China’s lux­ury cars have ar­rived, but can they hold up against pop­u­lar ri­vals?

NEW MOD­ELS

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS - Mark Smyth

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.

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