Changan aims for the big time

Changan is one of China’s big­gest car mak­ers, and it has plans to shake up the Western mar­ket. We head to the brand’s HQ to see if it has what it takes

Auto Express - - Contents - Richard In­gram Richard_in­gram@den­nis.co.uk @rsp_in­gram

Be­hind the scenes at Chi­nese brand eye­ing global dom­i­na­tion

DE­SPITE their best at­tempts, the Chi­nese are yet to crack the Euro­pean car mar­ket. Changan reck­ons it has what it takes to change that, how­ever, and a range of new crossovers and SUVS could be just what the com­pany needs to top­ple the best from the West.

To learn more about the maker and sam­ple some of its lat­est prod­ucts, we took a trip to its global head­quar­ters in Chongqing, south-west China. The pro­gramme would al­low us time be­hind the wheel of the firm’s lat­est Nis­san Qashqai-ri­valling CS55 SUV (Is­sue 1,489), while also giv­ing us an op­por­tu­nity to grill bosses at its fast-paced re­search and de­vel­op­ment hub – a place work­ing handin-hand with sim­i­lar cen­tres in the UK, US and Italy.

Changan as a brand is more than 150 years old, and has been build­ing cars in var­i­ous forms since the fifties.

Thanks to joint ven­tures with the likes of Ford, Mazda, PSA Peu­geot-citroen and Suzuki, the com­pany as­sem­bled more than three mil­lion ve­hi­cles in 2016 – be­com­ing China’s fourth big­gest auto pro­ducer by vol­ume. But suc­cess in its home mar­ket isn’t enough. State-owned Changan Automotive has global am­bi­tions, and hav­ing al­ready made it to much of South Amer­ica, Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East, it now has its sights set firmly on Europe.

We’re a no­to­ri­ously fussy bunch, though, and with our re­ally high stan­dards on equip­ment, qual­ity and driv­ing dy­nam­ics, it’ll take a spe­cial prod­uct to steal sales from man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Re­nault, Nis­san or Volk­swa­gen – and an even more out­stand­ing one to lure buy­ers from pre­mium al­ter­na­tives such as Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

Af­ter a 12-hour flight from Lon­don to Chongqing via Helsinki, we’re whisked away to ap­ply for our Chi­nese driv­ing li­cence. Even though the UK claims to have one of the low­est ac­ci­dent,

“Suc­cess in its home mar­ket isn’t enough. State-owned Changan has big am­bi­tions”

in­jury and fa­tal­ity rates in the world, a Bri­tish pho­to­card won’t suf­fice on Chi­nese roads. An en­tire day is quickly con­sumed jump­ing through hoops and sign­ing pieces of pa­per­work. Eight hours later we’re handed a two-inch piece of plas­tic – which is valid for just three days’ driv­ing in China.

The next morn­ing we board a bus to Changan’s ex­ten­sive test fa­cil­ity in Dian­jiang, two hours north east of Chongqing. The cen­tre was fin­ished in 2013 at a cost of nearly 1.3bil­lion Yuan (around £150mil­lion).

It cov­ers an area of 2.24 square kilo­me­tres and boasts ev­ery­thing from a four-lane high-speed bowl to a dy­namic han­dling course, a skid pan and a mile-long straight. There are more than 60 ‘spe­cial’ sur­faces to ac­cu­rately as­sess ar­eas such as re­fine­ment and ride qual­ity, too.

As we’re guided around the grounds by chief en­gi­neer Gor­don Cook, we’re given a chance to quiz the Bri­tish­born ex-ford han­dling ex­pert on what he thinks Changan needs to do to hit the big time in Europe. “Our cars have been tuned for the do­mes­tic Chi­nese mar­ket,” Cook says. “But the en­thu­si­asm for bet­ter cars is re­ally strong. [Changan] wants it all re­ally, re­ally quick.”

He’s the man who was, in part, re­spon­si­ble for the fine han­dling pre­vi­ous-gen­er­a­tion Ford Fi­esta, be­fore he took the plunge and moved to Chongqing. Talk­ing to Cook of­fers us a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into a rel­a­tively un­known com­pany (in Bri­tain, at least), whose pro­cesses couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from those to which we’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed. Cook is con­fi­dent Changan can adapt to Euro­pean tastes, though, in­sist­ing the Chi­nese pen­chant for shorter fouryear com­plete model cy­cles al­lows for faster de­vel­op­ment than a Euro­pean or Ja­panese maker could ever man­age.

“Th­ese cars are OK for China, but Chi­nese buy­ers want dif­fer­ent things,” Cook ex­plains to us. “The goal is to go from a pro­to­type mule to pro­duc­tion car in two years. Our guys just go for it – that is why we’ve made such tremen­dous strides al­ready.”

We ex­plore the cen­tre from top to tail, and test the firm’s lat­est CS55 and CS95 SUVS on a host of roads, tracks and sur­faces. This teaches us a lot about the cars, and while nei­ther is as sharp or fun to drive as

In­side story “We tested the CS55 and CS95 on a host of roads and tracks”

their Euro­pean equiv­a­lents, both are sur­pris­ingly ca­pa­ble over some of Dian­jiang’s most chal­leng­ing ter­rain.

