We jet off and judge for ourselves
Despite a predicted sales slowdown China remains the world’s largest new car market, so the inaugural ‘Best Car For China’ contest should be the start of something big. Mark Tisshaw is your judge
It’s soon apparent that this will be a case of finding out which VW is best
The Guangdong International Circuit is a flat, wide race track which has seen better days, with weeds in the gravel traps and brand new tower blocks and building sites looming ominously around it as the construction industry closes in on its valuable real estate.
So it isn’t the ideal venue at which to compare 23 different Chinese saloons, SUVS and MPVS, not one of which has even a hint of sporting intent.
Yet Chinese driving licenses are a tricky thing to come by, so it was to the circuit we went in order to help judge the first running of a new Chinese ‘car of the year’ competition, or Best Car For China, to give it its full and proper name.
Anyway, who needs roads when you have cones on the main straight for a slalom, various gates to drive through, temporary speed humps between some of the corners, an emergency stop zone and still the opportunity to drive it like you stole it?
I jest, but this is serious business. China is the world’s largest car market (24.7 million sold last year, although this year likely to fall marginally for the first time in a generation as the trade war with the US bites), so assembled here are most of the biggest sellers in the most important segments.
Sales numbers are the chief criteria for entry among this line-up. Each of China’s top-10 bestselling saloons between January and August this year were among them, a remarkable six of which are Volkswagens, including the best-selling Lavida, which shifted 284,655 units.
The four top-selling MPVS are along too, including China’s biggest-selling vehicle in any class, the gloriously oddball Wuling Hongguang (296,663 sales).
The five top SUVS, including the all-conquering Haval H6, are present and correct, as are four of the best-selling electric vehicles. It’s not a surprise that China is the world’s biggest market for EVS, but it might raise eyebrows to learn that 200-mile-plus ranges are the norm across many of the big players.
Us judges are given a score sheet by the organisers, Chinese media giant Internet Info Agency. We can award a total of up to 105 points to each car. Some things are weighted more than others – seat comfort gets eight points to the five of acceleration – but the logic behind that is never properly explained. But after scoring a few cars, it all adds up to the kind of figure you would give out of 100 using any other system.
To the saloons first, then, and a gathering that feels more like an Avis car park than a prestigious automotive contest given the level of visual humdrumness present. ‘Hire car’ is a fairly apt description for the Nissan Sylphy and Toyota Corolla (not the new one coming here next year). Both feel robust but are devoid of any spark or flair and unable to shake the feeling of being products of committees – and ones assembled well over a decade a go at that.
Not that the punters seem to care. The Nissan and Toyota were China’s second and third most popular saloons in the first eight months of this year, with more than half a million sold between them. One theme that quickly emerges is the sheer scale of the figures you encounter when dealing with China’s car sales.
The true home-grown saloon in this company, the Geely Emgrand, has a coarse drivetrain and poor body control, while the China-only Buick Excelle is based on the previous-generation Opel Astra and offers a driving experience to match.
What is soon apparent is that this will be a case of finding out which VW saloon is best. There are duds even here, though, with the VWS all being quite different ages and based on different architectures from different eras.
At one extreme are the Santana and Jetta, which are vying for the ‘worst to drive’ title. Both are based on a low-rent development of the VW Group’s old PQ25 platform and are similar to the Skoda Rapid and Seat Toledo sold in Europe.
The Santana is particularly crass, its recipe flavoured with the unappealing combination of slow-witted automatic gearbox, coarse engine and dead brake pedal, while your hands caress a steering wheel from a late 1990s Skoda Fabia.
Why two such similar cars, though? VW actually sells models under two different joint venture companies in China: FAW-VW and SAIC-VW. Each is roughly the same size, selling in different
Tisshaw (centre) was part of an international panel of judges
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Driving cars such as these on a circuit is a bit like playing the early stages of an old Gran Turismo video game, where you’d buy a cheap car totally unsuited to the task but with the intention of souping it up.