Back in 1998, under the recent ownership of VW Group, a Czech car brand renowned for selling simple, crude and noisy rear-engined cars completely reinvented itself.
That brand was Skoda, and just a decade earlier it had been the butt of many a comedian’s joke. It was a brand so tarnished, selling cars at the very bottom rung of the purchasing ladder, that to perceive it as it is regarded now was impossible.
Then along came the Octavia and the bar was reset. Based on the platform of the Mk 4 VW Golf, the Octavia was not only a great value car, but also a rather good one, with a huge boot, decent handling and superb build quality. It was nothing like the cars before it and it astonished even the harshest of critics with its all-round ability.
What followed was a clever marketing campaign, where Skoda embraced being the butt of jokes, turning them on their heads. “Oh no, another great Skoda” went the marketing campaign, suggesting that the stand-up comedy circuit was losing its material. Then came the excellent Fabia supermini, the hot vRS models and the superb Superb. Skoda’s turnaround was no laughing matter.
A similar transformation happened with the Korean brands, too. Kia, which entered Europe in 1991 with a rebadged and outdated Mazda 121, bedecked with ludicrous whitewall tyres, dipped a toe in the SUV water. Then it launched an unbeatable seven-year warranty. Buyers across the globe took notice, and today it’s one of the biggest volume manufacturers out there, competing evenly with European, Japanese and American brands and even producing a 3.3-litre 365bhp rear-wheel-drive sports saloon that can hit 0-60mph in less than five seconds. It’s a far cry from the tinny little Pride that started it all off.
Hyundai also underwent a revolution. From mediocre but dependable saloons and hatchbacks, it suddenly pulled an ace from its sleeve in the form of the i30 - a five-door hatch developed in Germany, with a team of engineers poached from Opel. It was great to drive and superbly well-made. Today, like Kia, it sells a vast range of cars from superminis to SUVs, none of which feels like a budget compromise. Yet this is the company that once gave us the wholly unspectacular Stellar saloon car, with bland styling and awful handling. All brands have to start somewhere.
So which will be the next car company to reinvent itself? A prime candidate must be the SAIC-owned MG Motor, which bought the rights to the name from the ashes of the Phoenix Corporation when MG Rover went belly-up in 2005. Its first car sold outside China was the below-par MG6, a model that made all the right noises and looked okay, but was let down by awful build quality and plastics that looked like they’d come out of a Christmas cracker.
But criticism is the biggest learning curve for anyone, and the Chinese have invested huge amounts into MG’s future. It’s currently the fastest growing car brand in the UK as the tainted image of MG Rover becomes a distant memory and is also evolving rapidly across Europe. The products are right, too - EVs and SUVs, which suit current market trends, while MG has also taken a leaf out of Kia’s book by introducing a seven-year warranty. The buyers that are going into MG showrooms today are turning away from more mainstream brands - Kia and Hyundai being two of the most obvious, in a subtle twist of irony.
Jeep and cheerful
Another brand that is quietly getting on with reinventing itself is Jeep. For years, it was seen in most markets outside the USA as a Land Rover also-ran, but in the past four years it has seen its sales volumes triple, as new models such as the funky Renegade and a much higher quality Cherokee have driven customers into showrooms. Its biggest success has been in Italy, where this once bit player now has a five per cent market share. That’s one in every 20 cars sold in a market that’s often seen as fiercely patriotic, so it’s no surprise that FCA uses its Fiat connections to make Jeep feel more European.
Mitsubishi is another one. It has reinvented itself as a PHEV pioneer with the Outlander, being early to the party with a powertrain type that’s now a staple of many major brands. It was once little known outside of the low-end retail market, but today has a number of major fleet contracts to its name, as well as a reputation for innovation.
Proof, then, that struggling brands can certainly be turned around if the marketeers, designers and engineers are given the budget and freedom to realise their visions. The Skoda metamorphosis is the most successful in recent memory, but there are others waiting in the wings…