PIMS 2014: Sports and Beauty

Leaving the icon exhibit at the 5th Philippine International Motor Show was presented some difficulty. The organisers – CAMPI – had seen fit to introduce the show with Philippine motoring icons, and it wasn’t particularly easy to turn away from their compelling choices. If you are, however, still unsure about the choice of icons, then perhaps entering the show floor will provide part of the answer.

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It being a Sunday, the show floor was already crowded with families and enthusiasts, and if there are two things you can count on Filipino families to like, shiny cars and basketball are probably at the top of the list.

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Kia, in particular, seems to have gotten that combination right.

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In addition to the stylishly practical cars on display, they were also parading their newly-formed basketball team by these arcade machines.

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While winning at the game wouldn’t net you a discount on a new Kia, the machines did at least give kids and not-really-enthusiasts something to do while the family car nut poked around the Kias.

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It was impossible to miss the basketball connection: in addition to the arcade machines, the floor was wood-panelled and had court markings on it. No, it wasn’t as polished as a real court floor, so you didn’t get that characteristic squeak. There was also the matter of the quite-huge and quite-noticeable LCD screen throwing up pictures of the Kia basketball team, which has been named after their biggest SUV, the Sorento. I imagine this might be cause for minor humour in the future, when the Sorentos are ferried to each game in Sorentos. On the other hand, this is a great way of making the Kia Sorento a household name, not to mention the potential savings of already having a team of endorsers on retainer to promote other models.

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Like the Soul. For 2014, Kia’s got a new variant of the funky little MPV (Wagon? Van? Wagovan?) equipped with a diesel engine. Of late, Kia – and its sister company Hyundai – have been pretty good with their diesel offerings, and the addition of a diesel Soul completes the lineup. Sure, diesels aren’t particularly exciting engines, but they are a good fit for Philippine traffic, as the normal mode of Philippine driving is city driving, even on most highways.

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Horsepower may be the sexy statistic, but torque is what pushes you back into your seat, and in the low end of the rev range, diesels are much better at doing so. Pair that with the adventurous styling and generous room, and you have yourself a solid choice for the young and monied looking for practical style.

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Yes it still is a space-maximising box on wheels, but it’s a very nicely-detailed one. A contrasting roof colour helps take some visual weight off the back end of the car and the flared fenders save the car from the terrible fate of slab-sides, as well as adding some muscle to the Soul’s stance.

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Adding to the Soul’s style package are the wheels. It’s got just the right amount of chunkines to them thanks to the polished sections, while the thin dark “floating” spokes add some industrial toughness to it. It fits the Soul’s character well, and gives owners a compelling argument to not change out the wheels. If you have a look at the rest of Kia’s OEM wheel catalog, you’ll find that this isn’t the outlier of the range, and shows that they really are paying attention to the overall character of their cars.

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And just to make sure you won’t forget the basketball connection, Kia hooked up a faux scoreboard right above their display, throwing up pictures of the Sorento team members. While Kia has so far been building their brand quite well without the basketball team, one has to wonder how the eventual performance of the team will affect it. Then again, having a basketball team in your name is usually an easy way to get people talking.

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While Kia was touting the basketball connection, Suzuki brought out their AFF Suzuki Cup. Football may not be particularly popular in the Philippines, but it is more popular worldwide, and the ASEAN Football Championship has been sponsored by Suzuki since 2008. That being said, perhaps Suzuki should have tried to get a local basketball connection, because they need the press.

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Suzuki is in a bit of a tight spot in most of their markets. They’ve already withdrawn from the North American market, and the local situation isn’t particularly bright as well. I believe this is more of an awareness problem, as their products are at least just as good as anything out there, like the oft-overlooked Kizashi midsize sedan.

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In the Philippines, midsize sedans are always marketed within the near-luxury and luxury brackets, with the more stripped-down versions you may find in other markets nonexistent in the Philippine market. This is most likely due to the fees involved in the size class, but as a result Philippine-market midsize sedans are usually a strange mix of high-end equipment with the more economical drivetrain choices.

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Unfortunately, this also means that brand cachet plays a considerable role in the sales of midsize sedans. This means that Suzuki, more traditionally associated with small economy cars, doesn’t quite have the brand cachet to keep up with the Camry and its ilk.

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Suzuki has always been good at creating evocative model names when they want to.

And “Kizashi” is such a fun word to say. Unmistakably Japanese from typeface to enunciation, it almost feels like you’re slicing the air in front of you while saying it. “Omen” is what it translates to, and you can bet that Suzuki named it that way because they wanted it to become a good one.

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Certainly, it’s been styled to be one. While the front end carries some shades of Volkswagen on it, the rear end of the car takes its influences and blends them into a very Japanese look. You might still be able to mistake the Kizashi for something else as it comes up behind you, but there’s no mistaking it for anything else at it passes you. Unless you actually have no idea what just passed you that is, which is disappointingly a very real possibility.

