SAICs MG brand made a splash at Shanghai this year. The MG6 model will be assembled at a new plant in Rayong from June of this year.

SAIC's MG brand made a splash at Shanghai this year. The MG6 model will be assembled at a new plant in Rayong from June of this year.

The 35th Bangkok International Motor Show got underway this week in a much more somber mood than last year. just-auto's ASEAN markets specialist, Tony Pugliese, was there to take the Thai auto industry's temperature and walk the halls.

The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) had just announced a 45% drop in domestic vehicle sales in February to 71,680 units, with cumulative two-month sales also 45% lower at 140,188 units.

This time last year, the market was enjoying record volumes, with deliveries of vehicles sold under the government's now-discontinued first-time buyer incentives programme approaching peak levels.

The country recent political unrest undoubtedly has also taken its toll on the automotive market, with business and consumer confidence at a five-year low. The FTI's monthly survey of business outlook sentiment showed a further drop in February, to below 86 points - well below the 100-point negative outlook threshold.

While anti-government demonstrators have now dismantled their road blocks across the country's capital, few executives at the show would speculate that the worst of the unrest is now in the past. Most choose to focus on the long-term opportunities in this market and across the region.

The country remains politically divided. The protests in Bangkok ended in political stalemate, meaning that tensions will likely continue to simmer under the surface.

Luxury takes centre stage

Luxury brands took centre stage at the show, with Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) lightening the mood with their latest efforts in luxury motoring. After all, the upper segments of the market are expected to continue to perform well this year.

Rolls Royce dazzled its audience with its plush Ghost Majestic range and Aston Martin with its new Q model. Porsche unveiled the Macan SUV to the region alongside the larger Cayenne model and the GT3.

One of the Show's biggest head-turners was the stunning BMW i8 hybrid sports car, which also made its regional debut this week. I was informed that it does 0-60 in 4.6 seconds; unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to verify this.

The 220i coupe and 4-series convertible were also displayed here for the first time.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled the new GLA and G-class models, which were displayed alongside the new C-class range.

Eco Car II gets off the ground

At the opposite end of the scale, two important announcements were made at the show. Both GM-Chevrolet and Suzuki confirmed that they will be participating in phase II of Thailand's Eco-Car programme.

GM confirmed it will make a completely new model at a new facility in Thailand, which will eventually need to have a minimum production capacity of 100,000 units per year.

Suzuki said it will produce the Celerio small car in Thailand as its second eco-car, following the launch of production of the Swift eco car in 2012. The Celerio is currently made by Maruti Suzuki in India. The car will be exported from here to Europe, throughout South-east Asia and to Australia New Zealand.

These are the only two companies to have submitted applications for Phase II of the Eco-Car programme so far, with the end-of-March deadline approaching fast. Honda and Mitsubishi, already Phase I participants, are understood to be preparing applications for Phase II, while Ford is also said to be interested.

Tata Motors, present at the show only through JLR, has decided not to join the eco-car programme due to its tough minimum production requirements and no doubt discouraged also by the disappointment of its Nano model.

Compact cars

Toyota displayed the recently launched all-new Vios and Yaris models at the show, as well as the Corolla Altis Esport. Similarly, Honda's centerpiece was its all-new City four-door saloon, which went on sale in January, and the facelifted Civic model. A new Jazz is expected to be launched later this year.

The new Mazda 3, which went into production at AutoAlliance (Thailand) Ltd last week, took centre-stage on the Mazda stand.

Shanghai Automotive's (SAIC) MG Motor made a bold splash at the show, placing strong emphasis on the Britishness of the MG brand. The MG6 itself, the only model on display, is based on the company's Roewe 550 model, however. The MG6 will be assembled at a new plant in Rayong from June of this year and the company is currently recruiting local dealers. Other markets in the ASEAN will likely be targeted from next year.

The new production facility is the result of joint venture between SAIC and the Charoen Pokphand Group, one of Thailand's largest companies: SAIC Motor-CP Co. Ltd.  

President of SAIC Motor-CP Co. Ltd, Mr Wu Huan said: "The public debut of the MG6 in Thailand is the opportunity for the Thai market to see the new MG6 before it arrives on Thai roads. All nine cars on display were built locally at the production facility in Rayong province. The presence of MG in this year's Bangkok International Motor show is a key part of MG's 90 year anniversary celebrations in 2014."

SUVs

Ford displayed its EcoSport entry-level SUV at the show, with Thailand to become the production hub for this model for the ASEAN markets, Australia and New Zealand. This model first went into production in Brazil, followed by China and India.

Ford also unveiled its new Everest premium mid-sized SUV "concept" developed by Ford's Australian unit and based on the Ranger pickup platform. This too will be produced in Thailand for regional markets.

Chevrolet also displayed its facelifted Captiva SUV.