2015: What A Start!

At the close of 2014, I had a very quick look at the goings-on within the local automotive industry -both at home and westwards across the pond; but unbeknownst to me, things were happening on a much grander scale on the opposite end of Africa’s waistline. From East Africa we head further west, much further, where, apparently, they had already thought of the same thing I did and acted on it. Ghana and Nigeria also have homegrown motoring scenes, and, well… (Insert Jeff Koinange’s voice here:) what a scene it is!

Unlike the Ugandans, they are not dealing in futuristic, technology-soaked, flamboyantly styled prototypes. Unlike us, they are not trying to be “African” and making an “African” car which at first sight looks either like a sad joke or like a desperate attempt to come up with something, anything… No, over there they don’t play around; they have an entire industry, a whole line of cars that run the gamut from regular pint-sized saloons to full-on SUVs to ready-to-work commercial vehicles. Here is part of the lineup:

KANTANKA

A Ghanaian apostle is behind this one. I don’t know whose apostle he is, or what his message is, but the guys sure does love engineering. Not only has he built cars, he also some aeronautic prototypes in the pipeline. Talk about ambition…

The Katanka lineup is publicized by two vehicles, which may or may not be their entire model range. One of them is an SUV of indeterminate size. The photos on the internet must have been carefully chosen because they all lack reference points from which to deduce the actual size of the car. Given the design characteristics, I’d say it lies somewhere between an X-Trail and a Landcruiser Prado, with the bias being on the Prado end of the scale. It has a whiff of Prado J150 about its countenance; what with the toothy grin and slightly Mongoloid, slightly off-square headlamps, but it also has the very square corners around the bonnet leading edge and fender tops which typify the Nissan X-Trail. From the A pillar rearwards, it starts to look a little like an Isuzu Wizard. There are roof rails to complete the SUV-ness of it all.

It may sound like a mess, but it actually isn’t. The whole car somehow seems to gel together in an inoffensive, pseudo-Chinese, lightly “I’d-expect-this-from-TATA-on-a-good-day” manner, which is saying a lot. There is no word on engines, suspension or transmissions, but expect something generic, possibly crate-borne from General Motors or Japan. Spec levels also fall into the dustbin of the unknown for now, but judging from external cues -mirror-mounted repeater lamps, roof rails, alloy rims, fat tyres, color coded bumpers and mirrors, fog lamps, rubbing strips and side-steps- I’d say the specification inside must be generous too, more so for whatever price range they must be going for. I can bet they will not be costing AMG money. Oddly enough, I did not see sun-roofs in any of the photos, and yet as a trend a large number of cars sold in West Africa come with sun-roofs. Maybe it is an optional extra.

There is also a double-cab pickup, which is clearly an Isuzu DMAX. I mean it, it IS a DMAX without the “Isuzu” name on the grille; instead it has the Kantanka logo: a circle circumscribing a filled-out 5-pointed star. What did I say about copying the hell out of existing vehicles?

INNOSON

You can never leave Nigeria out of any action that goes down in West Africa, and they throw their hat in the ring with the Innoson. While Kantanka’s cars are expected to hit the streets sometime this month (pending approval from their version of the Bureau of Standards), Innoson already have units on sale, and they have the widest range of cars… also the most Chinese-looking.

Their fanciest filly is an SUV, which, oddly enough, only appeared in black in photos (and there were dozens of them). Maybe there are other colors available, maybe there aren’t. Car manufacturers have been to known to reach some strange boardroom decisions. It looks like what the Toyota Fortuner SHOULD look like. The overall appearance is even better resolved than the Kantanka, and one would be forgiven to assume that it is something from across the ocean, not locally brewed. I especially liked the rear: it wears that chunky and butch SUV uniform of roof spoiler, vertical tailgate, large lamps, fat bumpers complete with integrated reflectors and rear screen wiper with considerable aplomb, but admittedly it also comes off as being a bit too cliché. In a parking lot game of Spot-That-Rear, expect any of these answers: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Fortuner, Chevrolet Trailblazer or some Ford Something-or-Other. Yes, it looks like all these.

The interior smacks of General Motors too. Dual tone plastics(the two tones being black and a lighter shade of black), buttons festooned all over the centre console, a few million cubbyholes in which to lose incriminating (or otherwise life-saving) packets of condoms, and a thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel, which I also swear is straight off the new DMAX….

The Nigerian Road Safety Corps, among other clients, get a double-cab iteration of the Innoson, and… well, it is a Grand Tiger (Chinese double-cab), like the ones our own policemen use. The resemblance is uncanny.

Rounding up the lineup is the IVM Fox, the only car identified by name. It looks like yet another Chinese copy of a European econo-box from the late ’90s or early 2000s, a Ford Fiesta/Citroen Saxo kind of thing; or maybe a KIA… nowadays Korean cars are barely distinguishable from their European rivals.

