US and Japanese automakers will be left behind by China

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The automotive industry is currently in the midst of a paradigm shift. Well, several paradigm shifts, really.

The first is the shift to electrification. More car brands are investing heavily in electric vehicles (EVs), with some even committing to phase out fossil-fuel cars altogether in the near future, such as Bentley, Jaguar, Lotus, MINI and Volvo. Even Ferrari released its first hybrid vehicle, the SF90 Stradale.

The second is China’s rise as an automotive powerhouse. China has long eclipsed the United States as the world’s largest car-making country, but Chinese cars have long suffered from a (not entirely undeserved) perception that they are shoddy and have no not always successful outside the People’s Republic.

But that is changing rapidly. In countries like Australia, Sweden and Norway, vehicles from Chinese brands such as the MG3 and Polestar 2 have become some of the top-selling vehicles in their respective markets. Paradigms also collide: China is the world leader in electric vehicle manufacturing, and a Chinese electric vehicle, the Wuling Hongguang Mini, now overtakes the Tesla Model 3 as the best-selling electric vehicle today.

In short, the “threat” from China is real. But not all brands are doing what they need to keep pace with China – or the industry more broadly. Specifically, many Japanese and American automakers that were once at the top of the industry are lagging behind.

The Toyota Mirai, Toyota’s flagship hydrogen car. Although hydrogen cars have some environmental benefits, it is now clear that they will not be the “technology of the future”. Picture: What car

Japanese automakers, in particular, have become strangely reluctant to pursue battery electric vehicles (BEVs, i.e. fully electric cars). Toyota, the biggest car brand in the world, is probably the worst culprit. While an early innovator of mild hybrids, such as the Prius, Toyota has stalled in recent years, doubling down on mild hybrid and hydrogen technologies when it became clear that plug-in hybrids (PHEVs ) and BEVs are the way of the future.

Indeed, Toyota actively lobbied the U.S. Congress to slow political moves toward passing the BEV, The New York Times reports, and company president Akio Toyoda even called electric vehicles “overhyped,” according to the the wall street journal.

Toyota isn’t the only culprit either: Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda and others have all been very slow on BEVs, despite having previously been electrification innovators (although one should note that Honda has actually pledged to divest from gasoline and diesel engines by 2040, the first and so far only Japanese automaker to do so.)

For some US automakers, it’s a similar story. While General Motors plans to go carbon neutral by 2040 and Ford of Europe has announced that its entire passenger vehicle lineup (plus two-thirds of its light commercial vehicle lineup) will be fully electric d By 2030, Ford’s U.S. operations are paradise ‘t followed suit. Stellantis, the European mega-corporation that now owns the Chrysler Group, has announced ambitious plans to electrify 96% of its US offerings by 2025 – but that notably excludes their fuel-thirsty Dodge and RAM brands.

And this is crucial. Gas-guzzling trucks like the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-Series and RAM 1500 are the biggest sellers of these American brands. This amounts to greenwashing: there’s no point in electrifying other models if your biggest sellers are still powered by fossil fuels. However, things could change in the truck space with the arrival of BEVs like the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Rivian R1T…

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The Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, a car that is perhaps emblematic of the American automotive situation: spending too much time building fuel-guzzling niche vehicles on outdated chassis, rather than investing in new chassis and new technologies. Image: Top Gear

The second area where Japanese and American automakers lag behind China is in quality. American cars have always been considered somewhat questionable when it comes to overall quality, but Japan was once the benchmark – that reputation is slowly evaporating.

As Japanese automakers have shifted production to countries like Thailand, Mexico, and even the United States, their rock-solid reputation has taken a hit. South Korean brands have largely supplanted Japanese brands when it comes to making affordable, quality and reliable cars. Hell, they even follow the Japanese pattern of shifting to luxury vehicles: Hyundai is having impressive success with its premium Genesis brand, for example.

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However, something that is very telling of the quality of American cars in particular is how Chinese versions of American-designed cars come off the production lines better made than their American counterparts.

“The comparison of vehicles built both in the West and in China is particularly enlightening,” says Tom Stacey, senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in England.

“Tesla’s Model 3 and Model Y cars are both built in the US and China, and owners in Europe have reported that the Chinese versions are better. I hear their very large panel gaps are tighter and less trips to the repair shop are required. »

Watch the brutal crash test process of Tesla’s new Model Y

So what should the United States and Japan do if they want to stay on top of the automotive game?

Simple. Take electrification more seriously; not as a fad but as the future of the automobile. This is the first step. Second, they need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to quality control and stop “phoning around”. This is partly due to their reliance on vehicle designs and platforms for much longer than necessary, in order to keep costs down (which the Japanese are a bit more guilty of than the Americans).

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Of course, that’s easier said than done. But the reality is this: Europe makes all the fun and interesting cars, and China makes all the cheap electric cars. The United States and Japan do not want to be left behind.

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