Why Are Thai Cars So Boring?
Thailand is an amazing country, full of verity and choice. Fruit, for many western countries, means that you will be looking at apples, oranges, bananas, and seasonal berries most of which are imported anyway. In contrast, Thailand offers a staggering array of locally grown fruits.
The country is blessed with natural beauty that attracts millions of tourists annually. And by and large Thailand is a very interesting place to visit, complete with a rich and proud history and culture. But.... this is a car site. And writing about Cars in Thailand isn't always all that interesting. In fact, truth be told, the Thai auto market is bland as can be.
Why is this the case? Do Thais not have good Taste in cars?
Typical Thai Cars
Toyota and Honda dominate and the majority of buyers are weary of any alternatives. Nissan and Mitsubishi offer safe alternatives for those who like to be different. If you go upcountry, most vehicles are one-tonne pickup trucks. Again Toyota, Isuzu, Nissan and Mitsubishi dominate the roads.
By contrast to Europe, there are far fewer mainstream models on offer in Thailand. Of course you will see Merc, BMW and other premium cars lined up in traffic along side a Honda Jazz or ten, and a Toyota Corolla Altis or twenty. Even the rich seem to play it safe though, with few venturing outside the safe zone of the big German marques.
Risk free investment
Perhaps the first reason for the blandness of the roads is the fact that Thai people are not willing to take a risk when it comes to buying a car. Now, this is something that I can totally understand and I would recommend that everyone should make car buying decisions with a clear head, focusing on practicalities and economically sound factors.
Inevitably this thinking will lead most people in Bangkok to a Honda Jazz, and most people up country to a Toyota Vigo or Isuzu D-Max. So that is what we see. Practical choices based on value for money, low running costs, reliability, and residuals. Perhaps the biggest factor here will be value for money, and this is why we see so many trucks on Thai roads. Thanks to a lower tax rate, trucks offer the most metal for your money, and many will look at a Jazz next to a Vigo and buy the Vigo, not because they need to haul cargo, or require 4x4 off-road abilities, but simply because you get more for your cash.
Why are some brands "risky"?
Are Toyota and Honda cars safer investments because they are better than Mitsubishi and Nissan cars? Are they better than Ford, Chevrolet etc? Well, maybe! However, it is 90% down to perception at this point. Toyota and Honda have built up reputations that afford their sales staff big volumes with limited effort.
When visiting dealers I asked the question: "Why should I buy this brand, rather than brand x,y or z?" The answers I got to this question lead me to the conclusion that Toyota and Honda sales staff enjoy the luxury of being able to say things like, "well so many people buy Honda cars because ....", or "Look around, Taxi drivers chose Toyota for a reason you know." The idea being planted in the prospective buyer is that because the majority are buying them, they are obviously the best choice. If you press harder, and look for specific advantages over other competing models, they will run out of ideas, fast.
In contrast Chevrolet will focus on "American and European design and engineering." One sales lady opened and closed the door of a Chevrolet Optra while prompting the prospective buyers to listen for the quality sound of the process. After a few slams she stated triumphantly, "See, you wouldn't find this sort of quality with Japanese brands." Ironic perhaps, but the Optra is about as American as the Pizza. The car was built in Indonesia, designed in Korea and with German underpinnings. But perhaps this kind of marketing is no less dishonest than a Toyota sales guy purporting that the Thai built Camry is in any way "endowed with Japanese build quality", or a exuberant lady at Proton trying to convince me that the Persona will hold the road like a Lotus sports car.
The issue here is that the further away from the top of the sales charts you get, the harder the staff seem to have to work to convince you that their vehicles are even worth considering. Perhaps this comes across as desperation to the average customer, while the assured manner of the Toyota seller (already well ahead of his monthly quota) leads to a higher feeling of confidence in the brand overall.
It seems like the established status quo means that we are unlikely to see any notable shift towards alternatives.
No Imports Please
Perhaps the biggest factor, and perhaps the one that sparked off all the problems for those keen on options, is the Thai government and the stance they took in the development of the motor industry in Thailand. Duty on cars coming into the country are so high that it is simply impossible to import a car from Europe and be in any way competitive with a locally assembled model.
This is a smart move, in that it lead to the establishment of a very impressive local auto manufacturing industry. If you want to sell in Thailand, you have to build in Thailand, or one of its trade partners.
This has allowed the big players who could afford to set up in Thailand, and who were assured sales volumes to justify the investment, to become established.
Behind the Times
While Mitsubishi, Mazda, Ford and others could easily give Toyota and Honda a run for their money in terms of quality and price, one area that they all seem to be lagging behind in is in keeping their range up-to-date. The Mazda 3 has been replaced for years in Europe, with Mazda Thailand still trying to flog the old model, while the new Mitsubishi Lancer was 2 years late in Thailand.
In contrast, Toyota and Honda models often see the Thai market before they go elsewhere. This gives the big two a jump on the competition.
So, it's hopeless
So what we are looking at is a country where entry to the market is difficult. Only the biggest can move swiftly enough, and secure enough of the market to make the investment stick.
Dealers will flock to sell Toyota and Honda cars, because they sell themselves, and people continue to buy them based on the same reasoning.
Going forward, it seems that there is no way to break out of this trend. No matter how exciting the Cruze is to look at and drive, no mater how well packaged the new Aveo is, Chevrolet will still need to work harder for each sale. Bland Toyota and slightly less bland Honda vehicles will be in-front, behind and either side of you in traffic, and unless you like taking risks, you'll also be driving one of these too!
If you're driving something else, anything else. Thanks! You make the roads less boring!