Life Auto The only vehicle to come out on top in a hard, sad, tumultuous decade

The only vehicle to come out on top in a hard, sad, tumultuous decade

It's been a tough old decade for Australia's car industry, but one vehicle type has come out a winner: the SUV. Photo: Getty Photo: Toyota
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It’s been a funny old decade in the motoring industry: big names have tumbled from great heights, while we opt for bigger, stronger vehicles.

Electric vehicles tried their hardest to make a splash in the Australian market, but failed to capture the infrastructure dollar needed to support the set-up.

The New Daily motoring journalist Bruce Newton walks us through some of the biggest moments to hit Aussie roads and drivers from 2010 to now.

The death of the car industry

In 2010 Ford, Holden and Toyota built about 146,000 vehicles in their various Melbourne and Adelaide assembly plants. By 2018 that figure was down to zero. Ford shuttered its sites in 2016. Holden and then Toyota fell like dominos in late 2017.

The closures were the endplay of a gradual flattening of the playing field that had started decades before as tariff protections were wound back and local manufacturers were forced to become globally competitive.

Well, the locals gave it an almighty shot; the Toyota Camry was exported by the thousands to the Middle East from Altona and the Ford Territory and final local Holden Commodores were terrific vehicles.

In the end economic necessities and political realities brought about the industry’s demise, but that didn’t minimise the pain for the thousands who worked in it, or the millions who had grown up loving these local cars as part of their culture.

Sure, there are many rational reasons why the shutdown had to happen, but that still doesn’t make it easy to accept and I’m still waiting for the evidence we’re a better country because of it.

Dark clouds began gathering over Holden in 2017, when it announced it was shutting its Australian factory. Photo: Getty

The collapse of Holden

Shutting the Elizabeth plant and ending production of the Commodore ripped out Holden’s heart and soul.

Australia’s car company – actually owned by America’s General Motors – has tried to reinvent itself ever since, first abandoning and then re-embracing its blue-collar heritage, while sales tumbled.

Most recently, it has announced the end of the imported Commodore – that car itself a source of controversy – and withdrawn all together from the passenger car market to concentrate on SUVs and the Colorado ute.

Trouble is, of what’s left, only the Colorado is a respectable sales performer.

There are now serious doubts about whether Holden can survive at all.

Go back a couple of years and few in the auto industry would have believed Ford would handle its exit from local manufacturing better than Holden. But that’s exactly what’s happened. The blue oval brought in the Mustang sports car to keep all the V8 Falcon owners happy and the locally developed Ranger ute has proved a sales bonanza.

Toyota unstoppable, despite itself…

There are so many reasons Toyota could have come a cropper in recent times; closing its local manufacturing plant, the management brain drain it suffered shifting its management to Melbourne, the reliability issues and a high-profile class action. Even the simple fact many of its cars are uninspiring.

But it ploughs on. Since 2003, including the recent era of record million-plus industry sales, it has been Australia’s top seller, often claiming around double the sales of any other brand.

A strong SUV, ute, van and small-car line-up, a huge switched-on dealer network and a reputation for quality, durability and reliability have earned it the mantle of the default car choice in Australia.

But as indicated above, there are issues, including that class action over faulty diesel particulate filters fitted to the incredibly popular HiLux ute and other models. Is Toyota slipping? Time will tell.

The rise of the SUV

Back in the days when we all drove six-cylinder sedans, SUVs were big 4x4s that could clamber anywhere and do just about anything. They were serious off-roaders for serious off-road drivers.

But now SUVs are everything from that traditional outback explorer to barely modified station wagons and hatches, with little more than an ‘X’ added to their name.

Hey, no need to go to all the expense of the real thing when all the buyers really want is the space and high seating position SUVs offer … and maybe the suggestion of an adventurous spirit.

Combined SUV sales surpassed passenger cars in 2017 and have continued to further outstrip them ever since.

Weaponising the ute

When Scott Morrison warned Labor was coming for our utes at the last federal election he wasn’t talking to a small audience.

