The most improved companies (of the past 2 decades)

To infinity... and beyond!

1y ago

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This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. In this article I dwelve straight into the most succesful automotive companies that probably did something well - either from a business standpoint, or from a car enthusiasts view.

10) Jaguar

So this is a Jaguar in the 21st century? Not something people were expecting in 2000.

So this is a Jaguar in the 21st century? Not something people were expecting in 2000.

Jaguar around the millennia wasn’t looking healthy. They’ve been past the glory of their supercar project (XJ220) and while they have just bought an F1 team from Jackie Stewart, the whole idea smelled of burning money. They had people like Eddie Irvinie and Nikki Lauda on board, but they were cruising at the back of the field, so that racing garage was sold to Red Bull after a few years.

Ford – then owner of the brand – lent them their platforms and engines that they could base a few road going cars on (the X-Type and S-Type), but despite sales going up, the image of the Coventry-based manufacturer was not restored, they seemed kind of stalled.

Then in early 2008 (just before the financial crisis) Ford announced they are selling Jag to Tata along with Land Rover. A bad buy, you may think – since the oncoming economic situation indeed heavily affected both brands. But Tata spared no expenses to create a model line that would appeal to buyers of other premium category cars and also helped the JLR-designed Ingenium engine family to be born. And basically that’s where they are now. Jag is still in a very fragile state – as last year they lost heavy money due to sales falling in China -, but their cars have been receiving positive reviews for almost a decade. They really came back to compete with others ranging from Audi to Maserati and their electric car received a European COTY award too, which is rather impressive.

What happened to them: In some cases, staying alive is a succes as well. They now got a solid line of cars.

9) Ssangyong

Wouldn't be a special for most manufacturers, but for Ssangyong, this is a huge leap in quality.

Wouldn't be a special for most manufacturers, but for Ssangyong, this is a huge leap in quality.

When I first heard this name it was from people who cited it as the world’s ugliest car. Looking at the picture of an early Rodius model it indeed was very ugly. Then I saw a Rexton a guy imported from abroad – it was OK, it was clearly a rebadged Mercedes ML. Then by now there’s probably a Ssangyong in every European municipality. They usually win the price war, they fixed the ugliness (more or less) and the technology in their vehicles is acceptable. Not much else I can report as I’m not an SUV guy. I find them rather boring, but it’s hard to go by their increasing popularity and excellent value without noticing. And that happened despite their weird name, but quality improvements helped them being recognized as the '3rd Korean' rather than to be confused that they are a random Chinese manufacturer. They also plan to introduce themselves to the US market and they have a good lookout to further expand.

What happened to them: SUV-craze lifted them. They are proper bargains in that category.

8) Toyota

By now all other manufacturer employ quality control methods similar to what Toyota uses.

By now all other manufacturer employ quality control methods similar to what Toyota uses.

In the old days, managers in the manufacturing industry used to quote Mercedes-Benz as a golden standard of quality. Companies wanted to be the Mercedes-Benz of toothbrushes, chewing gums, packaging materials, and so on. It expressed a sort of top of the line luxury that can dominate the competitors forever. Nobody wants to be the Mercedes-Benz of an industry anymore – they want to be like Toyota. Things referred to as TPS (Toyota Production System), kanban, kaizen and lean all originate from Toyota and are taught in business schools all over the world.

That’s a bit of a shame, since Toyota mainly makes boring vehicles. Gone are the Hachirokus, Celicas and MR2s bound to conquer the motorsport enthusiast’s heart. Their main goal clearly became to rule the best-selling markets and ignore niche demands. And they are pretty much succeeding in that. Something else that Toyota can be praised for is predictability. They never redesign or upmarket their cars all of a sudden to give the fake impression of progress. A Corolla today is what a Corolla was in the ’70s. Europe accepted them slower than the American market, but they are now pretty common even on the old continent.

What happened to them: Steady, long term growth. Hyped quality management methods.

7) Jeep

There's nothing wrong with having a Jeep. Just make sure that it is actually a Fiat.

There's nothing wrong with having a Jeep. Just make sure that it is actually a Fiat.

Jeep used to be a very American symbol. Its origins lead back to the US military, then civilians started to use them and it became a nation’s popular off-roader. It never really shined beyond the States though, as their cars were known for failing engines, rollover problems and American build quality. The latter is generally not considered an admiring statement. While these remnants of the past still haunt them in many ways, after Chrysler’s merger with Fiat development seemed to take a 180° turn. They quickly bolted Jeep chassis on existing Fiat models. Yes – the Renagade, the Compass and the new Cheeroke are 100% Fiat under the hood. And that’s not an issue – but a virtue. It was a rather overlooked platform when Fiat used it in their own vehicles – but there was nothing wrong with the technological underpinnings. In fact the Jeep brand became a common consideration amongst car buyers in just under a few years and in their own category a few could argue they are bad choices.

