra that previously was sold as a Holden model. In September, William Mott, a 16-year Opel veteran from Europe, is put in charge of Opel’s Australia launch as managing director.
• Hyundai-Kia announces a combined 2011 global sales goal of 6.33 million units, up 10% from the 5.75 million the two brands sold jointly in 2010.
• Honda Thailand predicts in February it will sell 27% more vehicles in 2011 than in 2010, with a target of 145,000 units. The local unit of the Japanese auto maker plans to add a third shift at its Ayutthaya plant north of Bangkok to meet the goal.
The auto maker also says it is holding its export volume at 60,000 units due to reduced profitability from a stronger baht. Honda was to launch its Brio eco-car in Thailand in the first quarter, but the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March upended those plans and the car instead goest on sale in August.
• Australia’s A$500 million ($506 million) Green Car Innovation Fund is killed in February by the federal government and the money shifted toward cleanup efforts from extensive flooding in Queensland and Victoria.
Ironically, two products debuting in the month, Ford of Australia’s next-generation Territory SUV and GM Holden’s Cruze passenger car, had received grants from the fund.
The Territory, which was to go on sale in May, was to be equipped with a V-6 turbodiesel whose production was supported in part by a A$42 million ($56.7 million) grant from the defunct fund. A A$149 million ($152 million) grant supported localized production of the Cruze, rolling off the line in February.
• The worst earthquake in more than a century, followed by a devastating tsunami, rocks northern Japan on March 11. The quake, centered in Sendai, has an immediate effect on the global auto industry, either directly or indirectly.
One person is killed and dozens are injured when a wall falls at Honda’s Tochigi research and development center. Nissan’s Iwaki engine plant, located 40 miles (64 km) south of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, remained down until April 18, longer than most other factories.
While most vehicle-assembly plants escape direct damage from the quake/tsunami and are back running within weeks, albeit at a slower rate, the supply chain isn’t so lucky. Shortages of key components included Xirallic, a sparkly paint additive sourced solely from a Merck plant located in northern Japan, cause global auto makers headaches.
Electrical components, including microprocessors, also are in short supply.
• GM Daewoo Auto & Technology officially becomes GM Korea March 1. While some signage is slow to change, all General Motors cars produced in Korea now wear a Chevrolet badge. The name change comes in the same year GM Korea debuts three new models in the local market: the Chevy Orlando, Camaro and Aveo.
• China’s top legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, votes in March to impose a tax on vehicles based on engine size, to take effect January 2012. The annual taxes under the new law range RMB60-RMB540 ($9-$82), depending on engine size. This replaces a previous tax that applied to all vehicles regardless of engine size and ranged RMB360-RMB660 ($55-$100).
• Two Chery SUVs debut in Australia, including the 5-door 1.3L J1 and 2.0L J11. Independent forecasting pegs the Chinese auto maker’s sales at 150-200 units initially. Prices begin at about $12,000 and $20,000, respectively.
However, the vehicles catch the eye of Australian safety regulators, who find both subpar in crash testing later in the year. The J11 is cited for a loss of structural integrity in a frontal offset crash that could cause severe injuries to occupants.
• India new-car sales stumble for the first time in two years in April. Although sales rise 14.1% above like-2010, the result represents only half of prior-year’s increase. The market’s top three auto makers: Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai and Tata, see only single-digit gains, while Ford, GM and Honda suffer declines. Falling demand is blamed on waning consumer confidence, as rising car prices, fuel costs and high interest rates blunt India’s economic growth.
• Thailand’s first-quarter vehicle sales hit a record 238,619 units, up 43.1%, helped by a stellar March, up 47.5% thanks to an 80.3% jump in new-car purchases. Through August, new-vehicle deliveries run 19.6% ahead of like-2010. September new-car sales trump the prior-month, up 27.5% to a record 87,012 units. Low unemployment and increased available credit to consumers and businesses help boost demand.
• BMW’s California-based DesignworksUSA announces in May plans to open a studio in Shanghai in second-half 2011. The operation is expected to “help contribute to China’s creative industry development,” DesignworksUSA President Laurenz Schaffer says in a statement. China is the auto maker’s largest growth market, he says, and next year it will add local production of the X1, via a new plant, to its output of 3- and 5-Series models.
• Workers at light-truck maker Ssangyong’s Pyongtaek, South Korea, plant in May become the first of the local industry’s labor force to sign a comprehensive wage and work-rule agreement with their new management, India’s Mahindra and Mahindra, marking their first wage increase since 1998. The deal comes just two months after the company emerges from bankruptcy protection.
Work stoppages were held at GM Korea in June, and Kia workers declined a first contract offer in July but ratified a second proposal in August. It was the second straight year Kia avoided a labor strike before ratifying a new pact.
• Australian Industry Minister Kim Carr travels to the U.S. in late June to do some fence-mending with two of General Motors top foreign-policy executives in Washington just days after GM Holden’s top executive warns of a possible end to manufacturing Down Under because the Australia’s fluctuating government policies were making long-term planning difficult.
GM Holden Chairman and Managing Director Mike Devereux tells an Australian newspaper the sudden cancellation of the Green Car Innovation Fund, plus the lack of import tariffs, particularly for vehicles exported from low-cost Asian countries, is making local manufacturing difficult.
• BAIC, the Chinese partner of both Daimler and Hyundai, begins construction of a new RMB5 billion ($770 million) 2-plant vehicle production base in Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong province. The factories mainly will produce BAIC-branded vehicles and eventually have an annual capacity of 100,000 units.
