The light-car segment looks set to be the dominant force in the passenger-vehicle market for the foreseeable future – and it’s a battlefield in which VW and Toyota will soon feel the pressure.
The first new-vehicle media launch I attended was that of the second-generation Renault Clio RT 1,4 in 1999 when I was but a budding newspaper sub-editor. What I remember most about the event was feeling the need to drive like Dick Dastardly to keep up with my lead-footed motoring-journo peers on a potholed country road in the Hartbeespoort region. StilI, I have fond memories of that little Clio.
As a rookie motoring scribe, I was not immune to the marketing razzmatazz and free lunch at the Renault launch, but I felt that the 1,4 RT was the best little car I had ever driven. It seemed so much more characterful, sophisticated and better specced than the locally produced VW Polo Playa, which was essentially a rebadged Seat that combined the bodywork of the first-generation Polo with the engine bay and powerplants from the Golf 2.
To my great relief and satisfaction, my subsequent report on the Clio was not hacked or deflowered by the motoring editor and, when CAR tested the Renault for its November 1999 issue, it concluded that the 1,4 RT – later named the 2000 SA Car of the Year – was “the new top dog in the 1,4-litre hatchback class”.
The class that CAR referred to so broadly is now commonly known as the light-car, supermini or B-segment, and it’s dominated by the VW Polo, a revitalised version of its predecessor, now badged the Vivo, and the Toyota Yaris. Virtually every volume manufacturer is represented in this market, which is unsurprising given that supermini sales have remained ebulliently robust in tough trading times and analysts expect the segment to show the most growth in the next few years.
Naturally, fleet sales have underpinned much of the success the Polo and Yaris achieved, as clients of car-rental companies will certainly attest, but unlike the Nissan Tiida, which was punished for its prevalence in the letting sector by disappointing sales to private owners, Volkswagen and Toyota have been flogging their B-segment offerings to all and sundry.
The reputations and market strength of the passenger-market protagonists have certainly made it difficult for (some highly rated) competitors to make significant inroads into the B-segment. The Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 have deservedly garnered a following, but for the rest (at least for those brands that report their sales), it’s always been a matter of fighting over the scraps…
If the Honda Jazz and Hyundai i20 err on conservatism, the Fiat Punto, Citroën C3, Renault Clio and Peugeot 207 seem to suffer for their boutique appeal and lingering public perceptions that their brands offer poor customer service and dodgy reliability, which is both unfortunate and somewhat unfair. Audi and Alfa Romeo dabble at the premium end, but they aren’t chasing big volumes there.
However, the recent respective introductions of the new Kia Rio and Yaris have again juxta-posed a new-wave competitor with the market’s status quo in a similar manner that the Clio did with the Polo Playa at the end of the previous century.
Whereas the re-engineered Yaris has improved in various areas, it remains a conventional product that seems stuck in the B-segment standards of the previous decade. It is a well-built but somewhat charmless vehicle that will please traditionalists and fleet buyers alike, but will it be able to wrestle the initiative from Volkswagen? The top-selling Polo, for that matter, soldiers on without a standard service plan (something that most of its competitors now offer) and its standard equipment list could well be longer at the price.
Now consider the handsome Rio. It may not offer cutting-edge turbocharged engines, but the models are packed with luxury features (see the comparative road test featuring the 1,4 Tec and Yaris 1,3 XS in the February 2012 issue of CAR) and come with lengthy warranties and service plans. Could Kia absorb currency fluctuations and keep its list prices stable to the extent that the local manufacturers have done in the past (but not always)? Could it procure enough stock to keep up with domestic demand?
Granted, that remains to be seen. However, the Rio manages to create an impression that, when consumers are forced to buy down, they don’t need to be constantly reminded of their compromised purchases by predictable econobox styling and packaging, not to mention thrifty specifications. It seems incredible that in the information age, a manufacturer’s sales success still depends on the expansiveness of its dealer and service networks, brand perception and history.
I’m not saying the Rio is without flaws or necessarily class-leading, but even repeat customers deserve to get the best deals – especially on their favourite brands.