Blog: Notes from a large island (Part 1)
Glenn Brooks | 26 October 2011
Twenty three years young
It's wonderful to be back in Sydney, the city where I spent the first quarter century of my life. In so many ways, it's a kind of paradise and for the last 20 years I have had to justify to countless numbers of people why I prefer living in Europe to the place I nonetheless still affectionately call Home (well, for starters, this ain't exactly a major global hub for those of us who report on the car industry).
The isolation is of course the main reason why this city seems so different from anywhere else I've lived, that, and the way it and every other mainland state capital in Australia sit on and face water, perhaps trying to keep the giant deserts of this arid continent's interior out of mind.
It might in so many ways feel like San Francisco and look like Essex but Sydney is really in its own world: California is 14 hours' flying time across the Pacific; Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul are 10-12 hours north; England is at its closest 22 hours including a compulsory refuelling stop, far, far away to the northwest; New Zealand is 3 hours down and across the Tasman Sea; and Southern Africa is 12 hours west - about half of it in Australian airspace and the other 6 hours over the Indian Ocean before you eventually reach Jo'burg or Harare. But hey, the South Pole isn't really too far away. Well, it's a few hours' flying time from the bottom of Tasmania. And Tassie's a long way from here.
I mostly mention the geography as this place, which is so endearingly familiar to me, does in many ways seem somehow other worldly. The cars you see are a case in point. I have spent the last week spotting so many models that I never get to see in the UK and other parts of Europe. And while that's been fun, there is something in the air here, an anxiety which is somehow alien to such a positive, cheery place. And I think I know what it is. This, remember, is a country which has one of the highest average levels of personal debt and a real estate bubble that keeps on inflating. Just as used to happen in the UK before the banking crashes of 2008 and 2009, social pressure as well as the media invite anyone and everyone to keep on gearing themselves up with multiple mortgage debts or as they call it here, an 'investment property porfolio'.
What would happen should a Spanish or US-style property collapse come does not make for pleasant thinking. And yet, the mining boom which sustains the Aussie economy shows no sign of slowing, an earlier economic stimulus also having worked well to stave off recession. I have delicately reminded friends who boast of 'decoupling' from the global economy that they too must remember when banks collapsed all over Australia in the early '90s due to property and share market bubbles that suddenly popped. Aussies will point out with pride that BHP Billiton, supposedly the world's fifth largest firm by market capitalisation, is headquartered in Melbourne (and for listing purposes, in London too), choosing not to think just how crazy that is, considering the modest size of the local economy. And how hard the economy might fall when mining stocks next plummet, as they tend to do every few decades.
Having seen so many friends suffering in the UK with unemployment plus heavy mortgage and other debts these last years I do so hope that no sudden economic collapse ever happens down here. But I fear that might be wishful thinking. Certainly the vast numbers of newly-registered premium brand ('prestige' in the local lingo) cars and SUVs on the roads speak volumes about the consumer credit surge which has existed here for many years now: Australia reminds me of the UK in the long boom period to the third quarter of 2008, just before the music stopped. The time when the big and scandalously reckless London- and Edinburgh-based banks found that the parcels they had to unwrap contained toxic debt bombs which subsequently exploded in their faces.
The big four Aussie banks have, it must be said, been fairly well managed in the last few decades. And while lending hasn't been quite as aggressive as it once was in the UK, signs of financial stress are visible down under - one of the easiest to spot is the rise in the number of cheap, Chinese-brand cars. I used to live in London and still travel there regularly so I know for a fact that Sydney is now a pricier place than the UK's largest city for many goods and services. With household costs rising all the time, a growing number of people who consider second-hand cars to be a step down in social status are deciding to take a chance on a vanilla brand.
Great Wall has found itself a good niche in markets such as Queensland where the Toyota Hilux has for some time been that huge state's best selling vehicle. The 'Great Ute of China' as the ads deem it seem to be working and buyers believe they are getting a cheaper but admittedly older-tech rival for Toyota's regional number one sales leader. Yes, a ladder-frame chassis pick-up really is one of the top models in this first world country. Medium-sized utes are hugely popular with Tradies due to ever rising numbers of new homes needing lots of tradesmen and women to build them and fit them out. Plus of course you can have a canopy fitted to your affordably priced dual-cab ute to create an SUV-style family car.
Chery has also launched locally via an experienced importer and more than Great Wall, its low-priced and conservatively-styled models remind me of how Hyundai came into Australia way back in the 1980s. People know they aren't getting the best car in the class and some of the crash-test videos posted on the web can make alarming viewing but there will always be a significant number of people for whom a new car is preferable to a near-new Toyota, Ford, Mazda, Hyundai, Subaru or Holden. Incidentally, Lifan and JAC are also on the way to the Aussie market while I've seen a fair few newly-registered Chinese-brand heavy trucks on the Pacific Highway and the other arterial roads which intersect this city of four and a half million people.
The list of major brands I just mentioned is also something else that keeps on evolving down here in this market of around a million vehicle sales a year (that's about the same size as Canada or the Indian market of two-to-three years ago). Toyota, GM and Ford all have local manufacturing operations but the last of these three is falling behind rivals due to its reliance on large sedans and SUVs powered by six-cylinder engines. The arrival of the first ever four-cylinder Falcon sedan in a few months' time should help Ford Australia, while I am seeing quite a few examples about of the Territory SUV newly available with the PSA-Ford 2.7-litre V6 diesel engine.
A few months back, the Mazda3 raised eyebrows when it topped the best sellers' chart: Mazda had at one time earlier this year even been outselling Ford. Meanwhile, the Corolla, an import, has been outperforming the larger, locally-made Camry - fuel prices might be only 2/3 of the levels of Europe but they've risen a lot in recent years making many Aussies rethink their default preferences for big Ford, Holden and Toyota sedans.
And yes, you did read Subaru correctly as part of that list a few paras ago - the local importer has just announced that it is looking to lift sales to over 40,000 units in 2012 from around 34,000 in 2011 - per capita this is easily the largest global market for the brand and one of the reasons why Australia will see the new XV before any other country.
Returning to those OEMs which build locally, Toyota is about to start making the new-shape Camry and Camry Hybrid at its Altona plant, where much investment courtesy of state and federal government grants has been made in recent years. By happy co-incidence, this Melbourne suburb is also the constituency of prime minister Julia Gillard.
Still with Toyota, for this car-spotter, there are small thrills to be had from the various models I see on Sydney roads that we don't get in Europe: Rukus (OK, it's closely related to the Urban Cruiser), Tarago (a rebadging of Japan's Estima MPV), F J Cruiser, Kluger crossover (the US and Russia's Highlander), and Aurion (a slightly restyled Camry V6 that's built at Altona and which replaced the Avalon), as well as the Lexus ES and Lexus LX. I can't think of another decently-sized RHD market where the last of these is sold, which shows how much profit Toyota must make from the LX 570 in Australia for it to have bothered with all the engineering costs that come with shifting the steering wheel to the other side.
The free trade agreement between Australia and Thailand is also much of the reason why so many Japanese brand models are available down under that we don't see in most European markets. Examples include the Honda City, the Mitsubishi Challenger, the long wheelbase Accord that is so popular in North America and which can be ordered with a V6 engine (the short wheelbase one is also sold here, badged as the Accord Euro), the Nissan Tiida and Maxima sedans and popular pick-ups such as the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 twins plus Holden's Colorado, the Isuzu D-MAX, and the aforementioned Hilux. Oh, and if anyone from Toyota Australia is reading this, yes, I do know I should refer to it as the HiLux: since this is the vehicle's largest global market, I guess I should spell it the way the local importer has always done, albeit out of sync with other countries.
A few other cars which remain unavailable in the UK at least include the Honda Odyssey (my sister drives one of these and to me it looks pretty cool for an MPV due to the low roof, snazzy alloys, blue-filter headlights and the lack of sliding doors), the Kia Cerato and its Koup two-door derivative, the ancient Nissan Patrol which is built almost solely for the Aussie market, the Land Rover Discovery petrol V8, and of course the glorious big-capacity V6- and V8-engined Holden Commodore and Ute and the HSV variants of each.
One other thing I had forgotten about, having been away for a few years: the big black plastic snorkel that is fitted to the passenger side A-pillar of so many big SUVs might sometimes be for show but not always - flashfloods, especially in Queensland's cities can be sudden and terrifyingly lethal - one gulp of a swollen river will usually be enough to sieze an engine and strand the vehicle's occupants at exactly the wrong moment.
Like most Australians, the thing I am probably most at risk of being killed by is the sun; another reason why you see so few convertibles now: it's no surprise to me why these kinds of cars are a relative rarity here. So if not a Bentley Conti GTC, what then, you might wonder, am I myself driving round the burbs of my old home town? Well, my ride is a 1988 Ford Telstar and even stranger, I really am loving it.
The car you see at the top of this long rant has been in my family since new, almost always garaged, and with only 13km put on it last year you can imagine what sort of condition it's in. The blue velour upholstery is unmarked and hardly faded, while the matching dashboard is unusual for an old vehicle in this part of the world as it remains unscorched with no unsightly cracks from which yellow foam guts spill out. That's quite an achievement in the raygun-strength Sydney sunshine that turned my skin red after 20 minutes' exposure on a suburban beach earlier this week - stupidly, I forgot to re-apply the Factor 50 after a quick dip.
The Telstar's 2.2-litre petrol engine pulls beautifully and the four-speed auto gearbox, state of the art in its day, is still "smooth as" as the locals say. Oh, and it's a TX5 Ghia, which means it's the posh trim level and a five-door hatchback. Intermittent wipers, central locking and four electric windows were not things that came as standard on cars in this class back in the late '80s, remember. And check the pic above - it seems unthinkable now for any car to have unpainted bumpers but they look fine and are so much more sensible for hiding parking scuffs.
And the best thing about this ancient Ford? Well, possibly the build quality - the Telstar was a restyled Mazda 626 for Ford dealers in Japan and Australia - but for me it's a reminder of those wonderful days when cars from Japan were packed with clever, thoughtful gizmos. A few seconds after I fire up the Telstar I look to the centre console and get a small thrill - the A/C vents which can freeze my left arm off start swinging silently from side to side, spreading the chilled air from driver to passenger in equal, shared measures. Does the Telstar's great-great-great grandson, the latest Mazda6, have that sort of attention to detail? Who would have thought that a 23 year old car that I would have condemned as an appliance on wheels when it was new could make me smile every time I drive it now?
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