What happened to them: Fiat can manage a brand well if they really try. Jeep is the proof.

6) Mazda

Mazda calls this concept the Takeri. I just call it beautiful.

Mazda calls this concept the Takeri. I just call it beautiful.

The 21st century meant a huge change for Mazda, because they left their old thinking behind and embraced the Zoom-Zoom. People never thought it will be important when they first came out with this statement, as it sounded like regular marketing bullshit, but turned out they were serious. It was hard to believe because the Japanese doesn’t seem to care much about their car designs. They draw something that has 4 wheels, a passenger cabin with some doors, a boot and an engine bay and that’s it. They aren’t really interested in beauty of industrial products - or even if they do, it ends up looking like a cartoon. Someone at Mazda seems to have noticed this and thought it's a mistake. Yet instead of flying over to Italy to consult with Bertone or Pininfarina on coachworking duties, Mazda workers decided to try and rediscover their own past. "Did the Japanese always produced ugly things?" - they've asked the question. The answer they found was a clear no – actually they came up with something Mazda calls the „kodo” design philosophy that roots in their past. To date they employ it with huge success and the world is glad that they do, because they are flooding the streets with nice cars.

Oh, and as a notable side project, they are also the first to come out with a HCCI (Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition - basically a crossbreed of the Otto and Diesel cycles) engine dubbed as Skyactiv-X, so they are there at the top in mechanical engineering too.

What happened to them: Broke up with Ford, then left the Wankel engine behind. Sole Japanese manufacturer that seems to care about design.

5) Renault

Cheater or genius? Carlos Ghosn will surely be remembered amongst the most controversial car CEOs.

Cheater or genius? Carlos Ghosn will surely be remembered amongst the most controversial car CEOs.

It’s always uncomfortable to talk about Renault’s history for petrolheads. On one hand, you have the glorious past of early Grand Prix victories, rally success under the Gordini and Alpine colours and the millions of funny small cars. On the other, you can’t ignore the fact that for most of its life, Renault was a state-owned company that would have probably gone bankrupt if it had to operate under free-market circumstances. For many, it’s difficult to accept that the symbol of capitalism (the car) was manufactured by people of labour movements, but Renault was kind of a socialist take on automobilism.

Yet, the tides turned as other European brands didn’t really fancied Renault’s 'co-operation' with the French state, so in the ’90s, the state sold its majority in the company. It still retains some, and it is always speculated that many government programs are aimed at aiding the French car manufacturers, but after all – Renault is doing well even on foreign markets. It formed a famous alliance with Nissan in 1999 and pretty much became the dominant partner in that deal. What came after was a rapid expansion on global scale and they are now one of the biggest players in the automotive sector worldwide. They bought Dacia and Lada which were grown into profitable ventures and they also gained Mitsubishi as part of the Alliance.

All was well, until Nissan had enough of Renault leading the way and the Japanese police arrested the former Renault boss (and the man often credited for this success) Carlos Ghosn over false accounting charges. Which is where we are now in this story. Will this giant house of cards fall or will it endure the sands of time? We can’t know yet – but Renault had a heck of a run in the recent past, not just business-wise, but also in manufacturing great cars. They led the MPV-revolution with the Espace and Scénic, won a handful of Formula-1 titles, they made the best hot hatches under the R.S. badge and just recently, they also revived the Alpine name. Not to mention they produced a long-long list of crazy road going concepts like the Avantime, the Kangoo Be Bop or the Twizy - which may have all been failures, but it shows that they are always ready for bold moves.

What happened to them: Scooping up other car brands through alliances, Carlos Ghosn.

4) Ferrari

When your Arabian customer proposes a deal about your very own theme park you aren't going to refuse it.

When your Arabian customer proposes a deal about your very own theme park you aren't going to refuse it.

Ferraris in general are associated with wealth, success and glamour. However, that does not mean they don’t have to worry about getting ousted by other sportscar manufacturers. Or the fact that they have to operate as part of the somewhat volatile Italian economy. Or cars catching fire on a hot summer day. Trust me: it can’t be an easy task to be Ferrari.

There are some brands on this list that achieved their might by great quality control methods. Some via good management skills. Others by good market timing. But Ferrari is the one where it’s down to making superb driver's cars. You can’t make it in a business like this without having precise handling, direct steering, a pleasant engine sound and a lot more other factors that make driving a pleasure. Many do it decently, but Ferrari have been known for eons to be amongst the best. They did nothing particularly different in the last 20 years either, but keeping their usual level of excellence is hard enough in a quickly changing world. They were able to do it, which paid off in new markets such as the Middle East or China. Having a Ferrari is still a unique and wonderful experience and few other cars can come close.

What happened to them: Profited from racing legend, Arab wealth. Still makes the best cars.

3) Hyundai-KIA

Do not forget the day when you first wanted to have a KIA.

Do not forget the day when you first wanted to have a KIA.