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The future of the auto industry in West Africa looks promising in my crystal ball and for two very good reasons:

  1. West Africans are fiercely patriotic. They go everywhere in their national dress; one of Ghana’s former presidents even attended the Queen of England’s super-exclusive, invite-only, twice-a-year meet-the-colonials dinner party in full traditional regalia (topless, in other words). They come out in full force to cheer their national sports teams. And they strongly support their local producers – be it in entertainment (look at the parallel successes of Nollywood and their music artistes) or in industry and agriculture. It therefore follows that these cars will most likely move units. Innoson and Kantanka will shift metal in numbers that Mobius can only dream about, and they will be cheered on by opinion shapers in their communities. That is not what one would expect around here. I don’t see an “opinion leader” selling his gold-plated Landcruiser VX in exchange for a gold-plated Mobius II (that is a gauntlet I have thrown down by the way, care to pick it up?), nor will we ever hear that a man in a Mobius was speeding through a housing estate in the wee hours and managed to wipe out seven other motor vehicles in the process, leaving insurance write-offs in his wake.
  2. They have numbers on their side. All the numbers: they have the massive populations necessary for breaking even – if not making outright profit – sales levels; and they have the giant economies to back it all up, with oil fields and sizeable export quotas as an added bonus. Some of the most loaded Africans are Nigerians (they preceded all others in entering the Forbes list of richest men). In a top 10 list of the world’s richest pastors, more than half the entries are Nigerians…. that is a whole other topic, but you get my drift. There is plenty of money in West Africa and they are not afraid to spend it. To make money, you must spend money. Expect to see massive investment packages being channeled in Innoson’s and Kantanka’s directions.

A third, not so important reason: the West Africans will get one up on East Africa just to rub our noses in it. Anybody remember #KOT vs. #NOT?

To The South

Tanzania has been at it too, though they decided to go the commercial way and not spend too much effort coming up with their own thing. What they have is a truck line called the Nyumbu, which sounds like a Bantu word for wildebeest. Their national Ministry of Defense and National Service apparently “developed” a truck (they clearly didn’t) and the result is an Ashok Leyland Stallion/G-90/U Truck/e-Comet (they all look the same), which in itself was a derivative from IVECO (Fiat) or British Leyland. All they did was change the headlamps from single squares to double round, then change the name from “Ashok Leyland” to “Nyumbu”. Lower down the hierarchy is another Nyumbu, one of the ugliest vehicles I have ever seen. It is hard to describe without sounding nasty, but if it was painted a dull green and sent back in time to the Soviet Union during the Second World War, it wouldn’t be out of place. Their final entry in this list is a tractor, which is… very basic, and is also called a Nyumbu. Sadly, the website I visited did not distinguish these vehicles properly by model, so I’m guessing a lot of finger-pointing is involved whenever people shop for these cars…

“Which Nyumbu do you want?”

“That one!”

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It is clear from the visions of West Africa… -and Tanzania, we’ll give them that too for now- that to set a milestone, more so in the motoring industry, does not necessarily call for a dramatic paradigm shift in existing frameworks. It may not even be necessary to set a milestone at all. This write-up is again in reference to our very own Mobius: it has been roundly outclassed from all directions, Mr. Jackson is not setting new production standards like Henry Ford did with the Model T, he is not introducing new technology like Elon Musk and his Tesla cars; and, admittedly, the Mobius II is not going to conquer any markets like the Toyota Hilux; unless, of course, we go the South East Asian way and make importation of motor vehicles prohibitively difficult if not downright impossible, effectively forcing everyone to either buy a Mobius or walk… but then again neither is the apostle from Ghana or the brains behind Innoson. Some of the techniques necessary to push sales may seem a little underhanded (plagiarism) and/or unfair (punitive import tariffs on foreign cars), but look where it got Hyundai and KIA; where they are right now, worrying Toyota and Peugeot…

Ford…. again

Speaking of Henry Ford : he is the man who created FoMoCo, the Ford Motor Company; the same company that told us they will bring in the Mustang in the last quarter of 2014. I’m yet to see a contemporary Mustang here in the country. If they exist, I’d also like to take one on a road test, thank you.

Ford also wants us to be Focused. They are not accusing us of being scatter-brained; no, they want us to own and drive Ford Focuses…. Foci… Foca…. whatever one calls a non-singular Ford Focus. It is with this in mind that they chose to announce the presence of the new Ford Focus in their showrooms. I would call that announcement “The Return Of The Ford Focus” if it was a movie, not a press release.

Anyway, the car in question is the new Ford Focus, and FoMoCo says a lot of things about it, most of which I choose to ignore until further notice. However, one or two things I pay attention to.

The Ford Focus has mostly been a driver’s car in spite of, or because of, it’s front-drive platform. It is, or was, a fun handler; easy to chuck into a corner, fiddle around with throttle and steering to create various levels of understeer and bite, all the while staying safely out of the undergrowth. The compact dimensions ensured its responsiveness and ease of handling, and a small naturally aspirated engine (it was a while before the world saw a turbocharged Focus that was not being driven by Colin McRae…) created both good fuel economy and smile-worthy maintenance costs. No wonder it became a successful rally car.

The words I paid attention to in Ford’s press release were about it having a lower, wider stance than the outgoing car, which in turn had a lower, wider stance than the Mk I model before it. How much lower and wider is the current Focus, which I have not driven, compared to the original model, which I have driven (and rather liked)? And how much more fun is the new one with its lower, wider stance, compared to the original? The answer lies in a road test…

One question though. We know there exists such a vehicle as a Ford Focus RS. Where is it?

 

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