Mike Stevens | May 11, 2008

Tough times are here, just ask any farmer about the drought. But for motorists, there's another drought that has been going on for longer. Much longer. In my previous article, I touched on one of two vehicles missing from the Australian car market: a large 4 door family sedan that is powered by a frugal turbo-charged diesel engine with fantastic economy, but in this article we look at the another car that is sorely missing from the landscape—and a dry and barren landscape it is.

If you've got a moment, try searching for a Rear wheel drive, two-door coupe under $40,000 (Australian). That’s right, there isn’t one available! Sure, there are some cars which get close to what I'm talking about: Mazda’s MX5 for one, but even the little Mazda misses the mark on budget. What I am really referring to is something like a spiritual successor to the Toyota Sprinter of the 80s, or similar ilk.

In recent times the rumour mill has gained momentum, and Manufacturers like Toyota and relative newcomer Hyundai are now saying they will build such a car, but as it stands right now it's just empty promises. Hyundai do have a RWD sports car on the way, that's true, but will it slide into the sub-$40k category? Here is where it hurts.

In other countries many cars like this exist, but because we live in Australia, the tyranny of distance means we pay though the nose for a properly sorted rear wheel drive coupe. Cars like the 350Z and RX-8 are significantly cheaper in overseas markets, especially in Japan and the US.

In other countries many cars like this exist, but because we live in Australia, the tyranny of distance means we pay though the nose for a properly sorted rear wheel drive coupe.

I have been told on many occasions by product planners that my idea is nigh on impossible due to economics. How so? With Australia having such a small market, it's purely a numbers game. While there are certainly many Australian motorists looking for a decent rear wheel drive chassis providing communication to the driver, excellent handling, strong brakes and some punch to go, the problem is that manufacturers don’t want to gamble on bringing a car like that to our shores. The expense of achieving compliance outweighs the possible volume of sales, so we miss out. Thanks, economics!

But I disagree. The Australian car market is fickle—that’s a given—but because so much time has passed without a car like this in our market, I think we would pick up and run with an idea like this. Just look at how successful the WRX was in Australia in the mid 90s. And why? Because the car did everything a performance car should: it went around corners, stopped, and had plenty of oomph. Added to that; the price was right.

wrx-my99

In fact, everything was right with this car, and not just the dynamics of the car itself. Timing in our market couldn’t have been better. With Mitsubishi pulling out the GSR Lancer from the market at about the same time WRC was gaining momentum, popularity and coverage in Australia and with the little blue Subaru sitting on the podium rally after rally, the car soon became entrenched in legendary rally heritage. I suppose it was akin to someone buying a HSV to feel like you had a little ownership of each Holden V8 supercar win, likewise with the WRX you felt like you had just one the World Rally Championship every time you nestled into the seat.

The WRX soon became the giant killer we all knew it to be, winning all sorts of car comparisons locally. Was there anything this little upstart couldn’t do? The car was an underdog, beating all manner of cars from our beloved V8 Holdens and Fords to some of the more potent Europeans. And because Australians have an unnatural love for the underdog, the WRX became sewn into performance car history in Australia. If the Australian automotive marketplace was the school ground, then the WRX was the kid who beat up all the bullies just to show them they weren't so tough after all.

So what’s my point? After all, I started out talking about a sub-$40K rear-wheel-drive car and now I’m spouting off about the all-wheel-drive WRX. See, that IS my point. Back then—before the WRX came out—if I was to sit up in front of manufacturers and importers telling them that an AWD turbocharged and intercooled four 4 door sedan, packing high performance levels and a price tag under $40,000 would become an aspirational brand, I would have been laughed out of the boardroom or burned at the stake for heresy. Then I would have been told by bean counters that economics and our small market mean that bringing a car like that to our shores doesn’t make sense financially. Sound Familiar?

wrx-lost-youth1

So why do I think a sub-$40k rear-wheel-drive performance will work now? Because times have changed. In fact, timing would be perfect right now! The WRX has now grown up and lost its youth. It’s grown into a more sophisticated young man that doesn’t shock you, or get in your face. It’s more responsible now; it has a job to do and wears a suit instead of baggy pants and a backwards baseball cap. It has lost its edginess and if anything, it's also lost its way. Which is a crying shame, because now the new WRX doesn’t have the same soul as before. It doesn’t have the same manic behaviour of before. No longer does it resemble an axe- wielding, child-stealing, madman's rouse.

But it’s not just that the WRX—which really was the performance bargain of a decade—that has become softer; it’s also that we as motorists have grown up too. While the Subaru was a fun car, there are now motorists—if not enthusiasts or purists even—that want more from a car than just ‘fun’. This new breed of performance car buyer wants so much more because of growing up with cars like the WRX. They want poise, balance and handling. They want the ability to balance a car with the throttle, they want predictable liftoff oversteer, they want to feel exactly what the car is doing at all times through the chassis, up into the driver’s seat sending thousands of text messages to the driver's derriere, explaining everything to the driver about where the car is and what it’s doing.

Now you may think I’m being silly, but am I? Haven’t we all been forced to grow up with the sheer amount of information available on the internet about your next car purchase? Aren’t track days becoming more and more popular as the early Sunday morning blatt is now becoming not only legally unacceptable but morally as well. Isn’t the average driver learning more now about his or her craft than ever before? Yet there really isn’t a two-door rear-wheel-drive performance car under $40,000 out there that ticks all those boxes.

 track-daysPhoto courtesy NG Sport Photography 

Those are the reasons why such a car would work so well right now in our marketplace, and time is of the essence. There has never been a better time to release such a car in Australia, but instead manufacturers and importers want to feed us with more front-wheel-drive turbocharged hatchbacks, thinking that will fill the void. That’s like feeding a man a veggie burger, lentils and soy milk when only a rib eye, chips, and beer will do.

The best part about this whole equation for manufacturers and importers is that it would be a cash cow. You see, the vehicle in question wouldn’t have to be fitted with all sorts of luxury appointments, in fact that would be a detractor rather than a plus. It would need to be safe for all the lobbyists so some type of stability control would need to be fitted, which is fine but ONLY if you can completely turn the damn thing off. And while I’m dead against adding unnecessary weight to a car, even I can see that airbags do save lives and have a place in every car today.

But having the seats trimmed in the scrotum of the blue whale is neither wanted or desirable, nor is a 15,000 watt stereo system with subwoofer that weighs as much as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. Just the basics are needed, with all the rest of your hard-earned being spent on making the car stop, go and corner better. Manufacturers and importers would be able to sell a low spec but highly performance-orientated car in a rear-wheel drive-platform, two-door under $40,000 by the boat load. It would be the car worth placing an order for and then waiting the full period of human gestation to own.

The rumour mill keeps promising motorists a car that ticks all those boxes. Toyota, Subaru and even Hyundai are all feverishly working on something that they are hoping will once again, like the WRX, be the performance car of the decade and it couldn’t come soon enough.

In Australia we are in a serious drought, but it’s not just water that some of us are praying for.

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