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Good things happen when our market is taken seriously

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Nissan Terra
The new Nissan Terra

I have spent more than two decades traveling the world attending car launches and driving the latest vehicles. For the most part, this is because the Philippine market has always been treated as a relatively insignificant territory vis-à-vis other countries that sell more cars. As far as product-planning is concerned, we have always been an afterthought.

So I’ve always had to fly overseas to join my foreign counterparts in converging at pivotal selling points of the planet — Thailand, Indonesia, the United States, Germany. I have always been an outsider. A guest. An observer left to envy the high status accorded by automakers to other markets.

And then there’s the Philippines, which, with just 168,490 sold cars in 2010, has always been an asterisk — a mere footnote in the product strategies of automotive companies. You’ve heard the usual rants: Our market doesn’t get the good models or variants; we take a backseat to bigger-selling ASEAN neighbors when it comes to launch calendars; we’re not a priority in the global allocation of production units. In fact, I have a feeling that the Philippines has long been such a joke that several brands use our market to dispose of slow-moving or non-selling vehicles in other countries. Which explains why we often see stupid models being introduced here that make absolutely no sense at all.

It gets pretty frustrating as a Filipino member of the motoring press. So excuse me if I feel an inordinate amount of pride every time a car manufacturer gives our market the kind of importance usually reserved for more prosperous countries. It tells me that something is up, and that positive things are about to happen in the local automotive business.

I wax sentimental in the middle of a two-day regional launch event for the Nissan Terra, the much-awaited sport-utility vehicle based on the Navara platform. This time, I didn’t need to board a plane and visit a larger market just to witness the unveiling of a brand-new car, as I did when I went to Bangkok in February just to lay my eyes on the Ford Ranger Raptor. For the Terra’s Southeast Asian premiere, it’s journalists from all over the region — Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — who have descended upon Clark, Pampanga, to see and get their hands on Nissan’s new SUV.

This gets more impressive when you realize that the Philippine-market Terra is made in and sourced from Thailand, and yet our market is the first to launch the vehicle’s seven-seat version (China introduced the five-seat Terra in April). Not Thailand, in case this little detail needs rubbing in. How did Nissan Philippines get the honor of rolling out this product ahead of the others?

I’m sure a huge part of the decision was Nissan Philippines’ strong sales performance last year, when it moved a total of 24,995 units for a whopping 48% year-on-year growth compared to 2016. It’s the kind of performance that gets the big bosses to stop and notice. With 470,000 sold cars in our market in 2017, we can no longer be ignored. Our days of being an asterisk may be well behind us.

To be clear, this is not the first time our country has hosted a regional car launch. Ford and Subaru have done it before. But Nissan’s event for the Terra seems more deliberate, more coordinated, more integral to the brand’s business offensive in this part of the world.

“The potential for market growth not only in the region but more so in the Philippines is why we did the Terra launch here,” Nissan Motor Asia-Pacific regional communications vice-president Lavanya Wadgaonkar told me. “Not to mention the Philippines is a beautiful country.”

The last line may have been a typical PR line uttered by a typical PR executive, but it sounded nice to my ears nevertheless. And as I drove back to my hotel from the event venue, I passed a number of new structures being constructed inside the Clark Freeport and Special Economic Zone that let me know there was nothing PR in all of this. This is really happening. The Philippines is being taken seriously in the global car industry.

That’s good for our economy. But also, that’s good for car enthusiasts. Get ready for more exciting vehicle models coming to our shores.