It’s not looking good. Cars are expensive, with the curve clearly heading north, and the passenger-vehicle market is close to record lows – down almost 19% year on year,if you take sales to rental companies out of the equation. Compounded by the battered rand, diminished spending power means young South Africans cannot afford new cars and their parents are part of the buying-down trend that’s indicative of tighter wallets. Sure, sales of ultra-premium brands – Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce – remain in rude health, but just about every other carmaker is feeling the pinch, regardless how they choose to spin their monthly sales statistics.
It isn’t a sustainable business model. The pool of next-generation customers is decreasing as they opt for more cost-effective mobility solutions such as Uber, while those of us who want to own our cars can’t afford the kind of vehicles we desire. I don’t see this trajectory U-turning any time soon and, unless there are drastic changes, the industry could be in real trouble.
What to do? Surely one solution is more affordable cars. Yes, the tech woven into modern vehicles makes them safer, faster and more connected, and to recoup all those development costs, prices have steadily climbed. And, yes, there will always be a market for the latest and greatest. But, especially in this country, unaffordability will see that market decline. Surely OEMs can make a range of cars that offers enough space and basic safety equipment at affordable pricing? I’d bet there are a lot of buyers out there who would forgo fancy infotainment systems, electric everything and under-the-hood technological wizardry for something simpler and cheaper … like the cars we drove 10 years ago.
Safety has, of course, improved dramatically since, but ABS, airbags and crumple zones are not new and can be incorporated without huge cost. Being lighter, those old-school cars were as much fun to drive – a blast in Mazda’s new MX-5 is proof that less weight equals more fun – and fuel-efficient, too, as a reader points out in the Mail section (page 10). Plus, as our tests of the Nissan Patrol and Mahindra Thar show, old school cuts it off-road, too (see page 64).
Think of it not so much as a Neo-Luddite step backwards, but as a pause in the relentless tech-driven march. It’s also a smart business move; customer numbers are dwindling and manufacturers have no choice but to draw them back.