Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Brent Co, Manufacturer Press | posted November 12, 2012 15:28
Late nineties to the present
Asian Crisis and ERAP crisis
The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 felled many of the high flying conglomerates and even impeached the most popularly elected President of all time. Budding multi-brand automotive empires had to retreat. Many of the privately funded infrastructure projects were either: pared down, delayed, or cancelled like the Sual-Pagbilao Sierra Madre Expressway of Gordon Wu's Hopewell of Hong Kong. With rampant kidnapping going on, the grey market supplied 'in' vehicles like Chevrolet's Suburban, popularized by the movie 'Clear and Present Danger'. And its Ford rival, the Expedition. On the other end of the scale, Korean importers brought in what was to become a Filipino favorite; the Hyundai Starex.
Honda, Toyota's new nemesis
There was still plenty of excitement on the local scene and the appetite for cars was not to wane. The sales battle for the better part of the Nineties was between the Honda Civic EG in malachite green and the Toyota Corolla AE101 in red mica. Automatics outsold manuals in the 1.6 liter GLi-ESi class. There were more executive cars - Honda Accord, Nissan Cefiro, Mitsubishi Galant VR6 and Toyota Corona - to compete with base spec BMWs, Opels and Volvos. Mercedes-Benz was warming up for the 4-eyes while its MB 100 van made by Ssangyong of Korea had long waiting lists.
With the global withdrawal of Tobacco advertising from Motorsports Rallying, racing legend Pocholo Ramirez got started on the Subic International Raceway while Johnny Tan wishing to grow out of the Carmona karting race track, partnered with Shell to create the Batangas Racing Circuit. With this came the establishment of racing driving schools and a full racing calendar that once included Formula 3. On the civilian front, the established driving schools upped the ante with better driving facilities and newer cars.
Ford decided to come in first as a truck importer with the V6 powered Ford F-150 and later, the Thai made diesel Ford Ranger which was targeting the dominant Nissan Frontier. Later Ford became the country's biggest exporter of CBU autos and SUVs. AUVs were getting hot as Isuzu's Highlander and Mitsubishi Adventure faced down the new Revo, Toyota's Tamaraw replacement. Meantime, following worldwide trends, SUVs became all the rage and there was hardly any brand that did not offer SUVs in all sizes. Almost all the major local assemblers had two to three models that were assembled in Santa Rosa, Laguna or Cainta, Rizal.
By now cars were growing out of their category. Civics and Corollas were approaching the size of Accords and Coronas of 2 generations past. Enter the sub-compacts - City and Vios. There were a sprinkling of hatchbacks too; Civic 3-door, Opel Astra, Kia Rio HB, Toyota Echo, etc. but its time will have to wait for 2004 when Honda introduces the Jazz and the Korean brands become a force to be reckoned.
The 21st Century opened our eyes to the high demand for cheap cars. What started as a trickle of European branded Japanese market used cars imported via Subic, turned into a flood of Japan Domestic market SUVs. At its peak, Subic imports were capturing 180,000 registrations a year, whereas all local brand new motor vehicle sales in the country couldn't breach 130,000 units much less surpass the 160,000 peak before the Asian Crisis. Alas, the poor conversions from Right Hand Drive to Left Hand Drive were to discourage the market and after some new Customs measures, the Subic used SUV import business was shut down. It did resurrect through Port Irene where the imports' conversions were much improved and the model selection included even European luxury cars but this was not going to last. This price buyer market is certainly ripe for the taking once the fast growing Chinese brands get their export after sales service right.
Excise tax reform
The Subic conundrum was the catalyst that led to the review of the excise taxes that favored 10 seater AUVs, a rule that was allegedly mocked by the 1st 10-seater Honda CR-V in 2003. Recognizing, again, the failure of the MVDP to make AUV and LCV [light commercial vehicle] assembly viable, a wholesale revamp of the tax regime helped attract more brands to do business here. Free trade treaties like AICO (ASEAN Industrial Cooperation Scheme) and JPEPA (Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement) were to bring in cheaper cars from ASEAN and Japan. Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati and MINI came to the Philippines. Today Ferrari and Lamborghini have showrooms here. Bentley is up and running, while Rolls Royce may follow. Peugeot and Volkswagen have returned. The Chinese brands are popping up all over the country. But there's collateral damage due to better investment incentives provided by Thailand. Thus Ford has ceased local assembly altogether, while Isuzu's D-MAX will no longer be assembled in Santa Rosa. The same fate may be in store for the current Honda City, just as the previous Toyota Altis, as Thailand offers a more integrated assembly source.
Our new scenario
It's a radically changed motoring landscape today. Motorcycles multiply like rabbits. When you say expressway you'd be asked which? SFEx, NLEx, SLEx, STAR, SCTEx, CAVITEx, TPLEx, Skyway or Daang Hari? Metro Pacific, owner of Telco giants, operates two of the world class toll expressways of the country. The two SM's - ShoeMart [Megawide] and San Miguel Holdings are into infrastructure, bidding for toll expressways. Feared for the rush of lahar, Abacan, Gumain and Porac nowadays have become the more scenic sections of the SCTEx. The privatized Camp John Hay in Baguio is easier to drive to via the SCTEx and the rehabilitated Marcos Highway, now the Aspiras-Palispis highway. Mario's has moved and passed the baton of top class Baguio dining to Billy, the King of Le Chef at the Manor in John Hay. We talk about paying toll by E-Pass or Easy Trip. Bayani 'BF' Fernando's pink fences, Gwapotel and U-turns are a memory in coffee shop reminiscence. Wang wang is a no-no. There are more kinds of fuels and lubricants and more brands of filling stations with air con comfort rooms, while prices can change any day. We now have bio fuels just as LED traffic lights and traffic light cycle countdown timers are becoming common. Ditto for LIDAR enforced speed limits, a far cry when hand waving officers flagged you down when you went over the speed limit and crossed their rubber line on the Skyway. TCT's [traffic citation ticket] are now unified under the MMDA. Flying into any one of the four NAIA's at night, one can't fail to notice the bright giant billboards lining up the main roads.
