Top Gear – Why 2002 was a vintage year for car buyers

This month heralds the arrival of new versions of two of this country’s top selling large cars, the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. new version of either of these two, which appears every three years or so, causes great stir in the auto market. This time, the expectation and apprehension is doubled.

The Holden has for several years been New Zealand’s biggest selling model irrespective of size or class. The Falcon never seems to be able to catch up with its rival, but between them, they represent massive chunk of new car sales.

The new BA Falcon is huge departure from previous models in terms of interior ambience. Ford has worked hard on the look and feel of everything inside the car. Engines have been heavily re-worked rather than renewed and turbo charging has been introduced for the first time in the Falcon family. It is offered on one of the six-cylinder versions.

Ford knows that this car must narrow the sales gap between it and the Commodore for Detroit to continue allowing Ford Australia to design and build its own car.

The VY Commodore has been given new nose and tail and vastly improved steering feel. The objective is to help steal the limelight from the Falcon and to last Holden until an all-new Commodore emerges in two to three years.

Ford gets its own back on Holden, though, when it comes to the Mondeo. That car in its Mark 2 form started the year with five major local Car Of The Year Awards from late 2001, and it well deserved them. It has continued to sell strongly all through this year, but has recently been challenged by Mazda’s sharp new two litre car called the Six (even though it’s four), and will soon be further tested by new version of the Holden Vectra.

Adding to the market buzz of this time of the year are the launchings of the Ford Focus, new Camry, new Saab 9-3, two-litre variant of the Renault Laguna, the new small Citroen C3 and two new Hyundais. It’s the busiest time for new car launches than any period in recent memory.

The year opened for the automotive industry with predictable dose of Nine Eleven depression. This would have been an especially nail-biting time for the likes of Range Rover with its hugely expensive ($174,000) new model due to arrive here, and Mercedes Benz which was waiting to welcome ashore the new $250,000 SL500 and the totally redesigned E Class family of sedans.

Jaguar was just getting started with its X Type here, and Volkswagen was making plans for the debut of an eight cylinder Passat. BMW had just hosted auto writers to Italy to review the upcoming new Seven Series, car that would be priced at about $222,000 when it made landfall here.

But the industry depression was over almost as suddenly as it had begun. It was the end of the second quarter already and the worry beads had been cast aside. Orders and deposits were coming in and already the New Zealand car market was having quite good year.

The new Range Rover is only the third all-new iteration of that vehicle since the first three-door model drove over the horizon in 1969. Back then, the astute designers for the marque responded to the need for faster, more sophisticated version of the ordinary workaday Land Rover. This version was to combine the ability to cruise on Britain’s then new motorway network, with the towing of horse floats and offroading to every corner of the estate.

The latest model, which comes as either V8 petrol or six-cylinder turbo diesel, was designed by BMW, which bought Land Rover in the early 1990s. Ford picked up the Land Rover division from BMW three years ago, complete with nearly finished design work for the new Range Rover.

The latest BMW Seven Series was ushered in by hired drawcard Bill Clinton at lavish Auckland function. It has been controversial, worldwide, both for its non-BMW lines and for its electronic master control knob called IDrive. IDrive can be used to set everything, from the way the transmission and suspension responds, through to audio and car phone preferences. Surprisingly, it has the annoying habit of forgetting many settings each time the car is switched off.

Some test drivers felt IDrive was ‘solution looking for problem’ and that it got in the way of the driver’s enjoyment of the car. By contrast, Benz opts for naked simplicity in all its cars.

To be fair to the BMW, the Seven can be driven and enjoyed without using the IDrive. But buyers paying well over $200,000 for top-end vehicle may not be happy to forgo the use of key selling feature and major part of the car’s technology. The new Seven Series has settled down to perfectly acceptable sales figures in New Zealand.

BMW has also confirmed this year how sophisticated, powerful and silent the latest generation of turbo diesels are. An extended test drive of its Five Series three-litre turbo diesel sedan revealed that this car has every feature the petrol powered Five Series has. It does not skimp on luxury or technology. The ride was so svelte that most passengers did not realise it was diesel. Those who saw it swiftly disappear up long sloping state highway passing lane would not have believed it was diesel either. Road user charges notwithstanding, the car saved about third in fuel costs against its nearest Five Series petrol-powered equivalent.

In the third quarter Volkswagen’s W8 version of the four-wheel drive Passat arrived. Yes, W8… not V8. The company has arranged the cylinders in this engine in compact and cosy W format by creating what is essentially two narrow angle V4 engines. This allows VW to shoe horn 202kW and four litres into the engine bay of the Passat and ask $74,000 for it.

As the year progressed further into Q3, Saab invited appraisals of its new 9-3 sedan, shipment of which is arriving in New Zealand for launch about now. Saab’s designers thought the old car sat too high on the road and the objective with the new one was to get it sitting lower and more purposeful. They’ve also saved weight by using all alloy in the engines. That Saab 9-3 ignition key still sits down between the front seats as it always did, so that passenger, angry or concerned at the driving, can simply switch the car off and throw the key out the window.

It’s competent and safe mid-sized car as is its tradition, and it will appeal to individualistic people: creatives; owner-operators; academics; and the judiciary. Saab has always appealed to that market rather than taking space in the corporate car park.

The small car market has been the most fiercely active this year. Just after mid year Honda tossed dynamite package into the marketplace with its new Super Mini the Jazz. Thankfully, Honda New Zealand was smart enough not to adopt the Japanese domestic market name for the car, the Fit.

For $20,500, the five-door 1.3-litre Jazz offers air conditioning, twin airbags, CD player and very versatile interior that allows seats to be moved about to carry all kinds of odd shaped items. The only thing that costs you extra is automatic CVT transmission which is another $1900.

The car accelerated away in the marketplace, sending the purveyors of Toyota Echos and Holden Barinas green with envy. Hyundai followed up with its similar Getz, the most stylish car the company has ever produced. It has not been in the market long enough to predict success ratings. Citroen came in with its tortoise-shaped C3 which is similarly sized to the Honda and Hyundai, but won’t get quite the corporate business the other two will.

To complete the scene, Ford is in the process of launching here its rally-proven Focus, even though the car has been out in other markets for about four years.

It seems an odd decision to let car get that old before launching it here, when clearly its rally successes would have helped sell it from 1999 onwards.

Biggest selling sports utility vehicle remained the new Honda CRV five-door four-wheel drive estate, which has never looked back since it was introduced in Mark One form

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