BEIJING, CHINA—At the Beijing Motor Show, BMW announced that it would produce a new electric car, the iX3, in China and sell it all over the world—including Europe and the U.S. This is a big breakthrough for Chinese-made cars, and a good time to visit the country’s domestic market.
“As long as the vehicle is built properly, and BMW will make sure of that, it doesn’t matter too much to consumers where the car comes from,” Tim Urquhart, an IHS Markit automotive analyst, told Automotive News.
Where the rubber meets the road in China is a race track outside Beijing, where a group of foreign journalists was allowed to put the best China has to offer to the test. First, a day of internal-combustion cars, then a day with “New Energy” vehicles—the battery electrics that the government has decided is the future.
Chinese automotive policy is evolving rapidly. For decades, foreign auto companies operating here could only own 50 percent of their factories—they needed a Chinese partner. That was lifted in April, clearing the way for companies like Tesla to build their own businesses. And the government is also favoring battery electrics to clear China’s air. It can take many years to get a license plate here, but there’s no waiting at all for cars with plugs. That alone will ease the transition.
There’s a bewildering array of carmakers here—150 or more—but our test vehicles are from the larger names.
Let’s start with the electric cars. By far the most sophisticated was the Denza 500, engineered with partner Daimler. This was a battery car that could work on any of the world’s roads. It offered sophisticated chassis engineering, a powerful—and quiet—electric motor—and an elegantly styled cabin. The range is at least 250 miles from a 70-kilowatt-hour battery pack, and acceleration was brisk and smooth. Both 86- and 135-kilowatt electric motors are available. A top pick.
Of course, the price—after incentives—is 298,000 yuan, which translates to $47,600. That’s an expensive car on the market here, so it will limit sales.
Next in line was the BYD (“Build Your Dreams”) Song EV 300, another small SUV, and relatively new to the Chinese market. It was impressive overall, stable through the track’s obstacle course, quiet and nicely built. The Song used quality materials throughout, and had a somewhat bewildering range of controls. Large screens a la Tesla are now common here even in small commuter cars, and every car we tested had Bluetooth connectivity, lots of USB plugs and other amenities.
The Song, also available as a bestselling plug-in hybrid, has 223-mile range, though it may be less in U.S. measurement. The price is 200,000 yuan, or $31,500. It seems you get what you pay for in China.
Around the same price and quality point was the SAIC Roewe eRX5 e400, with 175-mile range. On the track it was relatively refined, but suffered from a fair amount of body lean. This car and the BYD Song have been neck and neck in sales. The two together are producing about 6,000 sales per month. Either one would be a good choice for middle-class families—a newly emergent and powerful class in China.
One step down gets you the JAC IEV 6S, with 143 miles of range. Yours for just $18,780 after subsidies, and a relative bargain.
Again, it was fairly quiet and smooth in testing, and benefited from a nice red-and-black two-tone interior. Its roots as a gas car were evident in its closed-up gas filler—the actual EV charging, both 240-volt and fast—was in the nose. Not a bad choice.
One of the few sedans we saw was the $16,716 Chang An Eado. The 1.6-liter sedan wasn't remarkable, but it was respectable.
From there, things get a bit dicey. The Chinese market offers a range of small two-seat electric cars at an attractive price point, but none of these are suitable for long-range travel. The best was the BAIC LITE, seen in screaming yellow, which offered a sport mode that gave it some really nice off-the-line acceleration (though it soon ran out of power). Range is 93 miles, from a 16.4-kilowatt hour battery pack. You can buy one for $13,500 after subsidies.
With gas cars, we started with a GM Wu Ling SUV. As in America (where Ford just canceled all but two sedans), the Chinese love crossover SUVs.
The Wu Ling is a very popular car, inexpensive at $11,800 and the only car we drove with a manual transmission. The clutch was super light, and the car leaned a fair amount around the traffic cones. It was fairly basic transportation.
The front-drive Luxgen U5 SUV was a step up in sophistication, which means less body roll, quieter operation and fairly good fit and finish—plus big screen with a range of infotainment and climate control options. At $14,500 it’s a shrewd buy.
It’s not surprising that the top gas car, a Geely Boyue, was also more expensive at $23,200. This one boasted a quite-nice cabin with quality materials, strong build quality, brisk acceleration and competent performance on the track. The in-line four-cylinder engine is turbocharged and produces 186 horsepower.
Finally, also from Geeley, the X1 offered all the charms of the Chevrolet Spark (the cheapest American car at $12,995) for $9,154. The tiny 1.3-liter engine had a little kick to it. If you liked the ’96 Honda Civic, you’d live happily with the X1.