Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Sports cars heading for a revival?

Research group Frost & Sullivan claims OEMs are reviving the sports car segment by using it as a flagship model and halo to communicate new concepts through exciting products that bring focus to new technologies.

Frost & Sullivan cites this year’s Detroit Motor Show and what it calls “an exemplary showcase of opposing approaches taken by two OEMs showcasing their new sports cars”.

The Honda Acura NSX has been developed under the public eye with two sporadic concept versions since 2012, the successor to the original NSX showcased 25 years ago.

Frost & Sullivan sees the NSX as a “sure attempt to revive the Acura brand by using the NSX as a technology test-bed for the remaining Acura models”.

The Ford GT on the other hand “rose like a Dark Knight”, secretly created in a basement of the company; its possible existence denied by many OEMS. Even so its arrival was not a complete surprise.

Both models were displayed almost next to each other in Detroit, and it was the GT that managed to steal the NSX’s spotlight.

Both the NSX and the GT debuts followed a year of high-performance and supercar launches, such as the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, Porsche 918 Spyder, Ferrari LaFerrari, and the McLaren P1.

                                         Market collapse

Ian Robertson, BMW’s head of sales, however declared last November (2014) that “post-2008, the sports car segment has just collapsed. I’m not so sure it’ll ever fully recover.”

Frost & Sullivan poses the question: “Why would BMW admit such defeat when in reality even the premium brand itself is eagerly working to revive its own sports car segment, the Z line-up?”

Amongst the most prominent reason for decline in sports cars are the changes in buyers’ tastes, with North America and European consumers now favouring SUVs and crossovers. In the US, sales in 2014 of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) exceeded 1.5 million for the first time since the 2007. Sales of US crossovers for the same year exceeded 3.8 million.

In China, number plates are limited (to one per household) and thus the public is left to either raffle or attain their plates via auctions. Frost & Sullivan reckons “If you only get to own one car you’d want to go for the prevalent and most versatile model out there.” This may explain why China has become the largest market for the Mercedes-Benz GL.Lastly, the market sees more niche products (e.g. BMW X4, Audi A3) made available for the “young‚ urban upwardly mobile professionals” to choose from.

“These are only a few factors that contribute to the diminishing role of the car being seen as a pure status symbol,” notes Frost & Sullivan. “This leaves little room for sports cars and makes their come-back a tough business to be in. From a traditional view point that is.”

“But what if we were to look at this doomed segment in a new and different light?” asks the researchers.
                                      Examine in a new light

Perhaps it then becomes clear that OEMs have no intention of leaving this lucrative segment but instead use core elements (advanced technologies, innovative materials, alternative powertrains) and introduce them to other segments with the aim of creating sales opportunities for special models.

Frost & Sullivan believes BMW is looking to reinvent its Z line-up creating a new standard of avant-garde and seductive models. Models which are currently being hotly debated are the Z1, Z3 Z5 and the Z7. The Z line-up will benefit from the materials showcased in the ibrand, such as carbon fibre mixed with high strength steel, magnesium, aluminium and thermoplastic.

BMW’s sombre outlook on the fading sports car segment could form the basis of a key contributing factor towards shared development costs of a new mid-size sports car.

This might explain why BMW has teamed up with Toyota Motor Corporation to do exactly that. Both have confirmed that projects ‘Silk I and Silk II’ have moved to the concept stage after completing a feasibility study.

The project is within a broader partnership that also includes co-operation on fuel cells and lightweight technology.

Potential outcomes for both BMW and Toyota are as follows according to the researcher. The newly developed platform is radically accommodating and flexible for both OEMs.

And it allows for the development of a mid-engine mainstream two-seater disguised as a plug-in hybrid sports car with a six-cylinder engine.

The rear-end and all-wheel drive platform suggests it is capable of supporting four-cylinder, six-cylinder and V8 engines, both for front and midsize placement. 

And from a design stand-point, multiple versions can be made from all of these to support two-seater, drop-top or coupe.

BMW will take the lead by replacing the Z4 with the new Z5 with a possible Hybrid eDrive. Furthermore, the 6 Series Coupe will reap its benefits from this joint venture as it is deemed to become a direct competitor to the Porsche 911.

Frost & Sullivan sees a paradigm shift in the purpose of the sports car and as such, many premium OEMs are now using the image of the sports car to revive their own flagship image.

                                   Innovative technologies

This has already been seen in practice and is soon to be replicated by other OEMs in an attempt to close the gap. There will be no more traditional sedans leaving sport to will act as the main test-bed for innovation technologies especially for material, intelligent design and powertrain.

The halo created by innovative light weighting philosophy and the associated technology will be used by some of the leading OEMs to span across entire model line-ups.

Greener technologies will become the norm, evident from the latest Detroit Motor Show, where a number of greener sport cars were showcased. Chevrolet showed a redesigned Volt plug-in hybrid, Hyundai unveiled both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Sonata and Mercedes-Benz launched the 2016 C350 plug-in hybrid.

Innovative and forward thinking technologies are finally coming around to the performance car segment, developing cars painted with a slighter ‘greener’ brush.

The sports car of the future is destined to become the flagship model and technology test-bed by creating a halo that takes expensive niche propositions to mass market them across their traditional model line up in a phased manner.

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