This is Part 4 of my ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at Auto Shanghai 2015. You can check out Part 1 (from #35 to #21) here, Part 2 (from #20 to #11) here and Part 3 (from #10 to #6) here. I let the suspense build up but we are finally coming to the 5 most impressive Chinese carmakers. By now either the carmakers in question have made tremendous progress compared to last year in Beijing, or they are simply world class. And we start with the ‘Most improved’ award…
5. (29) Leopaard
This is my biggest surprise of Auto Shanghai. While in Beijing last year I actually discovered this new brand, it made such progress in the past 12 months that it now deserves a spot in my Top 5 most impressive Chinese carmakers, easily earning the ‘Most improved’ award. But first let’s backtrack a tiny bit. Up until 2014, the brand Leopaard was called Lièbào, meaning cheetah (close enough). Lièbào/Leopaard is a brand of GAC Chengfeng Motor, in turn wholly owned by GAC Group but originally a branch of the People’s Liberation Army (sir yes sir). Changfeng used to restrict the use of the Lièbào brand to Mitsubishi Pajero variations built under license from Mitsubishi which used to own 15% of Changfeng until 2011 when it sold its participation in the company. Not anymore. Leopaard is now free to run fast, and its affiliation with GAC Group gives us a hint to its impressive progression this year.
Even though GAC does not rank very high this year (#12), it still impressed by its ambition and dynamism, and it has injected all of it into the Leopaard brand. The Press Conference was unusually heart-felt and authentic, with a very good, confident and genuinely motivated female presenter introducing the product and guests speakers with authority, kindness and professionalism. Very far from an automated, nervous delivery that can characterise such roles (I’ve seen a few at the Show), this presenter actually expressed emotion and accentuated her speech with flashes of enthusiasm that didn’t feel forced – an achievement in itself. Repetitive expressions in her speech evoking enthralled political rallies (in a good way), executives all very good in their own way and certainly not boring, and absolutely no video nor hand prompts for any of the presenters made the Leopaard press conference the most profesionally handled of any Chinese carmaker at the Show (I told you I was impressed).
The entire Press Conference was delivered with one about-to-be-unveiled CS10 SUV but it’s not one but – surprise – four example that drove onto the stage and above the audience at reveal time. Cute little mise-en-scene reinforced the goodwill I have towards this brand. As for the CS10 itself, although not a marvel of creative design, it looks easy on the eye front on and aggressive from the back – a difficult task for an SUV. The interior is refined, everything looks and feels polished and well finished, nothing weird or out of place stands out. All-in-all a very well-rounded delivery indeed from Leopaard, lightyears from their rushed stand in Beijing. Now to confirm with sales success. And that’s a whole different story…
4. (2) Hongqi
I still have a soft spot for Hongqi (“red flag”), the only true Chinese luxury brand, owned by FAW. Adding on to the retro-cool L5 sedan concept and the H7 sedan, currently the only Hongqi model actually on sale to the public, Hongqi had the marvellous idea of unveiling the soon-to-be-produced LS5 SUV at Auto Shanghai. Spot on trend, this is what my unconscious mind was dreaming of to take this brand to the next level, and it did over-deliver.
Far from a bland reproduction of current SUVs and unlike the H7 which looks like a spruced-up previous generation Skoda Superb, the LS5 adds personal and typically Chinese touches like the motifs formed by the head- and taillights and the detail of its grille. I know some of you won’t agree, but the LS5 is my favourite Chinese model of Auto Shanghai. No less. The Hongqi LS5 is powered by a turbocharged petrol 4.0 litre engine mated to an 8 speed automatic gearbox giving off 381kW and 530Nm. Top speed is 220km/h and 0 to 100km/h are reached in 8.1 seconds.
Hongqi’s heritage, being the only custom-made presidential vehicle, is rightfully shown off on its stand with big photographs tracing the history of the brand (see above) and its luxury status shines with a delightfully decorated VIP area only accessible by invitation (I got invited thanks to CCTV, the #1 TV channel in China!) All looking very posh and refined and sophisticated. It’s all there. Hongqi is one of only a few Chinese brand (the only one?) to have a fantastic story to tell, and a unique positioning in the world: it can be worked up to be synonymous with Chinese sophistication. Not a single car brand can, has or will claim this. Gold. Yes but.
Yes but Hongqi should be careful not to rest on its laurels in a Chinese market that evolves at lightning speed. The LS5 is definitely the right step in the right direction but if the H7 interior looks great last year in Beijing, it has suddenly aged when compared to new upmarket Chinese models unveiled this year, such as the Geely GC9 to name but one.
But the main but is in the attitude. Again, bonus points for a stand completely separate in location and ambiance from mother brand FAW. However it’s time for Hongqi to get the corones to play with the big boys. Haval stood as the only Chinese brand in an exhibition hall almost entirely dedicated to SUV manufacturers. Makes sense. Hongqi should have taken JAC’s spot in the premium exhibition hall along with Lincoln, Lexus, Cadillac, BMW, Volvo and DS. Hongqi is starting to feel like a sleeping giant that doesn’t know it can run the 100m. You won’t know until you try, Hongqi.
