This is Part 2 of my ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Beijing Auto Show 2016, you can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) here. We are progressively climbing up the ladder, now covering positions #20 to #11. Given how fast Chinese carmakers are improving, ranking within these positions now means you are doing very well indeed, and sometimes are among the best in terms of quality. But it’s the whole package we are looking for. A big surprise awaits at #11… All the justifications behind the rankings are below.
20. Changhe (34,-)
BAIC has decided the Changhe brand can play a differentiated role in its large stable as youthful and accessible, and is therefore suddenly reviving it at breakneck speed. Only one month after the Q25 went on sale in China, Changhe presents a bright orange Q35 looking better than its inspiration, the BAIC Senova X35 (more on this one later) along with a crossovered-up Q25 next to it, and accompanies the whole thing with an aggressive advertising campaign in the subway stop of the Exhibition Hall. The new naming code is consistent so far, the exterior design and interior quality are miles ahead of what Changhe got us used to and it’s all heartwarming to see. Last year we thought the Changhe brand was almost dead – it’s definitely not, and we should expect a lot more fun-looking rebadges in the near future.
19. Soueast (8,18)
Logically, the DX7 SUV – unveiled last year in Shanghai – now accounts for the large majority of Soueast sales. Its interior quality was extremely impressive last year and it still is this year, especially in the sporty version exhibited. Soueast had announced an all-new DX3 for Beijing, which would have kept the brand inside the Top 10, instead we got a striking but decidedly concept-looking DX. It’s a pity, and Soueast should be careful not to become a one-hit-wonder. Also, its ties with joint-venture partner Mitsubishi seem inextricable, which prevents the brand from blossoming fully.
18. Baojun (9,12)
Baojun is the sales success story of the past two years: it has gone from nothing to half a million sales in 2015 and is headed towards over 800.000 this year. All this thanks to only two nameplates: the 730 MPV unveiled two years ago in Beijing and the 560 SUV launched in Shanghai exactly a year ago. So when I stepped onto the Baojun stand I was bracing for another stroke of genius such as another SUV or a new format about to revolutionise the Chinese market: a cross between an SUV and an MPV, a 9-seat SUV – who knows. Yes, this is the type of expectations Chinese carmakers have got us used to!
Alas, Baojun did launch a new nameplate this year but it was the 310, a small hatchback seemingly out-of-touch with the consumer tastes of today, but if Baojun says so, I tend to want to follow. Perhaps this is the next big thing in China. As it is the case for all Baojun-branded nameplates, the interior quality is a lot better than what you’d expect for the price, estimated to start at 45.000 yuan (US$7.000). The Baojun stand gets bigger and bigger as the Shows come along, now looking clean and fresh with a green and while colour scheme. We are fans.
17. Lifan (15,21)
Lifan is in dire straits, with sales plummeting down 77% year-on-year so far in 2016. The X70 and X40 the brand unveiled in Shanghai last year were all bluff: they never saw the light of day. In this context I was half-expecting not to see Lifan at all this year in Beijing. Not so. Rising from the ashes like the phoenix, Lifan showed us they won’t go without a fight, with a new 650 sedan but most importantly a new 7-seat SUV: the Maiwei. Front and center on the Lifan stand – and rightly so – the Maiwai is conforming to the current design trends outside, but it’s inside that the brand’s progress is the most blatant…
Lifan had used us to completely outdated interiors made of shiny plastic and looking positively cheap. In this domain, the Maiwei is light-years ahead of anything Lifan has produced so far. Still not reaching the top of the crop of Chinese carmakers – that would be a miracle – it is now in the same field as Baojun which is a good thing because the two brands compete on price. A very enthusiastic staff (“This car is called the Maiwei: It’s My Way! giggles-giggles) and the guts to step away from its numerical naming round up a very good performance of the brand in Beijing. In other words, Lifan is finally where it belongs on the Chinese scale. Now it needs the sales to cement this progress.
16. Maxus (13,15)
At each Auto Show, LCV specialist and SAIC-owned Maxus comes up with its own little lot of surprises, but this year is the best so far, so don’t be fooled by the brand’s slightly lower ranking, it just means everyone is improving fast(er). Taking me completely by surprise and cleverly adapting the local SUV craze to its own strength – large, functional and increasingly sleek MPVs – Maxus revealed a D90 Concept that looks very enticing indeed. Some might say it even takes cues from the new Jaguar F-Pace, which would be one heck of a compliment. Granted, it’s only a concept, but damn it looks good and knowing the Chinese, they wouldn’t display such a demonstration of style and force if there weren’t any production plans behind it. Please Maxus, give us the D90. Now.
15. Changan/Chana (7,8)
The performance of Changan at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 is one of constant progress – as its ranking does not indicate. The marque has grown to be the third largest best-selling in China below just Volkswagen and Wuling and above all the Japanese and Korean offers, which is an astounding exploit in itself. The CS75 and CS35 SUVs have continued to post staggering sales figures month after month and the recently launched CS15 looks like it’s headed the same way. The Changan stand was enormous and introduced the new CS95, sporting a Geely-inspired grille making it look more aggressive than its overall silhouette.
