QUANGZHOU, CHINA—After a crazy day at the 15th Auto Quangzhou—one of no less than four huge car expos held in China annually—I arrived at three truths:
- SUVs are hugely popular in China, almost as prized as they are in the U.S. In the largest auto market in the world, they take a larger than 50 percent share. There isn’t one Chinese company that makes only SUVs, there are many.
- China is firmly embracing electric cars, what are known here are New Energy Vehicles, and if that means plugging in SUVs, so be it. Through October of this year, 314,000 electric cars were delivered in the country, three times U.S. volumes, and sales were up 77.1 percent from 2016. Every company we visited is launching hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electrics, and there was general agreement that the global market is moving in that direction. Chinese government incentives and directives make the move more a mandate here than a choice.
- Chinese auto quality has steadily increased, and that has stiffened the determination of carmakers here to export their vehicles to the West. Right now the Volvo S90 is one of the only made-in-China cars Americans can buy, but by 2019 that will change—if Chinese automakers (often working with Western partners) have anything to do with it. Germany is the first target, then the rest of Europe, then—in the unspecified future—the U.S. Expect to hear more from WEY (part of the Great Wall Motor Company); Lynk and Co. (on Volvo platforms); GAC (makers of the Trumpchi!); and Borgward (a reborn German brand that currently makes only SUVs for China).
Walking the giant halls, a pattern emerged: fairly conservative production designs, and wild concept cars. Changan, for instance, is one of four huge auto groups in China and says it’s the top-selling domestic brand. It produces three SUVs, plus the Benni and Eado EVs (which tend to sell in the provinces with the best incentives). But on Changan’s stand was a wild copper-colored sedan with gullwing doors and seats that appeared to be floating in space. I asked, and was told that it “is just a model.” In other words, it would move if you pushed it.
Honda Design’s wild new concept was called the C001. A space-age coupe from Mercedes-Benz was offered on the next-generation A-Class platform, though a small SUV is more likely to see production. An all-electric Benz is to be made in China by 2019. The i-Pace electric Jaguar is also on its way in 2018, and the E-Pace crossover will be built in China. MG, one of many haloed Western brands controlled by the big SAIC conglomerate, was represented by a gorgeous E-Motion concept car first shown in Shanghai last April. I wish it was headed for production, but probably not. It’s electric, of course, with a rumored range of 310 miles.
Britain’s venerable Rover is now Roewe, and in the SUV business in China. Speaking of venerable brands, Borgward is back. What, you don’t remember Borgward? My grandma had one. These were well-crafted German cars, built from 1919 until 1963. After an aborted attempt to get going again in Mexico, the brand hasn’t been quiet. But via descendant Christian Borgward, it’s back—making the youth-oriented BX5 and the more traditional BX7 SUVs in China. But Europe is in the Stuttgart-based company’s sights. According to Anders Warming, the chief design officer, the company will start marketing the Chinese-made cars in Germany, Switzerland and Austria next year. The U.S. could be next, but there’s no date on that yet.
Why start with China? “We’re learning about the brand,” said Tom Anliker, the global marketing head. Memories of Borgward from 70 years ago aren’t going to help all that much—to succeed, the company’s SUVs will have to be both very good and very affordable. That was Hyundai/Kia’s route to success in the U.S.
Another company with foreign expansion in the plans is Great Wall’s luxury-oriented WEY, headed by the determined ex-Audi executive Jens Steingraber. Wey has moved quickly to become the SUV sales leader in China, and in this market that’s saying something. “To get to the next level globally, we have to change and improve,” Steingraber. “A boxer can’t become internationally known by staying in his village. We could be the first Chinese automaker to sell in volume in Europe.”
Steingraber also said that his VV5 and VV7 SUVs (which have undergone rigorous testing) will pass tough European and American crash tests. “We have to kill the image that China builds unsafe cars,” he said. And with a plug-in hybrid coming, he wants the company to be known for building green cars, too.
Lynk and Co. is launching, through a Geely joint venture, an SUV, the 01, with the underpinnings of the Chinese-made Volvo XC40. There’s also a sedan on the platform, and the plug-in hybrid to come will have up to 50 miles of range. Han Yi, the general manager, told us it’s entering a tough market in China, with lots of competition from Japanese, European and American companies. But Lynk is determined to succeed not just in China, but in Europe, too, by 2019. The challenge, of course, is that the car will have to compete with the XC40 itself.
