The wait is over. As is now the tradition at BSCB, I give you the ranking of the Chinese carmakers that impressed me the most at this year’s Auto China 2016 in Beijing. Now in its third iteration, this ranking is getting tuned each year as my expectations of each brand vary based on what I saw in the past three Chinese Auto Shows (Guangzhou 2015 was too small to warrant a full ranking). The Beijing Auto Show is smaller than Shanghai, so this year truck specialists are not included and only brands that could make it into the Top 30 are featured: the competition is getting tough!
Everything comes into consideration in the building of this ranking: from the interior/exterior quality and design of the models exhibited, the number/validity of new cars, concept cars, staff availability, savviness and friendliness as well as whether or not they improved since last year, met/exceeeded my expectations or plain disappointed. As always we are going up the ladder from last to first in pure, old-fashioned hit parade tradition. In brackets is first the brand’s ranking last year at the Shanghai Auto Show, second its ranking in Beijing two years ago. We start with brands ranked #30 to #21.
Not ranked: Wuling (-, 11), Landwind (28, -), Weichai Enranger (-,-), Denza (35,27), MG (22,20), Brilliance/Huasong/Jinbei (25,24/18,-/24,16)
These brands do not make it into the Top 30, either because they did not have a stand at the Show or because their performance was too discreet. In the case of Wuling, it is now the second time SAIC-GM decides to pass on dedicating a stand for the best-selling local brand (over 1.5 million sales in 2015) and #2 brand in China overall below Volkswagen. A decision that keeps surprising me Show after Show, especially given the company is spitting out updated versions of its best-seller the Hongguang faster that it takes to write these lines. An aggressive-looking S1 (picture above) was hiding in the corner of one Baojun lineup brochure, and the Hongguang S featured in the Baojun highlight video screen, but that is all.
As for Landwind, after exhibiting its Evoque-clone, the X7, last year in Shanghai in a rather impressive stand, the manufacturer is absent in Beijing as it was already the case two years ago. Newcomer Weichai Enranger was relegated to an outside stand almost impossible to find, Denza had nothing new to show us for the 2nd consecutive years as did MG whose stand only featured a sponsorship with the Liverpool soccer club – a partnership that is already in the open as it is included in all MG China advertising. Brilliance is faithful to a very clear separation of its three brands (along with Jinbei and Huasong) but an absence of novelties keeps them away from the ranking despite the very welcome distribution of water bottles on the stand – surprisingly the only manufacturer doing so in the entire Show…
30. Qoros (6,25)
Last year in Shanghai I was impressed by the ambience and attitude of the Qoros brand sticking to its positioning of European sophistication. This time it all fell flat. The Qoros stand was a pale copy of the one from Shanghai and was almost completely deserted by the press whereas in 2015 it was the place to be. Yes the 5 SUV is a step in the right direction for the brand and the interior quality is good but if two-three years ago the Qoros interiors were among the very best for a Chinese brand, they have now fallen behind – a testimony to the speed at which all Chinese manufacturers are improving.
29. Haima (26,4)
Two years ago in Beijing, Haima ranked 4th in my Most Impressive list due to a very playful and confident launch of the S5 SUV. This time the only new nameplate on offer is an already dated V70 MPV – losing me in passing with their naming codes. On the plus side, credit to Haima for flying solo and shedding all tying links with its joint-venture partner Mazda. The ambience of the stand is pleasing mix of black, blue and white (the cars) giving a sophisticated touch, unfortunately not matched by the interior still made of way to much shiny plastic. In two years Haima’s S5 has imposed itself as one of the best-selling SUVs in the country, especially in more remote areas. The least we would have expected is for Haima to launch at least one, better: two new SUVs, such as a S1 and S3 for example. Next year in Shanghai?
28. BYD (3,14)
In Shanghai last year I was stunned by BYD’s revival, dynamism and clarity on their “Dynasty series” SUV launches. Unfortunately there is nothing new on the the brand’s stand this year apart from a Qin 100 EV sedan, meaning 100 miles range. BYD looks like it’s still trying to find itself, with SUVs and crossovers taking centre stage (and rightly so) but an hesitation in positioning: is it all about eco-friendly transportation (the brand’s big shout last year) or a more youthful, playful and pragmatic angle as illustrated by the hosts dressed in overalls and tee-shirts? The latter positioning would suck in a lot more sales if you ask me.
27. JMC (16,22)
A year ago JMC entertained with outlandish SUV concepts, looking very exciting indeed. In 2016 it’s back to work for JMC and the first new nameplate in a long while, the Yusheng S330, albeit completely on-trend, on-format, on-design, is very bland compared to what we saw in concept. In fact, the S300 could have been released three years ago that we wouldn’t have noticed. At the speed at which Chinese carmakers are improving, this is clearly not a good sign for JMC. On the plus side, the bright colours that hurt the eyes last year (in a good way) are back, with two examples of the S330 in canary yellow and night blue present on the stand, but in a way they stress the bland design a little further. Please bring back the spark in Shanghai next year JMC!