The disappointing element of my Changan review last year in Shanghai was the uneven interior quality of its lineup: apart from the very strong CS75 the rest was falling apart. This is now sorted, with CS35 and CS15 interior quality on par with the CS75 – a major achievement in itself. Annoyingly though, the brand persists in its schizophrenic ways, once again splitting between Changan and Chana – supposedly its commercial vehicle division but now selling passenger cars as well. Chana had a large stand outside all exhibition halls across the West entrance, meaning you must go through it if you enter the Show this way but chances are you will never see it if you come in and out through the media entrance. The Oushang and CX70 were promoted on the Chana stand with both models featuring the specific Chana logo. Argh, one of my pet hate: two logos for one brand.
The Chana hostesses were as welcoming as last year in Beijing, giving away goodie bags to every passing visitor. It all sounds reasonably good an better than last year, so why does Changan not rank higher in 2016? There was just no real excitement, energy and pride on the stands, it felt like business-as-usual everywhere, there were no race car to spice up the Changan stand, no frank smiles on the hosts. It all was very professional, which is a good thing, but lacked that little bit of p’zaz to sparkle. Changan is a big player now, but is in the process of losing its soul.
14. GAC (12,3)
Since Shanghai last year and therefore in less than 12 months, the GAC Trumpchi brand has gone from tiny player to mainstream Chinese car manufacturer – no less – thanks to the tremendous success of the GS4. Its interior design as well as that of the GA8 flagship sedan are simply irreproachable. There is flair, a unique style and robust yet smooth quality inside, something only a handful of Chinese carmakers are offering at the moment. After sponsoring the Transformers Hollywood movie in 2014, GAC Trumpchi has made no secrets about wanting to enter the U.S. market. A date has even been set: 2017.
GAC Trumpchi GA8
If next year may sound a tad enthusiastic, to GAC’s credit its lineup is starting to look like something the Yankees could spend their hard-earned cash on. Topping up the sleek looking lineup along the GS4 and GA8, the all-new GS8 takes the brand’s SUV offer a step further, right into American territory with its angular looks, disproportionately large grille and square-crossed headlights. If the interior quality matches that of its predecessors (it was closed to the press), we have a serious competitor to the Toyota Highlander here.
As it is the case for most Chinese manufacturers having succeeded in the SUV segment, this size is a test as it has traditionally been reserved to foreign manufacturers. The Haval H8 and H9 are flops so it will be interesting to see if GAC can pull another miracle off with the GS4.
13. Roewe (14,19)
In Shanghai, SAIC’s Roewe drowned a near-absence of novelties with an outlandishly large stand and a pompous attitude. Beijing not being the manufacturer’s home territory, I wasn’t expecting much from Roewe this year. I was wrong. It has been a long time coming but Roewe finally has an SUV with the potential to take its sales to the next level and above: the RX5 looks sleek, expensive and trendy but it’s inside that the real innovations are. Dubbed by the brand as “the world’s first mass-produced super internet SUV”, the RX5 is the first model equipped with the Yun OS software jointly developed with Chinese tech Alibaba (the equivalent of Amazon in the U.S.). The RX5 is taking the brand younger – targetting the 26-35 year-old age group – and comes complete with plug-in hybrid and battery electric versions, also exhibited at the Show. An impressive move from Roewe.
12. Zotye (17,7)
The first striking element when entering the Zotye stand in Beijing is the fact that it is the only one of all Chinese manufacturers that actually looks… Chinese! Kudos on Zotye for pulling this pretty obvious trick and not falling into the trap of hiding its origins – something most Chinese carmakers seem bent on doing. I came to the Zotye stand with a snark on my face as the recently-launched SR7 has pulled Zotye further down into the murky waters of copycat. Smartly, the brand did not overly feature this nameplate on their stand – unlike Landwind the X7 in Shanghai – preferring to focus on other news. And they won me over again.
The T300, although technically a concept, looks very close to production and has some very pleasing details such as its criss-crossed gaping grille and Zotye-branded brightly coloured brake pads (see pics below). The best-seller T600 came in a new Sport variant with a more aggressive snout and some pret-ty cool technology inside. I must admit I gasped at the rising rotary shifter (see below) and the cordless phone charger. Now keep in mind the maximum you will ever pay for a new Zotye T600 is US$18.500. A very strong performance from Zotye this year, lightyears ahead of its candid appearance at Beijing in 2014.
11. Haval (1,1)
I can hear the gasps coming from all across the BSCB readership: yes the leader of the past two years doesn’t even rank inside the Top 10 this year. Let’s be clear: Haval has not lowered its standards and is still one of the Top 5 Chinese brands that could enter mature markets such as Europe or the U.S.A. immediately and succeed at it. However I felt like Haval was at a standstill compared to last year. The stand was more or less the same, there was no new nameplate presented as the H7 is only going on sale now whereas it was unveiled a year ago in Shanghai, the layout of the stand put most models in the shadows, the two concepts looked suspiciously similar to last year’s, there was no spectacular Haval Dakar 4WD to brighten up the mood and everything was grey and sharp yet professional but a rather static.
A facelifted H2 was shown on the side of the stand on the first press day but had disappeared by day 2. The hostesses are still running to open the door when there’s a sign you might be interested in stepping in a vehicle but it’s all a little mute with no vigour or cantor. This year, Haval sales are only up thanks to heavy price cuts on the H6, with the H1 and H2 in decline, the ageing H5 in freefall and the H8 and H9 never having taken off. The H7 will be a true test for Haval: will customers follow the brand up and transfer sales from the H6 to the H7 or is the price point (148.800-168.800 yuan or US$23.100-26.200) too high? Once again, two concepts, one late launch and one half-baked facelift are what most foreign carmakers gave us in Beijing this year, but in a Chinese context it’s just not cutting it.