• Nissan announces in July plans to move its Southeast Asian headquarters from Singapore to Thailand, as part of its new Power 88 initiative. The 6-year business plan aims to more than triple the company’s Southeast Asian sales to 500,000, with a 15% market share by the end of 2016.
Also part of Power 88, the Nissan Technical Center Southeast Asia will be expanded in Thailand and Indonesia by tripling the number of the total engineering staff from the current 120 to 370 in 2016. Jatco, Nissan’s transmission affiliate, says it will spend $250 million to build a plant to produce continuously variable transmissions in Thailand.
• The Australian auto industry braces itself for a new carbon tax that industry officials and watchers predict will slow sales and hurt local manufacturing. The federal government’s plan to place a A$23/t ($22/ton) tax on greenhouse-gas emissions starting next July will cost the domestic auto industry an estimated A$30 million-A$84 million ($31.6 million-$89 million) a year, experts warn.
The tax will increase 2.5% a year, plus inflation, before the program changes to a market-based carbon-trading scheme in 2015. Toyota Australia CEO Max Yasuda tells Melbourne’s The Age newspaper the tax is likely to add about A$112 ($118) to the cost of every vehicle it builds or about A$15 million ($15.8 million) a year.
• China’s FAW Group says in August it plans to build an array of independently developed alternative-energy vehicles, including a plug-in hybrid-electric and a battery-electric vehicle under the auto maker’s new Besturn brand.
FAW Chairman Xu Jianyi tells the government’s Xinhua news agency the company will invest RMB9.8 billion ($1.53 billion) in the next five years to develop and build eight new platforms.
An FAW engineer says the new PHEV will consume 60% less gasoline than a traditional car and has a range of about 44 miles (70 km) on a single charge. The EV’s range is 111 miles (170 km).
• The Japan Automobile Dealers Assn. says August sales of new vehicles fell 25.5%. Deliveries were hampered by a continuing production shortage caused by electricity restrictions following March’s record earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. However, August was the 12th consecutive monthly sales decline for new-vehicle sales.
Honda, the slowest to recover, saw domestic deliveries plunge 49%, the largest decline among the country’s car makers.
• Toyota’s joint venture with China’s Guangzhou Automobile Group celebrates the line-off of its 1 millionth vehicle since the partnership was established in 2004.
• Malaysia’s Proton and Japan’s Mitsubishi in September discuss a strategic collaboration for the joint production of engines in Malaysia and the consignment production of Mitsubishi-brand vehicles at Proton’s factories, as well as sharing major parts and components for their upcoming global small cars.
Mitsubishi reportedly will provide future electric, hybrid- and plug-in vehicle technologies to Proton. The two have collaborated for 26 years, and Proton already produces a rebadged Mitsubishi Lancer for the local market.
The precise shareholding structure of the joint venture is not made public, but Proton is believed to be taking a controlling stake. Mitsubishi reportedly will use Proton’s assembly plant in Tanjong Malim in the state of Perak to build cars for export to the Association of Southeast Asian nations.
• Ford CEO Alan Mulally makes his first trip to Thailand in the auto maker’s 26-year history there but is unable to persuade the government to include the Fiesta in its first-time-car-buyer tax-rebate scheme. Ford says the program’s limit on engine size to 1.5L could cost it as much as 6.1 billion baht ($195.6 million) in lost revenue because its 1.6L small car cannot compete with similar models eligible for the rebates.
The Fiesta’s 1.6L engine accounts for 70% of the car’s Thai sales. The first-time buyer program runs through Dec. 31, 2012, and offers rebates of up to TB100,000 ($3,207) for buyers of cars costing no more than TB1 million ($32,071).
Ford says in October that 600 Fiesta orders have been canceled as a result of the 1.6L car’s exclusion from the program.
• The U.S. Congress ratifies a new trade deal in October with South Korea a day before President Lee Myung-bak is to visit a Detroit-area GM plant with President Obama. The deal, initially signed in 2007 under President Bush, has been held up due to automotive-related provisions.
Under terms of the agreement, still awaiting ratification by South Korea, 75,000 U.S. cars immediately would be admitted to the Asian nation. Obama says the move will generate $11 billion in annual vehicle exports and create 70,000 U.S, jobs. But United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard tells the Associated Press auto workers may benefit at the detriment of workers in other sectors.
• Unionized employees at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant strike for the fourth time in four months in October, this time with police intervention, threatening the auto maker’s prominent position in the Indian market. During the 4-month period of intermittent work stoppages, production of 55,000 units has been lost and company losses are estimated at Rs30 billion ($660 million).
The timing is bad for Maruti Suzuki as Hyundai, Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and Nissan all offer small cars to compete with its best-selling Swift and Alto models. They also are expanding retail bases in small towns in the interior.
• Thai auto makers and suppliers fall victim to the country’s 100-year floods in October that began in the summer, killing at least 281 people in July, and continuing until they hit Bangkok. Honda is forced to close its Ayutthaya plant indefinitely, which builds the new Brio eco-car, after the factory is overtaken by surging water.
Mitsubishi suspends operation at its facility in Chonburi and Toyota is forced to shutter three plants when local suppliers are unable to provide parts. Mazda also closes its factory. Toyota Thailand Executive Vice President Wutthikorn Suriyachantanano warns October sales will be affected by late deliveries as well as low consumer confidence. The Federation of Thai Industries predicts high-tech electronics and automotive plants may need up to 10 months to fully recover.
Ironically, Japanese auto makers, which dominate the Thai market, finally have raised their production capacity to catch up with demand after Japan’s March earthquake disrupted their parts supply chain. But their full-year production estimate of 1.8 million vehicles now is in jeopardy.