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This should be a call to Suzuki Philippines to double up their marketing efforts, in addition to the few spots they already have on radio. Yes, I know that car commercials aren’t common on Philippine TV, but Mitsubishi and Hyundai run commercials in movie theatres, and that is a valid place to start. Should you need proof of why Suzuki should bulk up their marketing, all you have to do is find a Kizashi and step inside one. In its competitors, where you might find a hard textures surface, you’ll find padded material. Pick any panel gap and trace it, and it’ll be completely even until it either ends or fades  out of sight. There is just this overall sense of solidity about the car’s interior, not to mention the quality of the materials used.

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Take the door panels, for example. From top to bottom, the only hard parts you’re going to touch are the buttons and switches. It is such a shame that the Kizashi mostly goes unnoticed in the midsize sedan class, because it’s absolutely a solid alternative to anything the usual suspects offer.

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Design, though, can go overboard, as in the case of the exhaust outlets. Yes they look very fancy from a small distance away, but a closer look reveals the disappointing peashooter that isn’t even remotely met by the outlet. I get it, I do. The outlet is there to finish the styling of the bumper, but at least they could have made the gap a little less obvious.

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On the all-new front was the Ertiga, which saw its official unveiling at the PIMS 2014. A seven-seat compact car-based MPV, it is Suzuki’s answer to the Avanza. Stylistically, it’s a stretched and raised Swift, so it’s a little more adventurous than the Avanza. As for interior space, it’s comfortable for seven average-sized people, but with all seats up luggage space will be a little tight. Still, as far as people movers go, this is a solid choice if you don’t want to go for the older Avanza.

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Meanwhile, over at the Nissan stand – giant red halo included – stood something that has been soldiering on for years with very little changes.

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The current Patrol has been in production since 1997, making this a veritable dinosaur of a car. Still, the Patrol has a bit of magic in its old bones; like fine wine, age has served it well. Plus, it performs one party trick better than most of its competitors: transporting VIPs and their security detail. In black, it’s easy to see why that’s so; the big bumper and imposing chrome grille just eggs you to move over.

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Under that massive bonnet is a turbocharged 4.5-litre inline-six. It may be an old engine, but it’s still got it where it counts, and has more than enough power to move the heavy Y61 Patrol with authority.

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On the inside is  where the platform’s age is most apparent. The dashboard is very vertical, but the additional luxuries have at least been added in an orderly fashion. The steering wheel also doesn’t look that old with nice stitching and well-integrated controls.

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One thing I cannot agree with, however, is the fake wood Nissan have slathered on the interior. There is almost nothing you can do to fake wood to make it look real, and the moment you tap the panel with your finger, the game is given away. A gloss piano black panel would be preferable to fake wood. Well, nearly anything would be preferable to fake wood, unless it’s fake carbon fibre, or fake brushed aluminum, or anything that’s obviously not what it’s pretending to be. The interior is where most interaction with the car happens, so such fake materials are just irksome and unappreciated jabs at attempted luxury.

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Behind the Patrol is something as modern as the Patrol is old. This makes sense, because 1997 is right around the time Gran Turismo was getting into its winning stride as the driving simulator of choice, at least for console-based gaming. Nissan have a better connection to Gran Turismo than any other manufacturer, because they are the manufacturer partner to the GT Academy, which takes especially gifted Gran Turismo gamers and gives them a chance to hop into a real race car. The program has been running since 2008, and a quick Google search reveals that drivers developed through the GT Academy program have seen great success in the real world.

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On the newer side of Nissan product is the Almera. It’s been on the market for quite some time now, and is Nissan’s equivalent to the City and Vios, which is a segment I feel Nissan should have been in a long time ago, instead of just offering bargain-basement stripper specials of the Sentra.

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So as you might imagine, the Almera is quite an important car for Nissan, so it’s imperative that they get this car right. The exterior is nice enough, but the interior is where thoughts have been put. For starters, the steering wheel is of a pleasing diameter and thickness, and the wheel-mounted controls and control stalks fall to memory and reach easily.

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The centre stack is simple and very easy to memorise. I guess that’s the beauty of not having too many features stuffed into a small space. A little plain, sure, but are you really expecting so much more?

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Overall, it’s a good interior with everything you need and nothing you don’t, at least for an inexpensive first car or daily commuter.

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Plus, it comes with some niceties for the rear passengers, like this fold-down armrest and cupholder.

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Perhaps the two-speed blower is the nicest nicety the Almera has for the rear passengers, especially in climate as hot as ours. For families, I imagine this will be a big boon, and the end of many a child complaining that it’s too hot in the back.

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As for the door panel, hard plastics abound, but then again that’s par for the class, and it at least does not have moulded “stitching” unlike other subcompact sedans. The door latch handles also feel particularly sturdy and are will fit most hands in satisfying fashion.

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Even newer  than the Almera is the new X-Trail, which sheds the boxy styling of the old car for much sleeker styling that’s more in keeping with the new Nissan SUV/CUV/wagon family face. Don’t be bothered by the large expanse of empty space  on the front end; it works so much better in 3-D life than in pictures. I actually quite like the X-Trail’s new look.

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And of course, no new car is complete without a string of LEDs serving as the position lights. Here the execution is very good, following the inner edges of the lights and being generally unobtrusive even when lit.

