Although mass manufacturers’ so-called global products are engineered to appeal to everyone, they have the knack of making you long for the old days…
A mass producer of vehicles owes its description to the ability to sell significant volumes to a broad spectrum of motoring consumers. These manufacturers are masters at building products cost effectively and so their mark-ups are lower than luxury marques, but that doesn’t matter because they’re in the wholesale business.
Toyota, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen are the most famous of the mass producers, but the Koreans are right up there and the Chinese are looking beyond their borders, too. It’s all about achieving economies of scale for those companies.
There are no original-equipment right-hand-drive Corvettes, Mustangs or Challengers, for example, because their mother companies don’t believe such products would generate sufficient volumes abroad to justify the cost of developing, producing and distributing them. General Motors (GM) had a plethora of region-specific platforms when it was the world’s major vehicle manufacturer, but now the company utilises its subsidiaries in various countries as strategic manufacturing hubs in a global supply chain. Contemporary Chevrolets are engineered to be palatable to a number of markets. Therefore even though GM produces three product lines locally, the majority of its Chevrolet models are sourced from Korea.
Global platforms make a lot of sense for a variety of reasons but, sometimes, in an attempt to conceive and bring to market a product that appeals to all and sundry, a manufacturer can get it horribly wrong and produce a vehicle that appears well-balanced on paper but fails to appeal in any particular aspect. It reminds you of a stew that’s made of the most delectable ingredients, yet tastes bland and has the consistency of fish paste.
Consider the Chevrolet Sonic, which is essentially a successor to the Aveo B-segment hatch but was launched alongside its predecessor in the local market as a funkier alternative with a sporty bent. The word sonic has connotations of jet-aircraft velocities that eclipse the speed of sound and a spiky-haired game character that bounded around our tele-vision monitors long before we’d began saying a numeral after uttering the noun PlayStation.
By contrast, the Chevrolet Sonic hatchback rides, quite absorbedly, on GM’s global Gamma platform, and its exterior has been given a musky whiff of machismo thanks to coupé-like styling, exposed headlamps with black back-grounds and 15-inch alloys. The interior is awash with sturdy plastics, a generous spread of mod-cons and a colourful motorcycle-style speedometer/information-display pod.
Whereas the flagship turbodiesel model punches out a perky 210 N.m of torque, the middle-of-the-range 1,6-litre petrol version wheezes and groans through the gears and never excites its driver. The driving experience is insular and mundane, and instantly forgettable.
To be fair, there’s not all that much wrong with the Sonic, but that’s just not going to be enough for many people. To a generation that grew up with GM (then named Delta) products that were as zippy as they were frugal, the nameplates of Kadett, Monza, Astra and especially the GSi moniker hold nostalgic value. Even though they were rudimentary vehicles by today’s standards, those tinny and rattle-prone cars, many of which were locally adapted and achieved stunning success in track-racing formulas, were revered as indomitable giant-killers and plucky daily commuters.
Then again, the South African motor industry had no choice but to be innovative and rather cavalier in terms of product-development strategies during the era of political and economic isolation, purely because local manufacturers were left with few alternatives but to maak ’n plan. The quality of products was often marginal and the choice of vehicles extraordinarily limited by the standards of today but, goodness knows, there was never wont for edgy, appealing halo models that could underpin an entire range.
A global model can only succeed if it’s a “gotta-have product”, as the now-retired president of Latin America, Africa and Middle East for GM, Maureen Kempston Darkes, once described the quintessential Chevrolet to me. If they don’t fit that description, why can’t local manufacturers twist their mother companies’ arms and revive the long-lost art of optimising products for the specific demands of the local market? Do we no longer have sufficient expertise at our disposal? Are the costs of running such programmes prohibitively high and firms’ warranty stipulations too inflexible?
Those are questions that only our motor industry leaders can answer. Suffice to say that, if our government mandates our fuel industry to upgrade its refineries to produce jungle juice of a European standard, we should get the most potent and efficient motors that manufacturers can offer. That could help cars such as the Sonic 1,6 LS, which is not bad but could be so much better. However, I’d still love to drive cars with local flavour, not just the staple that folks overseas dish up for us.