Again, perceived value is key. And safety, too, of course. Asked if the 01 will have the same safety rating as the Volvo, Han Yi said “yes.”
I was very taken with a GAC Motor/Trumpchi concept car that looked like every science-fiction movie car you’ve ever seen. Apparently, the company sees it as a more than point A to point B—it was designed to also be an extension of your living room, with a big-screen TV, windows that can be transparent or opaque and comfortable couches that can become a bed. Well, maybe it’s more of an extension of the bedroom.
Trumpchi, in the premium segment, is another Chinese brand that’s taken off like a meteor. Some of these companies have amazing track records of zero to millions of sales in just a few years. There’s a Los Angeles design studio, so watch out for Trumpchis in your neighborhood. The company will be in the U.S. "eventually,” we were told.
Trumpchi’s star is the seven-seat GM8, an MPV or, as we like to call it, a minivan. This one was straight-out luxurious, with second-row seats out of a Maybach.
They slid back, reclined and had heating, cooling and massage features. You could get very comfortable watching the screens in the back of the front seats. It’s one of the most expensive Chinese cars, at 250,000 renmimbi ($37,000).
Another trend I noticed was companies, like Speed Motors, that convert big American and Euro vehicles into luxury transporters. I saw Sprinter vans with big leather armchairs, rebodied Escalades and even big-gun Ford F-150 XLTs with all manner of appointments—some were even armored. The Ford used 11.8 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers. I don’t know what that is in mpg, but let’s say it’s in the low single figures.
Everywhere I Iooked, SUVs. On the VW stand, the T-RocStar compact SUV made its Chinese debut. The German MC told us, “China’s aspiring middle class in megacities wants a fresh new look. We will introduce a China-specific model next summer. We will become a totally new VW. We will amaze with new models.” Hyundai promised a 16-year lifespan and more than 300 miles of range from its new hydrogen vehicles—500 if you believe in the European testing.
The day after the motor show we drove an hour and a half into the countryside, and were given the keys to some Chinese (and Chinese-made) cars at the Haoting Fugang Race Track. A man in a track suit told us to “adjust the length between you and the steering wheel” and to “enter the test car and check where to start the engine.” Given that we were all seasoned auto journalists, from five countries, we were able to handle this part pretty well.
The cars were a mixed bag: A BMW 1-Series made in partnership with Brilliance; a Mercedes E320L long-wheelbase model (the Chinese like a luxury rear seat); the aforementioned Borgward BX7; a Changan CS 15 EV (a compact SUV); a WEY VV7C; and a SGMW Baojun 730 minivan.
I was anxious to try out that EV—here was the future of Chinese motoring! And the car wasn’t half bad. We didn’t get a lot of technical detail, but the car’s 55-kilowatt motor left it somewhat starved for power on the straightaways. A larger motor would do wonders, because otherwise the Changan performed well—quiet, without squeaks or rattles. Range of 217 miles was impressive, if it could actually deliver that. The Changan handled well and had decent brakes, and I liked the seven-inch screen and infotainment interface. For a price that started at 189,000 renmimbi ($28,487, before incentives) it seemed a good deal.
The Borgward and WEY both need further sorting if they’re to succeed in foreign markets. That means more refinement (the Borgward), more power, tighter handling with less body lean, better tires, peerless fit and finish, plus that affordable price I was talking about. The Borgward, at 44,000 euros in Germany, would get lost in a very, very competitive market. The advantage of being made in a lower labor market needs to be reflected in the price.
The MPV also suffered from low power, and needed some quality work. Panels were loose, and the safety system set off an insane beeping every time a car pulled up—and stopped—behind it. It was built to a budget—prices start at just 60,000 renmimbi (that’s less than $10,000!) and that buys a fairly basic family hauler.
I didn’t drive the BMW, and the turbo V-6 Mercedes was, well, a Mercedes. The long wheelbase allowed for a range of rear-seat luxury amenities (lots of legroom, a touch screen, separate climate controls) you’d never get in a U.S. E-Class.
It was a whirlwind introduction to the huge Chinese auto market, and I left convinced that these very determined carmakers will overcome the barriers that have kept them from the global stage. The cars are better than you probably think, and they’re set to follow the Korean model of international conquest. Remember Hyundai and Kia when they were funny little economy cars?
Here's a closer look, on video, at the Lynk & Co. SUV: