Recovery keeps coming even as COVID-19 resurges in some Asian markets, in particular. Japan’s new vehicle market surged by over 46% to 319,318 units in May 2021 from depressed year-earlier sales of 218,285 units, according to registration data released by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. Business sentiment has improved significantly in Japan since the beginning of the year, despite new measures introduced by the government to contain a recent surge in COVID-19 infections, with industrial output and exports posting strong growth. The country’s GDP is expected to rebound strongly in the current quarter from weak year earlier levels, after contacting by 1.3% quarter on quarter in the January-March period. In the first five months of 2021, vehicle sales increased by almost 13% to 2,098,955 units from 1,860,404 in the same period of last year, with passenger car sales rising by 13.3% to 1,746,742 units and truck sales up 11.4% to 348,756 units.

Vietnam’s new vehicle market continued to recover in May 2021, with sales rising by over 19% to 22,152 units from 18,571 units a year earlier, according to wholesale data released by the Vietnam Automotive Manufacturers Association (VAMA). The country’s GDP was estimated to have expanded by 4.5% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2021 after growing by an average of 2.8% in 2020, driven mainly by strong growth in exports and buoyant foreign direct investment (FDI). A surge in COVID-19 infections had slowed domestic economic activity in the last month or so, however, with the service sector the worst affected. Vehicle sales in the first five months of the year were almost 45% higher at 115,044 units from 79,396 units a year earlier, with passenger vehicle sales rising by over 48% to 84,788 units while commercial vehicle sales were up by close to 37% at 30,256 units.

Geely-owned Volvo Cars achieved its 11th consecutive month of sales growth in May as the company’s global sales increased by 43 per cent in May, compared with the same month last year. Last month, Volvo Cars sold 64,111 cars, up from 44,830 in the same period last year. Growth was mainly driven by a strong demand in the US and, in Europe, a recovery from a sales drop in May last year related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In China, where sales returned to growth around this time last year, the company reported a steady increase of 11.7%. Sales in the January-May period landed at 312,533 cars, up 49.9% compared with the same period last year. Sales of the Recharge line-up of chargeable models, with a fully electric or plug-in hybrid powertrain, remained strong in Europe during the month of May, and represented 40% of the company’s overall sales in the region. Following a strong sales growth in the US, Recharge vehicles accounted for 20.8% of its total sales. Globally, Recharge cars accounted for 23.7% of the total sales volume during May.

On a roll with its Ranger topping sales charts in many export markets, and the larger F-100 continuing its US chart topping reign, Ford has confirmed a new Focus-based compact pickup – called Maverick – for the Americas that will be built in Mexico and on sale later this year. It’s a move being seen as a response to higher than expected interest in an entry-level vehicle below Ford’s current range (read: Ranger). Reports say dealers have been asking for a compact vehicle in the sub-US$20,000 price band. Ford said it was adding an all-new compact pickup to its lineup and it would be called Maverick (a nameplate used previously for the sedan version of the 1970s US Pinto subcompact and later for Ford versions of an SUV built jointly with Nissan). The four-door small pickup will be built from this summer at the Hermosillo plant in Mexico and will be on sale later in the year. The Hermosillo plant already produces the closely related Bronco Sport. Ford’s internal name for the new model is C-pickup (on the C2 platform). The Maverick mades its public debut on 8 June with the help of actress Gabrielle Union who showed off the new truck on her Instagram and TikTok channels, Ford’s social channels and on Hulu. The Maverick was Ford’s first vehicle to be launched on its new US TikTok channel.

Electrification is axing an ICE parts plant in Japan. Honda Motor announced plans to permanently shut down its Mooka engine parts plant in Tochigi Prefecture in 2025, reflecting the global shift towards electric vehicles (EVs). The carmaker said in April it planned to produce only battery-powered and fuel-cell electric vehicles globally by 2040. The closure is part of a broader move by Honda to improve its global manufacturing efficiency through factory consolidation, starting with the 2017 announcement of the closure of a vehicle assembly plant in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. This latest announcement affects 900 workers who will be relocated to other group manufacturing sites.

Then, of course, the ongoing chip shortage affected the rollout of a new electric vehicle as Nissan Motor was forced to delay the global launch of its new Ariya due to the industry-wide semiconductor shortage. The Ariya is Nissan’s first mass-market all-electric vehicle since it launched the Leaf a decade ago. The model is seen a key part of the automaker’s future growth strategy and was described by CEO Makoto Uchida as “opening a new chapter” for the company. The carmaker originally planned to begin domestic sales of the Ariya in mid-2021 before launching the model in Europe, North America and China towards the end of this year. Nissan announced last week customers could now place orders for only limited edition B6 models from this month, with deliveries scheduled this coming “winter”, while new delivery dates for export markets were not announced.

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BorgWarner and the Alpine F1 Team have announced a new partnership that they say builds on their long-standing collaboration on propulsion technology. BorgWarner, which recently acquired Delphi Technologies, and Renault have worked together for more than 30 years on the development of turbochargers and other propulsion technologies, including the current generation of highly-advanced Alpine Cars power units. Through structured forums, BorgWarner and Alpine will combine expertise to identify technologies and technical collaborations in the future Alpine Electric Vehicle line-up. The Delphi Technologies branded logo will appear on Alpine F1 Team’s garage environment and commercial assets and on the A521 car at selected Grand Prix.

Grupo Antolin is studying the potential of carbon nanofibres to improve efficiency, durability and cost reduction of critical components in next-generation hydrogen fuel cells. The Spanish supplier has been working for some years on development of processes to produce carbon nanofibres with properties for different industrial applications in sectors such as aeronautics, textiles, chemical, electronics and automotive. As a result, nanofibres have been generated with electrical conductivity performance, corrosion resistance and specific surface area. In this application, carbon nanofibres serve as physical support for platinum nanoparticles that act as a catalyst for certain chemical reactions. For their properties, nanofibres reduce the amount of platinum needed and improve the durability of the electrodes as well as the overall efficiency of the system. Antolin maintains among the different types of hydrogen fuel cells developed so far for automotive, those based on Polymeric Electrolyte Protonic Exchange Membranes (PEMFC) currently have the most potential because of their high-power density and operating range.

Tesla has left customers and industry observers in a state of confusion this week after its CEO, Elon Musk announced the cancellation of its incoming top-of-the-line Model S Plaid+ mere days before it was due to go on sale. The Model S first went on sale in 2012 and is partially responsible for the profound improvement in public perception of battery EVs that has led to the current renaissance of electrified models. Now, with rivals in ascendence, the time has come for Tesla to heavily update the Model S to maintain its competitive position. Part of the update Tesla announced at the start of 2021 was a choice of three new of powertrains – the Long Range standard model, the powerful Plaid model and the range-topping Plaid+ version. The odd name is a humorous reference to the Mel Brooks sci-fi comedy Spaceballs in which a spaceship moves so fast it is said to have achieved ‘Plaid’ speed. The Model S Plaid+ was said to possess 1,100hp, would hit 60mph in less than 1.99 seconds and would be able to cover 520 miles on a charge. All of those figures were, like the original 2012 Model S, substantially ahead of anything offered by rivals and seemed sure to further cement Tesla’s position as the leading EV manufacturer for the next few years. However, it now appears that Tesla has abandoned its original model plan and has ditched the range-topping Plaid+ version.

Have a nice weekend.

Graeme Roberts, Deputy Editor, Just Auto