Monday, July 17, 2006

Best buys in 1H 2006

Business Times, 15th July, 2006

Rising pump prices and falling COE premiums have combined to produce a clear buying trend in the first six months of this year - Singaporeans are gravitating towards smaller cars.

With pleasing curves and a sportiness associated with the latest Lexus models, there is no doubt that the Thai-made Camry will be a hit.

In terms of the most popular makes, however, nothing has changed in the top three positions. The Toyota jug gernaut remains streets ahead of the pack, followed by Nissan and Hyundai. But the surprise is how much Hyundai has slipped and how much No 4 brand Honda has gained, so much so that only eight units separate the two marques. SAMUEL EE looks at the models that raced up the sales charts.

CATEGORY: SALOONWE all know the local market favours the saloon body style. But Singaporeans seem to have taken their love affair with the four-door sedan to new heights in the first half of 2006, with a record top six models having that all-important boot (the five-door Hyundai Matrix was No 4 a year ago).

Not counting the hatchback version of the Nissan Latio - the only one among the six available with a rear hatch - these six models made up 42 per cent of the total 52,656 passenger car units registered by members of the Motor Traders Association of Singapore (MTA) in the first six months of the year.

It is no surprise that excluding the Honda Civic, all the top models were all in Category A. This segment for cars under 1,600cc has always dominated the entire market but the surprise is that it witnessed significant growth of 15 per cent in January-June 2006, compared with the previous corresponding period.

The Toyota Corolla Altis continues to reign supreme (see table), along with the two familiar runners-up - the Nissan Sunny and Toyota Vios. But sales of the first two models have dropped from the year-ago period. Only the Vios has surged - by 31 per cent. Another surprise was the Mitsubishi Lancer's performance, which was powerful enough to make up three-quarters of total Mitsubishi sales.

The launch of the eighth generation Honda Civic made it the most significant new model so far this year, as well as the most expensive model in the top six. It is also the only model in Cat B with 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines.

But other than this bright spot in the compact segment, the two-litre mid-sized segment was lacklustre, slipping 2 per cent, dragged down by plunging sales of the traditional best-seller, the Toyota Camry. This segment, which includes premium models like the Lexus IS250 and BMW 3 Series, was weighed down by news of a sportier Camry due in September.

But Toyota's luxury division also powered ahead, thanks to the Lexus IS250. Since deliveries began in March, a whopping 438 units of it were registered, or two out of five Lexus cars sold this year.

BEST BUYS: The Japanese brand rather the Made in Japan label, will continue to rule this segment, meaning the top three models will still rule the roost. But the Mitsubishi Lancer is also a very good buy based on its starting price of $44,988.

The Nissan Sylphy is another gem based on its spacious and well-built cabin. So is the Honda Civic, based on the equipment level and engine technology.

Among non-Japanese models, the Hyundai Verna stands out for its styling.

It is also worth mentioning that a new class of car has emerged in this segment because of its new-found affordability - the petrol electric hybrid. The Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid's offer of a high-tech answer to rising fuel prices will be attractive to a growing number of savvy buyers.

With stocks of the Toyota Camry sold out, there are few interesting sedans in Cat B. The face-lifted Honda Accord is here but is unlikely to generate as much interest as the market leader. Higher up the premium ladder, don't be surprised if the IS250 drives Lexus sales this year and takes the marque to record heights.

LOOK OUT FOR: The Honda Civic 1.6 is being launched this weekend. With prices starting from $69,500, it marks its re-entry into Cat A - a segment it left six months ago with the outgoing seventh generation car.

But it is the new Toyota Camry which will shake the market when authorised distributor Borneo Motors introduces it in September. With pleasing curves and a sportiness associated with the latest Lexus models, there is no doubt that the Thai-made Camry will be a hit.

Also due in September is the revised Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This ever-popular luxury model has new features and extensive upgrades, including suspension mods which make this mid-sized German saloon surprisingly fun to drive.

CATEGORY: COMPACT HATCHBACK

AT HALF-TIME, this segment has remained stagnant even with new models like the Toyota Yaris. Even though stratospheric fuel prices are a concern, it seems Singaporeans prefer compact sedans to compact hatchbacks. Hence the spiking popularity of the Toyota Vios.

The most popular hatchback in this category is the Hyundai Getz, overtaking what was once the best-seller, the Hyundai Matrix. The Getz chalked up 1,740 units from January to June this year - just 3 per cent lower than the same period in 2005 - while the Matrix slumped to just 761 units.

The segment's runner-up has seen sterling success. The Kia Picanto, which used to vie with the Perodua Kelisa for the honour of being Singapore's cheapest new car, has sprinted ahead with 1,236 units, or an amazing 53 per cent more than at half-time last year.

The powerful performance from this diminutive Korean model has offset declines by Japanese makes like the Honda Jazz (713) and Mazda 2 (202).

BEST BUYS: The 'premium' hatch, the Honda Jazz, may be ageing but sales are still fairly stable - just 0.8 per cent down from last year. A recent facelift with higher specifications is trying to sustain interest by offering more value.

The new kid on the block, the Toyota Yaris, was launched in late February and remains an attractive and fresh-faced alternative, even if it has failed to excite the market much. In fact, it is the Nissan Latio hatchback which has been steadily gaining ground. Out of 2,153 Latio models sold, 428 or 20 per cent were hatches.