When sales figures are broken down from vehicles types (SUV, passenger etc) into segments then it quickly becomes apparent utes, like the aforementioned HiLux and Ranger, are big business.

The biggest selling individual segment in Australia is medium SUVs (Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5), but 4×4 utes are number two – and add in 4x2s and it’s just about lineball. Small passenger cars (Toyota Corolla, Mazda3) – are number three and fading. HiLux has been our biggest selling vehicle in Australia since 2016.

Dual-cab (five-seat) utes have become popular as a cornerstone of the self-employed economy. Work vehicle by week, play-truck by weekend and attractively tax deductible, they can command big price-tags beyond $80,000 – even before they get customised with bull bars and big wheels and the like.

The EV ignored

The last decade has brought increasing numbers of SUVs and utes, but electric vehicles have not caught on.

Yes, the arrival of Tesla has given some impetus to battery-powered cars, but out in the mass market they are resolutely ignored as too expensive, too limited in range and too slow to recharge. Then there’s range anxiety, the fear of being stuck with a flat battery and having no charger to plug into.

Australia offers little or no financial incentive to buy EVs, something that does happen in other markets such as China and the US. Maybe when electric utes and SUVs start arriving we’ll take more notice.

Takata recall

The Takata airbag recall has been the biggest in automotive history, affecting more than 100 million vehicles globally. In Australia alone, the figure has steepled to about 3.4 million airbags in 2.8 million vehicles.

The most dangerous of these airbags can explode with no warning and spray metal into the face and chest of front-seat passengers. At least two people have been killed in Australia and at least 29 globally with hundreds more injured.

Although voluntary recalls had been taking place since 2009, the federal government issued a compulsory recall in 2018 on the advice of the consumer watchdog to force the auto industry to more quickly and effectively find and replace the Takata airbags in many different brands of vehicles.


When Volkswagen couldn’t get a new generation of turbo-diesel engines to achieve nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions targets it decided to cheat. Instead of redesigning the engine it concocted ‘defeat device’ software that retuned the engines to run cleanly when it sensed it was being tested in laboratory conditions.

Back on the road, at full performance, the engines would spew out levels of NOx far above limits set in places such as the USA.

The emissions hit the fan when real-world testing exposed the deceit. Initially denied by VW and then blamed on some rogue engineers, dieselgate has cost VW Group (brands include VW, Audi, Skoda and Porsche) more than 30 billion Euros and a generation of senior management their jobs. Some have even copped jail time.

It has also prompted a fundamental shift in VW’s future product roll-out to electric vehicles.

In Australia, VW has just been hit with a record $125 million fine by the federal court (the previous auto record was $10 million for Ford for a faulty transmission), while it was also found guilty in a class action that could cost it another $127 million.

The price of safety

The cars we drive have got substantially safer over the last decade as a new generation of driver assist systems have been developed and introduced. But they have also impacted on the way safety performance is judged. Nowadays the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) places heavy weight on the performance of features such as autonomous emergency braking, or AEB. If you haven’t got it you won’t get the maximum five stars, it’s that simple.

But fitting entry-level models with the technology is a proving a head-scratcher for some brands, which are fighting to keep their prices down. Some don’t achieve that goal and drop the model altogether, some raise the prices to ensure five stars and some have decided four stars is good enough.

The rise of the Chinese

In the 1950s and 1960s the Japanese car manufacturers arrived in Australia and by the 1970s were very successful. In the 1980s and 1990s it was the turn of the Korean brands. In the 2010s, the Chinese have been testing the waters in Australia and in the early days, not doing a great job of it.

But in a difficult market on the decline for the last two years they are now increasing sales.

The brand doing best is MG – yes the British sports car make is now Chinese-owned. But it’s not two-door convertibles that are on offer, instead it’s a selection of affordable small cars and SUVs. Sales are up more than 180 per cent in 2019 and it should finish the year with more than 8000 vehicles sold. That’s respectable.

Other Chinese brands such as Haval and Great Wall Motors are also climbing dramatically in sales in 2019, but don’t have the same level of volume.

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