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Inside, it’s got enough luxury to satisfy most people, although the centre stack is a little crowded. Note the strip of plastic running from the passenger A/C vent to the centre stack. Does that not look so much nicer than the fake plastic wood in the Patrol?

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On the other hand, shiny plastic surfaces tend to be easy victims of fingerprints and scratches, the effects of which are pretty clear to see in the gear selector surround.

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Having such materials might not be a very good idea in the X-Trail, but then again this is a soft-roader meant mostly for urbanites who occasionally have trips out of town requiring lots of “lifestyle” equipment. There’s a lot of space out back once you fold down the third row, and the centre headrest on the second row flips down to accommodate long objects.

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There’s a decent amount of ground clearance for a bit of mild off-roading, and the black plastic along the lower edge of the body helps keep minor scuffs from low obstacles invisible. By the looks of it, Nissan might have some solid sales coming their way.

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The outlook for Nissan looks quite rosy, with a brace of attractive new products and quite a bit of attention for the sleek new X-Trail. The big screen above the X-Trail’s plinth was showing stylised clips of Nissan’s sporting history. Why they decided to use evocative images of the Z-car and 510 to accompany the decidedly non-sports-car X-Trail is a mystery to me; the connection would have been much better established had they placed a Nismo GTR or any generation of Z-car in the area. Even a kyusha 510 would have served the sporting connection well.

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And now we head across the oceans to France to visit the Peugeot area. Unlike the previous manufacturers, they didn’t really have any huge gimmicks. There were no sports connections, either real-life sports or from heritage, no driving simulator rigs or arcade machines, and no trussed overhead trinket. Instead, Peugeot decided to let their cars do the conversing.

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Along the back wall of the area was this sitting area, apparently for those who mean to buy a car while walking around the show.

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About letting their cars do the conversing: I’m not sure what having a pair of people-movers says, but it can’t be anything of the “come hither” variety. Perhaps Peugeot were trying to raise the spirits of those who’ve already surrendered to the “come hither” and were now carrying the fruits of such come hither-ing? Whatever it was, the Expert Tepee MPV and 3008 minivan were right out front. “Expert Tepee” sounds a bit like a grade-school prank. It’s a little strange, but the basic thing to know about this is that it’s a large van in the typical European fashion, which means an aerodynamic, stylish front end and a tall, narrow body.

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The Expert Tepee is based on Peugeot’s Expert commercial van, so it is a little bit bare compared to the Starexes and Grandias we’re used to seeing on our roads, but I’m pretty sure that’s nothing the option sheet can’t fix. Whether the option sheet can fix it up enough to compete with the Alphard remains to be seen.

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At one end of the area was the 508 executive sedan, with the slightly quirky kind of style as only the French can provide. Unfortunately, this is still an executive sedan, so it turns out to be a little bit on the boring side of styling, and the grille is just a little too large.

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More interesting was this hybrid version of the 508. The regular 508 should already be quite economical with its diesel engine choices, but at least with the hybrid you can feel better that you went with the greener choice. It’s also a very good move on Peugeot’s part to make the hybrid basically indistinguishable from the regular version. This way the hybrid buyers get the same amount of style, and can go about using less resourcing in stealth.

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The real star of the Peugeot area was way on the other end. The RCZ is such a pretty little number that you might not mind how people constantly mispronounce the marque of your new sports coupe.

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Don’t let the camera angle fool you; this is actually a car of exceptionally good proportions, and the wide fenders give the car a muscular, squat stance. Photographing this car is actually a little difficult, because the longer you look at the RCZ, more interesting lines surface from the car, like the sensuous dip that carries from the double-bubble roof down to the rear window, and the character line that materialises from the kink in the beltline and then disappears into the rear bumper.

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Step inside though, and you find a pleasingly plain interior that seems meant keep the occupants’ attention on the road and the drive rather than on the interior.

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That, of course, does not mean that the interior is a mishmash of subpar materials. Such a travesty would simply not become any product of France, so you get a dashboard lined in beautifully- stitched leather and a touch of old-world luxury via the analog clock. Fit and finish is, of course, very good, albeit some of the larger gaps were really a bit larger than I’d like. Also, something matte would probably have been better for the centre stack.

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I love how the stitched leather continues down to envelop the shifter surround. The surround itself looks properly purposeful, the raised silver centre giving off the impression that you are manipulating an awesome force. Well, the most power you can get in a local RCZ is 156 horsepower, but you do have six speeds to play around with, so it’ll be easy to put each horse to use.

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Located in the centre console, just above the not-really-deep-or-large-enough-for-anything cubbyhole and below the power plug is a little button that will provide endless glee for about two weeks. Press it, and the rear spoiler will motor out of the bodywork for fifty extra style points. Another press retracts the spoiler and your bonus points.

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The silver roof pillars do not look gaudy at all, and further highlight the body. The RCZ’s designers have done a bang-up job of giving the car great surface tension, while avoiding an overly-busy mass of creases and body lines. This is the kind of car you park, get out of, and then spend five minutes looking at, before taking five steps and then turning for another lingering look.

There’s more to come from PIMS 2014, and when we return, we’ll take a look at what the established Japanese brands brought out for us.

– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag.

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