LOOK OUT FOR: The Chery QQ slipped into Singapore from mainland China with an official launch on the last day of June. It immediately dethroned the Kelisa and Picanto for the crown of cheapest new car.

Although it boasts an impressive array of standard equipment at just $31,900, the 800cc QQ has many rough edges. So will Singaporeans take to this Chinese model? The numbers will tell in a few months' time.


CATEGORY: MPV

MASS market Japanese models with 2.4-litre or bigger engines have generally seen significantly softer sales, especially in the last three months. The popular multi-purpose vehicle hasn't been spared either.

Singapore's most popular MPV, the Honda Odyssey, registered just 716 units, or down 37 per cent. By contrast, the 332 units of the Mitsubishi Grandis represented a smaller 17 per cent drop.

Runner-up Toyota Picnic with 479 units - down 61 per cent - saw the bigger drop even though it is in the two-litre class but this could be due to the overwhelming popularity of the parallel imported Toyota Wish, which is not offered by authorised distributor Borneo Motors.

BEST BUYS: Any excitement in the MPV market is best found in the grey market.

But if peace of mind is important, there's the face-lifted Odyssey. Two years after entering the local market with a bang, it now comes with a new Absolute edition offering sportier specifications to make it even more car-like.

With fuel economy a concern, the new Honda Stream - just released this week in Japan - would be a good under-two-litre candidate except its launch here has yet to be confirmed by authorised distributor Kah Motor.

LOOK OUT FOR: The Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a luxurious six-seater with either a 3.5-litre V6 engine or five-litre V8 driving the rear wheels. The so-called Grand Sports Tourer is priced from $250,000 and comes with a seven-speed automatic gearbox and Airmatic air suspension is standard.

The only catch about this classy people carrier is that you would need a very fat wallet when filling up.


CATEGORY: SUV

THE two-litre SUV from Korea is still a winner in a segment which has dipped more than 10 per cent and is only being propped up by the larger models. The Hyundai Tucson saw 701 units sold, thus retaining the title of Singapore's most popular SUV, a position it has occupied since arriving here in the second half of 2004.

Another Hyundai model has been creating a stir - in the seven-seater market. The handsomely styled Santa Fe has seven seats, making it a good compromise for anyone who wants the rugged looks of an SUV but with the flexibility of an MPV. Launched in early May, it quickly chalked up 124 units.

Compare this with the 159 units over six months for the Toyota Fortuner, and 115 for the premium Volvo XC90 - the only two other SUV models on the market with seven seats.

As for the Japanese competition, most models have migrated to the wrong side of two litres. Even then, the 2.5 and 3.5-litre Nissan Murano captured 306 buyers. It must be its stunning looks, because the Toyota RAV4 only netted 205 and the Mitsubishi Outlander 79.

The Honda CR-V, which is still below 2.0, registered a paltry 167 units.

BEST BUYS: The Santa Fe is a very attractive choice with its sleek design and third row of seats. But its 2.7-litre engine is not.

If fuel economy is a concern, then the Daihatsu Terios would be the perfect SUV. It has a 1.5-litre engine, is made in Japan, and has the rugged SUV looks required for this group of buyers, even though the package itself is on the smaller side.

The Terios is also a superior buy compared with the parallel-imported Toyota Rush because of agent Sin Tien Seng's more competitive pricing and after-sales back-up. Anyway, Daihatsu builds the Rush for Toyota.

LOOK OUT FOR: The Lexus RX400h will offer a new proposition in the SUV segment when it arrives next month. This luxury hybrid is perfect for those who want more power without more fuel.

As for more conventional petrol-driven models, the Mazda CX-7 is due in the fourth quarter. It will have a 2.3-litre direct injection engine and killer looks. A seven-seater version, the CX-9, will not make it here because it is only available with a huge 3.7-litre engine.

CATEGORY: SPORTS COUPE

THE two volume players, the Honda Integra and the Hyundai Tuscani, continue to prop up a segment which is sorely missing the popular BMW 3 Series Coupe and Cabriolet models at the higher end.

The Integra led with 221 units, followed by the Tuscani at 82.

As for the Continental competition, they are mostly unrepresented in the mass market segment. At the higher end, the BMW 6 Series reinforced its commanding road presence with 75 units of both coupe and cabriolet versions. Traditional rival Mercedes-Benz continued to score with its elegant 'four-door coupe', the CLS-Class, with 55 units registered in the first six months of 2006.

BEST BUYS: The Integra is a sure winner with its good handling and balance. It will also be a collector's item of sorts because the model will be discontinued by year-end.

Honda has decided not to produce the Integra in 2007, so that means the only two-door model left will be the rear-wheel-driven S2000 roadster.

However, those with a bigger budget should just go straight for the Porsche 911 Turbo. This classic is back with cutting-edge variable turbo geometry technology and so much power that it can make more than just the twin turbines spin.

LOOK OUT FOR: The BMW 3 Series Coupe should blow your socks off when it arrives in the fourth quarter. The top-of-the-range 335i Coupe will have a turbo charged three-litre, straight-six engine. This 3.0 unit produces 306 hp, and 400 Nm of torque from just 1,300 rpm.

Unfortunately, its styling cues will be taken from the saloon, so it is unlikely to be anywhere as pretty or elegant as the last two 3 Series coupes.

At the lower end of the market, the Mazda MX-5 will have a retractable hardtop in Q4. It is sure to make this dynamic roadster even more appealing.

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