This is Part 3 of my ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at Auto Shanghai 2015. You can check out Part 1 (from #35 to #21) here and Part 2 (from #20 to #11) here. We are now entering the Top 10 most impressive brands, and by now most of the feedback I have for these carmakers is positive. Without further ado…
10. (25) Foton
Most Chinese manufacturers are too busy trying to hide their cheapskates past and climb up the premium ladder with more designs and improved quality (all commendable efforts by the way), that they forget to carve themselves a unique positioning in the market. Not Foton. The manufacturer is a heavy/medium truck specialist, notably through a joint-venture with Daimler selling its products under the Auman brand, ubiquitous on any Chinese construction site (or Mongolian, Vietnamese…).
The brand only dabbles in the passenger car segment, and in Shanghai they launched the Sauvana SUV and the Toano van, two of their better-designed offerings to-date. The music was old-fashioned and loud, the press conference was Wheel of Fortune-loud, the ‘Big Foot’ style Tunland pickup was loud and the V3 microvan equipped with huge speakers was very loud. So why on earth would I place Foton at #10? Because their positioning is totally unique among domestic (and foreign) brands present in China.
Foton is targeting the construction site universe – whether it be the truck drivers that don’t actually own the trucks they drive, the site manager, engineer, etc. It’s smart, they know their target market, don’t shy away from it, embrace it and give them exactly what they want. The Sauvana’s interior has nothing superfluous but is comfortable and sturdy. All the big Chinese lads that were wearing their sunnies inside the hall were sucked in. Everything about Foton’s delivery at Auto Shanghai was consistent. Well done.
9. (12) Baojun
Since Beijing last year, Baojun has simply multiplied its monthly sales in China by 10 thanks to the most successful passenger car launch in the country’s history the 730 MPV, now clocking up 30,000 deliveries each month. So you would forgive them for basking in the glorious sun for a bit. That would be underestimating Baojun. Completely unbeknownst to me and showing another stroke of genius and ballsiness, Baojun clears up all its other models from its stand, including the 730, to make room for what could soon be one of China’s best-selling SUVs: the 560.
The stand technically also includes the Wuling brand but no models were shown. With a price starting at 80.000 yuan (US$12.900!), a satisfyingly modern design and an interior quality matching the 730, the Baojun 560 has all elements needed to be a hit. I am very impressed by how fast Baojun is tapping into the main trends at play in the Chinese market.
8. (18) Soueast
If Haima is still struggling with doing it alone without Mazda influence in its cars, Soueast is making huge progress at emancipating itself from Mitsubishi, and has come a very long way since Beijing. The hero in the Soueast stand was the DX7 SUV, the brand’s very first entrant in the booming segment, sticking very faithfully to the R7 concept presented in Beijing last year. The interior feels expensive and comfortable and I loved how the rotary shifters feel smooth and heavy under the fingers.
But it doesn’t stop there. The V Cross had some of the best-sounding door ‘clomp’ of the Chinese industry, the Soueast range brochure, matte-covered with shiny Chinese writing, is in the Top 3 premium looking for a Chinese carmaker, and Soueast ticks the new energy box with a good-looking V5 EV presented at the Show. Only few pieces of constructive feedback would be to take a leap of faith and separate out the Mitsubishi models from its stand – yes you produce them too but it will drive potential customers away from your brand. You are doing it right Soueast: the year-on-year improvement is spectacular.
7. (8) ChangAn
Relaxed presenters at the ChangAn press conference showed a confident brand, an honest interior quality and great door clomps on the ChangAn CS75 and Raeton – among the best for Chinese models – are in line with my observations on the brand last year in Beijing and with the fantastic sales results ChangAn has been delivering of late. If in Beijing a bright pink Eado XT added a touch of playfulness, this year an aggressive bright yellow Eado XT racecar plays a similar role. Although outside of the CS75 and Raeton, most cars feel rather cheap still.
It’s the commercial vehicle stand (technically for the Chana brand) that lifts ChangAn to such a high position in my ranking. Keen hostesses gave away goodie bags to everyone passing by, and that bag tagged along with me all the way to the Russian border in Mohe before dropping dead – a good effort. A charging station keeps people inside the stand and there is a rather cheesy activity with models dancing and jumping around but with this year’s imposed starlet-drought it kept photographers happy and snapping. Big thumps up for clearing the stand of all other models to focus on the all-new Oussan MPV – the same way Baojun did for the 560.
Chana’s Commercial Manager Allen was eager to engage in a friendly yet professional manner with me, asking all kinds of questions about my opinion of Chinese cars and what boxes do they need to tick for me to be satisfied. For once I was the one being interviewed and it was rather refreshing to see. When I asked him why there were no other Chana models exhibited on the stand, he had the perfect answer: ‘people have known these vehicles for years, so we don’t really need to show them again. If someone is interested I can give them all the information they need’, pulling out leaflets for the entire Chana lineup with a big smile. On top of your game Allen.
The negative – as is the case for so many Chinese carmakers – is the branding of course: the new Oussan MPV had a Chana logo on it, whereas I was told Chana was ChangAn’s commercial vehicle arm. It, as well as the entire stand, had a distinct passenger vehicle feel. Even Allen was a little confused. Although when you step inside the Oussan, despite the shiny tablets attached to the back of the front seats, the contrast with the sleek exterior design is blatant with a dashboard made of too much shiny plastic. In fact, it looks and feels like this is an MPV manufactured by an LCV company. Oh but wait…
6. (25) Qoros
Qoros, a joint-venture between Chery and Israeli Corporation, has been touting itself as the most European of Chinese car manufacturers, hiring European designers and engineers to come up with their first offering, the 3 hatchback and sedan. Although their product is very well finished and up to European standards, selling just 39 units in 2014 in their test European country (Slovakia) and less than 4.000 at home in China whereas they claim to be able to produce 150.000 annual units has made me struggle to give Qoros much credibility.
Auto Shanghai may be the turning point that will change all that. It’s one thing to claim you want to achieve European standards with your cars, but it’s another to convince people they are on the right track. The Qoros press conference was the most relatable culturally to a foreign media audience, using a conversational format between two presenters speaking English the whole time, but the real game changer from Qoros was its stand, mimicking a Euopean café, complete with high stools and tables, a coffee bar and waiters serving complimentary finger food. Granted, this has nothing to do with cars but Qoros is aggressively creating a very distinct and clear brand image for itself that is essential if it wants to achieve the bold targets it has set itself. And it worked wonders at Auto Shanghai: the Qoros stand was packed to the rafters during the entire first media day, something no other manufacturer can claim, whether it be Chinese or foreign.
About the cars now. If the bright red 3 crossover was nothing really new yet looked extremely sleek, the big novelty on the Qoros stand was the PHEV 2 concept, at once killing three birds/trends with one stone: the SUV, new energy and youth trends. Yes, Qoros is definitely on trend this year but it creatively goes against the grain with the PHEV 2 concept, whose confronting design turns a few conventions on their heads, one being the shape of the headlights, at a 90 degrees angle from absolutely all concept cars exhibited at Auto Shanghai. One thing though: in the midst of all this aspiring European vibe, the PHEV 2 featured big ‘made in China’ badges both on the front grille and on the back bumper, which, although obviously correct, is at odds with the rest of what Qoros is showing us here. So are we European or Chinese?