Eco-car phase 2: potholes lie ahead

Auto & Audio February 14, 2014 00:00

By Kon Thueanmunsaen

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Challenges awaiting the second phase of the eco-car programme in Thailand are being discussed.

Limitations on the supply side – from the unlikelihood of further investment to pressures caused by consolidating production to one location – have been examined. And in this issue, the demand side of limitations is being further investigated for both the local and export markets. 
The eco-car sub-segment currently holds around a 14-per-cent share of the total Light Vehicle market, or around 30 per cent of all passenger cars in Thailand (the volume is expected to come in at just below 180,000 for 2013). Although the share was seen to increase considerably from 3 per cent and 6 per cent respectively in 2010, when the first eco-car model was launched, it is unlikely that this growth will continue. 
Evidence has shown an expected growth rate of 8 per cent for 2013, compared to almost four times that in 2012 on the back of a special scheme for first-time buyers. It is clear that the market is undergoing normalization, and without any other external factors, future growth will come only from overall market growth. 
This hypothesis is reconfirmed when considering the composition of the Sub-Compact Car segment, where the Eco-Car Sub-segment falls. The share of other Sub-Compact vehicles stabilised at around 65 per cent in 2013, a slight decrease of one percentage point from the previous year. This was compared to more than a 10 percentage point reduction over the two years previous. In fact, the share of other Sub-Compact cars in the total Passenger Car segment has remained stable at around 53 per cent since 2005. This suggests that the growth in the Eco-Car Sub-segment is within its own category and, therefore, future market size will rely on organic growth. 
Considering the latest sales and production data, buyers will only be able to afford half of the total eco-car production, with the rest intended for exports. To keep up with the ratio until 2017, when each of the five participating companies will have to reach a production requirement of 100,000 vehicles, an average of at least 9-per-cent growth every year of the Eco-Car Sub-segment will be needed. 
At this point, a question arises on whether the local market will have enough room to accommodate further production capacity for the second phase of investment. This is a big challenge for some OEMs. Despite continued growth in the Eco-Car Sub-segment, competition intensifies each time an additional eco-car model enters the market. 
Historical sales data since 2010 shows that the best-selling eco-car model in each quarter has switched between Nissan, Mitsubishi and more recently Toyota, following new launches, whereas Suzuki and Honda have struggled to keep their market share. The addition of even more players, let alone more models, in a comparatively small market will result in a fragmented and thus more competitive market. This may not seem fair for the existing participants. 
Of the five OEMs, only Nissan and Mitsubishi have reached the production threshold of 100,000 vehicles, relying on exports. More than 60 per cent and 70 per cent output of the Nissan March and the Mitsubishi Mirage, respectively, was absorbed by exports in 2013. In contrast, Suzuki and Honda, in their second year under the programme, could only manage to export 30 per cent of their eco-cars. As a result, their productions barely reached 36,000 and 28,000, respectively. 
It is clear that the key to success is the OEMs’ export capabilities. For Nissan and Mitsubishi, the most important export market is their home market, Japan. The Nissan March is well known in Japan for its re-import strategy, which enables the automaker to provide low-cost compact cars. Sales of the March in Japan in 2013 are expected to be around 40,000, compared to 19,000 in Thailand. 
The success story of the March prompted Mitsubishi to introduce the Mirage. However, acceptance of the model in Japan has not been as successful, leading the carmaker to readjust its global product planning. A sedan version of the Mirage, reportedly, could be exported to as far away as the US. 
Another aspect of exporting eco-cars concerns free-trade agreements (FTAs), which have enhanced the competitiveness of Thai-made cars. The Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement is one of the key factors in Nissan’s decision to produce the March in Thailand, and to reimport it into Japan. 
Other export markets for Thai-made eco-car models are also traditionally FTA-linked markets, in order to utilise custom duty privileges. These include other Asean countries, New Zealand and Australia. 
As in Mitsubishi’s case, further added capacity for eco-car production in Thailand will only put pressure on the OEMs to rely on more exports to non-FTA-linked markets, diminishing production competitiveness. There is limited space for eco-car models to penetrate any export market. There are constraints, as in both local and home markets, ranging from declining size in developed markets to merely different tastes among emerging markets. 
Once again, market limitations will trace back to the previously mentioned difficulty faced by participating OEMs to readjust their future global product strategies, as it is too early for them. The results of the first phase are yet to be understood, as Thai sales have only just begun to normalise. Meanwhile, the Toyota Yaris, the latest eco-car, has been available for only two months. 
Kon Thueanmunsaen is a senior analyst at Asean LMC Automotive. He can be contacted at