3. (14) BYD
Last year BYD was strong but unsurprising and seemed caught in a bout of duplication of its successful S6, itself a dubious copy of the Lexus RX. This year in Shanghai, Build Your Dreams is back to doing just that, returning to its core capability: energy efficient cars. Utterly on trend, BYD unveiled two smaller PHEV SUVs to complete its lineup: the Song and Yuan, respectively named after Chinese and Mongolian dynasties. Note both accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in just 4.9 seconds, a “4.9S” badge proudly proclaiming it on each model’s rear door.
Notice also the bicolour scheme a la Haval H2. Putting energy efficient nameplates in its range front and centre, BYD also announced that the Song and the Yuan are PHEV versions of upcoming, more conventional models respectively named S3 and S1. Bonus points for enthusiasm.
But what impressed me the most at BYD is the clarity of their strategy and their transparency sharing it with the media at Auto Shanghai. The entire Press Conference materials shown were dubbed in English and explain everything there is to know about the brand, its ambition and the strategy it is employing to meet its goals. BYD’s mission is to “Lead the new energy vehicle industry”. Its Green Mobility Strategy has two aspects: public transportation catered for by pure electric vehicles, and the private market catered for by plug-in hybrids.
Looking back at its 2014 achievements, BYD noted that the Qin was China’s new energy vehicle sales leader with 14.717 units, having now launched in 8 domestic cities – Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Changsha. BYD’s words for 2015 are: “2015 will be big” with planned 50.000 sales of plug-in hybrids, 15.000 pure electric e6 taxis and 6.000 electric buses, keeping in mind BYD now offers public electric transportation in 100 cities and 35 countries including London, Brussels and Rotterdam. In one presentation, BYD showed me clearly what it is aiming at and that, for once (it’s relatively rare for a Chinese manufacturer), its objectives were anchored in reality and logic. BYD wants to Build Your Dreams and it’s starting to get convincing at it.
BYD also had the good idea to spice up its stand with a couple of sport SUV actually looking pretty mean like the Tang Sport pictured above in matte black. Finally, I really like the naming structure BYD has chosen for its energy efficient models: using traditional Chinese expressions and characters to baptise them. After the Qin sedan and the Shang MPV (introduced at Beijing 2014 but yet to be released) we now have the Tang, Song and Yuan SUVs. May I suggest later on applying this system to the entire range? That would be a breath of fresh air and a very clear point of differentiation in a Chinese carmaker universe packed with letters and numbers…
2. (17) Geely
We are now looking at the creme de la creme of all Chinese manufacturers present at Auto Shanghai. Geely ranked at a lukewarm #17 last year in Beijing because I found them unfocused and confusing. This year, Geely sent a loud and clear message that it was moving upwards into sophistication. I wouldn’t call them premium just yet and by a pretty large margin, but the progress the manufacturer has made in the past 12 months is nothing short of spectacular. Finally the benefits of purchasing Volvo a few years back are in the open for all to see. Starting with the stand, giving off a definitely upmarket vibe with posh little carry bags featuring golden handles, sleek silver and blue colour scheme and enthusiastic yet professionally reserved hostesses. All cars had their doors open for you by a host who would close them after you. Someone has been visiting the Haval stand in Beijing last year and got some ideas! And that’s a great sign.
But the stand on its own would be far off elevating Geely to 2nd place overall in this ranking. Geely needed a flagship to demonstrate its shift upmarket and boy how it got it with the extremely impressive GC9, designed by Volvo’s head of design, and it shows. The GC9 takes Geely (and all Chinese manufacturers with it) into a completely different stage, now fully armed to compete with overseas brands. Yes I have said it. It was the question on everyone’s lips in the Chinese media: “Are we there yet?” “Do you think Chinese manufacturers are catching up with foreign ones?” “Can we do this?” In the Geely stand my answer is a clear and resounding yes.
The GC9 interior depicted above is nothing short of astounding for a Chinese manufacturer. Stylish, exhaustive without being confusing, high tech and full of sophisticated notes such as this complete climate control console for rear passengers pictured above. The materials are solid, nice on the touch and comfortable. Very, very impressive indeed. All this for a ridiculously low price: the GC9 ranges from 119.800 to 229.800 yuan or US$ 19.300-37.100. Can’t believe what you’re reading? I couldn’t either at first.
But was Geely consistent in its interior quality or did it do a Roewe on us? Ranking #2 should give you a hint, and I was indeed very impressed by the brand’s two hot sellers so far in 2015: the facelifted EC7’s door clomp was the closest to a VW of all Chinese models I tested, and the completely revamped Vision’s glovebox’s slow and soft opening is lightyears ahead of a VW Santana whose glovebox crashes onto your knee with a flat, hollow and definitely cheap “clang!”. The Vision is priced between 52.900 and 65.900 yuan (US$ 8.500-10.600) whereas the Santana ranges from 84.900 to 123.800 yuan (US$13.700-20.000).
Now the coughing of VW sales so far in 2015 and the doubling of Geely sedan sales in the same period makes a lot more sense…
A near perfect 10 for Geely so far. Except for one thing, and unfortunately this is one of my pet hates. The manufacturer smartly killed the Gleagle, Emgrand and Shanghai Englon brands last year to stremline its entire lineup under the Geely brand, choosing the Emgrand logo as its own. However at Auto Shanghai 2015 Geely still displayed one bright orange Panda Cross with a… Gleagle logo! And the cover of the Geely Golden Eagle Cross brochure features a car with a Shanghai Englon logo! Why oh why? You were so close Geely…