China’s luxury cars have arrived, but can they hold up against popular rivals?
The Chinese are coming. We know, we have been saying that for years and the predicted takeover of the global automotive industry by the Chinese has just not materialised. Companies have come and gone, small importers have seen an opportunity and then realised that many buyers in SA put status and badge snobbery ahead of price.
On top of that, the Chinese government clamped down on its car makers exporting cars that failed to meet global safety regulations and was far from impressed at people criticising the quality of its vehicles. Then the Chinese car makers woke up and questioned why they were chasing international markets when they had more than a billion people in China to sell to.
So no world domination yet, but there are signs of major improvements. Yes we are still seeing clones of international models and yes, there are Chinese vehicles that are seriously below par when it comes to quality, but things are changing.
This was clear at the launch of two new models from China at the SA Motoring Experience at Kyalami. The first was from BAIC (pronounced bike) which has big plans for production in SA. There are some serious questions to be asked about its plans though, with it behind on timeframes for completing its production facility at Coega in the Eastern Cape. For the most part the delay was because in spite of promising local employment, the company wanted to import most of its workforce from China. That was quickly changed. It is also planning to assemble vehicles from kits brought in from China until at least the end of 2018, which is not what it promised at all.
We spoke with a senior executive for the company, Li Xian Xian, and will bring you that interview next week.
The new BAIC X25 was revealed at the show. Essentially it is a crossover version of the D20, launched in May this year, although it is unclear if any have been sold yet. Both are based on the old Mercedes-Benz B-Class in their design, although they sit on the old Smart ForFour platform and use Mitsubishisourced engines. This is mainly because BAIC has a joint venture project in China with Mercedes called BAIC MBtech.
The X25 starts at R219,990 for the 1.5 Comfort model which is definitely a competitive price. What is important though is that, for the first time, the quality appears to be rather good. We stress the word appears, though, because we have not yet driven it, but it all looks very Merc, inside especially, right down to the air vents which are almost identical to those in the latest generation B-Class. There is also an infotainment screen mounted on the top of the dash like the Merc, although the software and interface are very different.
The company says its aim is to make cars more affordable. A noble gesture, but one which until now has seemed rather hollow given the poor quality of the vehicles. But as we all expected, the Chinese auto industry has learnt from its mistakes and advanced faster than Japan or Korea did in their early days. The X25 is a prime example of just how much it has improved, but time will tell if the quality is there to make people look at it seriously.
The same is true of Haval, the leader in the SUV market in China for the past 14 years. It has been present in SA but under the name of its parent company, Great Wall Motors (GWM), which continues here as a distributor of the brand’s bakkies, but now falls under Haval SA.
At the show the company revealed its H6C, a model that definitely has a side profile design similar to that of the Range Rover Evoque. It starts at R329,900 which will make it a harder proposition against more established and popular SUV options in SA.
There are six models with the flagship being the Luxury six-speed dual-clutch version at R389,900. All feature the same 2.0l turbocharged petrol engine pushing out 140kW and 310Nm, but again it was quality and the design that made us take notice.
It’s a good looking vehicle, which is no longer going to elicit sniggers from those sat at pavement cafes. The interior is even more of a revelation, with clear signs that the Chinese auto industry has upped its game. The materials appear to be solid and well fitted. The design is modern and similar to that of many major rivals. You get a full complement of kit too, including what appears to be a decent touchscreen infotainment system, a multifunction steering wheel, electronic climate control, full leather upholstery and the list goes on. If standard equipment was the main criteria to tick the value-for-money box then the H6 C would do well.
Except the H6C needs to be more than just good design and good equipment. Like the X25, it needs to prove itself beyond the glitz and PR-speak of a vehicle unveiling. Both need to prove they can isolate their occupants from the world outside, deal with the potholed backroads and thousands of kilometres of gravel roads. They need to be able to do this without squeaks and rattles, at least in their early days (almost everything develops a squeak or rattle here and there eventually) and they need to prove their value for money offering is in their longevity and not just their price tag.
We are reserving judgement on these two until we have driven them, but first impressions are that after a few false starts, the Chinese really are coming.
Above: The BAIC X25 is the crossover version of the D20 launched earlier this year. The interior, left, has more than a little of Mercedes about it.
The Haval H6C is not going to look out of place in trendier suburbs. Right: The interior of the H6C shows just how much the Chinese car industry has upped its game.