Of course, with rising volumes and mobility, traffic has worsened. Roads all over the country, though, have gotten better. One need not travel hundreds of kilometers to spot guard rails defining a danger zone or giant sized reflective traffic signs. Road markings are abrasion resistant and reflect even when submerged in monsoon rains. Pavements now have edge lines and stop lines before Zebra crossings at junctions. Asphaltic concrete keeps tires quiet and wet traction secure. Traffic officers wear high visibility vests and most inner city roads are lit by low pressure sodium street lights.
Hope some more
It's easier to count the number of car makers that have not yet entered or re-entered the local scene: Aston-Martin. VW's Bugatti, SEAT and Skoda brands. Renault, Samsung and Dacia. FIAT and Alfa Romeo. Proton. SAAB, but that brand passed away. We have chucked out silly taxes penalizing engine size, opting, correctly, to tax fuel instead. We have opened local manufacture and assembly to as many takers willing to put up shop here. We have, at least tried in the short term, to attract vehicle and vehicle parts for making and export from here. We protect no 'national champions' nor legislate any legal bias against a firm's nationality. Pick-up trucks, AUVs and mini-cars do not have preferential tariffs over other kinds of motor vehicles. We've become wired into the world where 9/11like catastrophes, wars, Recessions, tsunamis and floods thousands of kilometers away affect our supply chains. We now merit visits from CEOs of Ford, BMW, Toyota, Nissan and the like. The Innova has replaced the Revo, the Montero Sport has become the new Fortuner and Hyundai is number three. Korean cars are as good as and cost as much as Japanese cars. There seems to be a new Chinese motor vehicle brand launching every quarter. There will be incentives for green technology like hybrids and electric power. Aftermarket accessories and services have now expanded to include the kind of modifications akin to what Belo clinics did to human reconstructive surgery.
Nostalgic for the old days?
Pining for the good 'ol days? There is a substantial number of individuals, who, after hitting their mark or reaching their mid-life, crisis or not, would like to have the dream car of their past glories, whatever or whenever that may be. If one wants muscle cars that are pre-PCMP, then it'll have to be cars that only the Manila Sports Car Club has. As it is, it's already hard to find original PCMP cars on account of their severe rust problems, but if you do find one, the amount of TLC into fashioning body parts out of stainless steel and/or fiberglass is just amazing. Upgrades are inevitable so you'll find box type Lancers, pristine with proper surplus EVO parts with JDM interiors and electronics. The last of the rear wheel drive Corolla Dx's, like the ex-FAME taxis, have 20 valve heads on AE86 blocks. The electronics they pack were unheard of in the 80s. One can go to the 'old schoolers' and their beautifully improved rebuilds of Starlets, Coronas and Celestes but good luck in making them part with their jewels for any price. Strangely, for a car that hardly rusted, the Ford Lasers are not that thick on the ground, due to the lack of surplus or soup-up parts. Mercedes's of the W124 variety, the kind that took until 1997 before they were officially available at Commercial Motors, are ripe for restoration as surplus parts are aplenty and reasonably priced. Shopping for discarded old cars in the provinces can turn futile as our compatriots in those places hold an even deeper appreciation for old, cheap, easy to repair cars and there is no lack of bodywork, painting and electronics repair skills too. Even owner Jeeps are mere modern day caricatures of the old World War 2 design. The Subic Pajeros, Troopers and Prados are falling apart by now, victims of haphazard conversions to left hand drive. The Port Irene imports are nearly current models and many models were never available for our local market so no sentimental/emotional link there. Ditto for the Chinese brand derivatives as the original models that were copied are too recent to stoke any nostalgia.
Brand new oldie?
Up to recently, one could buy a brand new old model Pajero, renamed Fieldmaster, but CKD parts have already exhausted. MMC Philippines can still put together the twin sliding door L300 but parts are also running out and they've ditched the Lancer Cedia body already. Universal Motors still has stock of the Nissan Urvan. Nissan still sells an updated version of the '02 Nissan Sentra for airport limo duty. Mitsubishi's Adventure is still a current model and is close to ten years old. Likewise the Isuzu Crosswind. The Suzuki Alto also dates back to the mid eighties but they only arrived in the Philippine market in the 21st century. If you really want that brand new car smell the way it would have been in 1987, then it has to be a brand new Cainta assembled Mitsubishi L300 Versa Van or FB that is only available in white. With its improved chrome grille and dual air con, it still shifts gears and drives like the original. To feel 1987 authentic, practice your thumb and index finger to form the 'L' sign and tie a yellow ribbon to the hand raised radio antenna. Just don't be surprised if the Anti-Smoke Belching Units pull you over for a spurious road side emissions test.
Some things remain
Indeed, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We have another Aquino as president. Several Marcoses have been elected back to power. Political dynasties, just like power outages are back, but this time in Mindanao. Nuclear power, despite Fukushima and Chernobyl is being discussed again. The 'N', 'P' and 'T' license plate prefix is back. Forty five per cent of the cars on the road sport the intersecting ellipses insignia of Toyota. Metro Manila still doesn't have a contiguous cross town highway or ring road or expressway nor an integrated mass transit railway. Coding is still with us, EDSA is still the longest bus stop every night and the DPWH continues with concrete blocking, going back and forth over the same concrete blocks it has destroyed and restored since 1980.