How­ever, be­fore any car is tri­alled here, it goes through weeks of tests at the maker’s do­mes­tic R&D cen­tre back in Chongqing. It’s a bustling tech­nol­ogy hub with Euro­pean stan­dard equip­ment – in­clud­ing a crash test fa­cil­ity that fo­cuses on mak­ing Changan’s new cars as safe as their Ger­man, Ja­panese or Bri­tish com­peti­tors.

Hui Zhao, Changan’s vice-pres­i­dent for engi­neer­ing and re­search, tells us the man­u­fac­turer crash-tests 300 cars on site ev­ery year, and that “ev­ery com­po­nent” is re­lated to the over­all safety of the car.

His team mea­sures models against global mak­ers such as Ford, and by us­ing high-strength ma­te­ri­als and ac­tive ac­ci­dent mit­i­ga­tion sys­tems such as au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing, hopes to en­sure Changan’s cars are as safe as they can be. “We look at pas­sive safety and ac­tive safety,” Hui Zhao tells us. “When th­ese com­bine, we can say Changan is the safest in the in­dus­try.”

An un­for­tu­nate roll-over in­ci­dent in Dian­jiang at the hands of an Ital­ian jour­nal­ist, with the car’s ESP sys­tems switched off, put the brand’s safety cre­den­tials to the test. And the al­most un­marked car and un­in­jured oc­cu­pants demon­strate ex­actly how tough the Chi­nese-built models are.

Hui Zhao’s com­ment is a big claim, in­deed, and while China’s in­de­pen­dent crash-test body C-NCAP sets slightly dif­fer­ent stan­dards to the Euro NCAP or­gan­i­sa­tion we have over here, its strin­gent cri­te­ria fol­low sim­i­lar guide­lines. En­gi­neers at the R&D cen­tre can repli­cate ev­ery­thing from side im­pacts to frontal crashes. Changan’s mid-size CS75 was re­cently awarded an over­all five-star C-NCAP rat­ing.

The Euro­pean and US bench­mark­ing con­tin­ues over the road in the com­pany’s noise, vi­bra­tion and harsh­ness (NVH) lab­o­ra­tory. In­side, we find one of the man­u­fac­turer’s anony­mous saloon cars hooked up to a dy­namome­ter in a huge semi-ane­choic cham­ber that is de­signed to ac­cu­rately mea­sure ev­ery sound, creak and rat­tle em­a­nat­ing from the var­i­ous pro­to­types. The clever set-up can run at speeds of up to 124mph, and repli­cate vary­ing road con­di­tions.

En­gi­neer Jia Wenyu said: “Our CS95 SUV is on par with a Ford Edge for quiet­ness. We mea­sure the sound qual­ity of ev­ery­thing – even the way the doors close.”

It’s ev­i­dent Changan and its tal­ented team are keen to leave no stone un­turned. And as our drive of the smaller CS55 con­firmed last week, with a few tweaks to the steer­ing, gear­box and sus­pen­sion, we be­lieve it would stand a good chance in the crowded Bri­tish car mar­ket.

Con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates from mem­bers of man­age­ment sug­gest a UK launch is on the cards, al­though per­haps not for some time. Some con­sider 2025 or even 2028 to be a re­al­is­tic time­frame. But with al­most-com­pet­i­tive prod­ucts al­ready on sale in China, and short life­cy­cles al­low­ing for rapid de­vel­op­ment, there are hints that Changan’s Euro­pean de­but could come sooner rather than later.

With no com­plaints about in­te­rior qual­ity, prac­ti­cal­ity or price, there’s lit­tle rea­son why Changan couldn’t steal sales from some of the automotive in­dus­try’s most es­tab­lished, suc­cess­ful and trusted brands in the years to come.

“We mea­sure the sound qual­ity of ev­ery­thing – even the way the doors close” JIA WENYU Changan en­gi­neer

LI­CENCE Reporter Richard In­gram spent eight hours filling in forms be­fore he re­ceived his Chi­nese driv­ing per­mit

TALK­ING TECH Chief en­gi­neer Gor­don Cook (left) tells our man In­gram about Changan’s am­bi­tious plans

TEST TRACK A model of Changan’s im­pres­sive £150mil­lion test fa­cil­ity in Dian­jiang shows the range of roads, tracks, hills and sur­faces on which the com­pany’s ve­hi­cles are as­sessed

RE­SEARCH Reporter In­gram (left) vis­its the Changan R&D fa­cil­ity, which cov­ers ev­ery­thing from crash tests (be­low) to noise, vi­bra­tion and harsh­ness

SMASH HIT Changan can repli­cate a wide range of ac­ci­dent sce­nar­ios at R&D cen­tre, us­ing dum­mies of all shapes and sizes. A to­tal of 300 ve­hi­cles are crash-tested at the fa­cil­ity each year

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