26. JAC (19,9)
With the Refine S3 and S2, JAC has been one of the main beneficiaries of the sales rush towards small Chinese crossovers over the past couple of years, so they are forgiven for not having much energy left for its local Auto Shows. Profit über alles, and there is nothing wrong with that. Based solely on their presence at the Show though, JAC is sliding down the ranking each year. What saves it from a worse ranking is an appetising-looking SC5 concept, which would be welcome as the next generation Refine JS5 SUV. On the negative side, JAC still hasn’t chosen between two logos, with its models featuring both once again in Beijing: the JAC letter on a blue oval, or the Mercedes-inspired star. Which is for what, we (they) will never know…
25. Hawtai (31,30)
Originally limited to assembling clones of outdated Hyundai SUVs under license, Hawtai has been stuck at the bottom of my Most Impressive rankings both in 2014 and 2015, mainly due to low quality interiors. The brand is stepping up this year, with two novelties on its stand: the xEV260 all-electric SUV based on the Shengdafei and an all-new imposing “Plus” large SUV disrceetly exhibited. Though still not among the best in China, the materials are in progress and it looks like Hawtai is slowly but surely finding its groove and stepping away from its Hyundai heritage. The fact that it is taking a lot longer to improve than most Chinese brands isn’t necessarily a bad sign, it also shows they are careful to avoid a burnout. This makes me look forward to what Hawtai will have in store in 2017 in Shanghai.
24. LeSEE (-,-)
Boldly self-annointed as the Chinese Tesla, LeEco is the equivalent of Netflix in China and is led by charismatic CEO Jia Yueting. Unveiled before the Show on April 20, the LeSEE Super Car stole the headlines in the local press. It is symbolic of Chinese tech companies invading the auto industry the same way Google and Apple are doing in the U.S. The concept is a premium D-Class internet autonomous EV with a max speed of 130 km/h – hardly enough to compete with the Tesla Model S. One of the innovations coming from LeEco is the fact that this car could be free to own based on a content subscription to LeEco, in the same manner as Apple is subsidising the iPhone with long-term data plans. Although very alluring, it definitely looked like a concept in Beijing, preventing it from climbing up higher in the ranking. We’ll have to wait and SEE.
23. Qiantu (-,-)
Another Chinese EV supercar present in Beijing is this Qiantu K50, looking very impressive indeed. It debuted at the Shanghai Auto Show last year but it somehow fell through the cracks. This time, impossible to miss the Qiantu stand, as big as Lexus across the aisle and spectacularly focused on just one example of the K50. The clever use of space has an effect not dissimilar to what Lamborghini achieves on relatively small stands. The VIP area looks very exclusive indeed, the brochure has its place among the most luxurious brands in the world and makes it look like the K50 is already on sale. Almost: the company reportedly started building its plant in Suzhou, with an on sale date set for 2017. Here too, given the myriad of super car brands that promise outstanding performances and never deliver, we’ll believe it when we see it, but given it seems a lot closer to production than the LeSEE, Qiantu ranks higher.
22. Foton “Gratour” (10,25)
After a very impressive show of strength last year in Shanghai, surprisingly there was no Foton stand in the inside halls in Beijing. Only an outdoors stand dedicated to heavy truck – Foton’s first love – and… the Gratour ix7. Futon’s owner, BAIC, is a champion at confusing us with sub-brands that behave like brands but are in fact rebadges, and does it again with the all-new Gratour label. One ix7 was exhibited in the BAIC Group stand next to a Huansu S6 and Senova X55 (more on this later) and two of them were front-stage in the outdoors Foton stand. The Gratour Auto website also features the ix5 – which we’re going to assume has five seats instead of seven for the ix7. Both look the same and really like a smaller Mercedes van. Foton remains faithful to the “Loud” positioning we enjoyed with a ix7 Boom Box complete with giant bass speakers. Bonus points for the effort but this is still all very confusing to me.
21. Changjiang / Long River (-,-)
We are not in an Chinese Auto Show without a surprise brand popping up on the scene before my rounded out eyes. In 2014 it was Leopaard, in 2015 Huasong and in 2016 it’s Changjiang – translated into “Long River” on the logo. Strategically positioned in the SAIC exhibition hall, Changjiang is one of the first manufacturers you will see when you enter through the media entrance. Very clever, and enormous kudos for booking a full sized stand at the Show, exhibiting a range 100% electric whose e.Cool (pictured) has the highest sales potential. Originally a bus manufacturer, Changjiang also has a couple of them on its stand, making it look like the brand has been eating these Shows for breakfast. Behave like an adult and you will get taken seriously. Sure, the models aren’t the sexiest but a very impressive effort nonetheless.
Stay tuned for the next batch of brands, going from #20 to #11…