The Korean co-development pretty much robbed the bank in the average car sector. What’s interesting about them is neither started their crusade by trying to conquer the hearts of car enthusiasts. To be precise Hyundai did try that with the Coupé, but it was a quickly forgotten attempt. However they tried to crack the hardest nut – the most competitive market in Europe -: compact cars. They tried to beat the Golf. And as years and model changes went by, on one particular Frankfurt Motor Show a man named Martin Winterkorn showed up at the Hyundai booth and started inspecting the new Hyundai i30. It was clear that the VW leadership was afraid of the Korean competition. And by now it’s also clear that they are losing market share to them.

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The buyers deemed Korean cars worthy, many ditched their Golfs to swtich to an i30. And while they are probably not superior by every means, the consumers are satisfied. As a result, Hyundai-KIA now dare to venture to wilder areas, such as hot hatches (i20N, i30N), hybrid-electric cars (IONIQ, Kona, Niro) and even GTs (Stinger), where they also have good chances to win.

What happened to them: You no longer have to come up with excuses for buying one. That guy with the Golf has to.

2) Tesla

It's just an electric sedan, but what hype people generate around it makes it a powerful tool.

It's just an electric sedan, but what hype people generate around it makes it a powerful tool.

Elon Musk is fighting hard to not be ignored and we can’t really fight back. Even if you wouldn’t want to hear about Tesla, you will. You can unsubscribe from every EV newsletter, stop reading car journalism, install a Tesla-filter, even cut yourself from all modern communication devices, he will find a way to you even in the most remote place in the Universe. So it’s pretty much useless to pretend that Tesla doesn't exists. The fans talk about how great and future-proof the company is, the haters discuss the exploding batteries or the awful Autopilot system. But one thing is sure: they get the most media attention of all the car companies.

Will the car of the future be based on a Silicon-Valley maniac's ideas? As crazy as it seems, it is a possibility.

Will the car of the future be based on a Silicon-Valley maniac's ideas? As crazy as it seems, it is a possibility.

The reason they are included here is not to boost this media coverage, but to simply state this fact. And to also state, how important it is. A viral video viewed by millions of people is worth a tons of money in terms of realized sales. Old-school manufacturers have to pay a lot more just to access smaller audiences through TV advertisements or billboards, so it's quite a worthy deal. Clever use of public relations helped Tesla to get to where it is now. While they weren't the only company to try and jump-start the EV revolution, they are the ones that could book the most success. Whenever some news surfaces about them they can twist it to their advantage. And that is a quite brilliant skill all of their competitors lack.

What happened to them: They are the biggest clickbait on the internet.

1) Porsche

The big boom of 2019 may be the Taycan.

The big boom of 2019 may be the Taycan.

Just some quick statistics: Most leading luxury car manufacturers such as Ferrari, Rolls Royce or Bentley employ about 3-4000 people, whereas Porsche now falls in the 30.000-40.000 range essentially doing the same business. Just for their new boutique supercar, the Taycan they are planning to hire 1500 new people. This number started to rapidly rise in the 21st century and it did not rise by Porsche draining some cheap workforce from the Balkans – most of these people are well-educated young individuals with the highest salaries in the region. So all in all, Porsche turned into a big and wealthy company in the last 20 years despite all the drama that was called Volkswagen (more on that in a later article).

The driving factors behind this growth are not obvious. Some cite the introduction of the SUVs into the Porsche model range that are now dominant in sales. They got the technical basis for them from VW relatively cheap and can manufacture their cars on the same production line. Still, it only explains part of the success.

Just as Ferrari, they had a bunch of sheiks and rich Arabian enthusiasts amongst their consumers, they take special orders and run a bunch of racing series and racing teams around the globe, while generating huge revenues from their own motorsport success as well. Getting closer, but still not the full picture.

They also seem to care a lot about their customer relations, ensuring they always get in top at various reliability and satisfaction indexes and that every individual they do business with feels special for buying a Porsche. They have a huge media team that can organize a huge number of Porsche related events and they are known to have one of the best press.

They like to be identified as the company that makes the 911.

They like to be identified as the company that makes the 911.

One could guess the reasons endlessly from quality control to business politics, but let’s not forget they also make rather popular cars – which is why they are discussed here. The Boxster/Cayenne is a favourite amongst those looking for an entry level sportscar. The 911 is in a class of its own and from time-to-time they also churn out a supercars such as the 918 hybrid to complement it. The Panamera created a new category, and yeah, once again: there are the SUVs too. If you work for Porsche or know anyone there you are most welcome to share your opinion how they became the most successful car company, because by objective measures, they did. Will the golden-age of Porsche continue or will they decline is a question of the future - we shall get back to that in another 20 years time.

What happened to them: They bolted a turbocharger onto a money-making machine.

Honorable mentions:

Dacia, The Chinese automotive companies, Koenigsegg, Volvo, Škoda, McLaren

Previous editions:

1. On the most impressive designs.

2. On the most disappointing trends.

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