After Mudanjiang, we are staying in the Heilongjiang province to travel to its capital, Harbin, the 8th most populous Chinese city and the most populous in Northeast China, home to a total of 10.6 million inhabitants as a sub-provincial city. The uniqueness of Harbin comes from its Russian heritage. Refugees from the Russian socialist revolution in 1918 made Harbin the largest Russian enclave outside the Soviet Union. The Russian Harbin community peaked at 120.000 people in the early 1920s, accounting for well over half of the city’s population back then. As a result, a large part of the old town houses Russian-influenced buildings including the St-Sofia Orthodox cathedral. Harbin’s main street, pedestrian, is packed every night including during the week with locals enjoying their growing spending power and street food stands offering scorpios and centipedes among other delicacies. A happily bustling city with a heart and a story to tell made it one of the highlights of this Northeastern China exploration.
After spending almost a week in mid-sized cities (read one million inhabitants) and even after going through Changchun which is a booming, oversized big country town, the contrast with Harbin is blatant. Traffic jams! Taxis with a smartphone on their dashboard! It costs 126 yuan to get to the airport whereas I never paid more than 40 yuan outside of Shanghai! Starbucks coffees are back! Harbin is in another category altogether, an already cosmopolitan city with its sights firmly set to the world. It would also end up being the only city outside of Shanghai where I spotted fellow Westerners – although I could count them on the fingers of one hand.
As with every location I explored so far, Harbin has a unique car landscape impacted by its geographical location, wealth, and the manufacturer(s) present in the region. Being the most developed and outward-looking city outside of Shanghai and Beijing I have visited so far, the Harbin car landscape is logically skewed towards foreign brands, accounting for at least 80% of the parc. Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota are the most popular. Let’s start with the composition of taxis, making up for a large part of the Harbin traffic. The VW Jetta dominates head(s) and shoulders, with the König-Pionier generations (1997-2013) representing around 60% of all taxis in circulation in town, and the Night model (2013-) at roughly 20% and growing. The Hyundai Elantra is at 10%, the VW Santana Vista at 7% and the rest includes the Soueast V3, V5, BYD F3 ChangAn Eado.
When looking into the Harbin private car landscape, it becomes quickly very clear that all the national superstars of the past couple of years have already had a good run here. If the Shanghai and Beijing car landscapes are in no way representative of the national sales ranking, Harbin is potentially the city where I could tick the most boxes and get reassured that the monthly sales data was at least partially justified. It is because of car-hungry cities like Harbin that the Chinese national sales charts look the way they do currently.
Despite is wealth and size, Harbin is home to many Wuling Hongguang, challenging my assumption that this model had built its #1 ranking solely on the back of countryside success, the Baojun 730 is already well represented, as are the Ford Escort, Haval H1, JAC Refine S3, Ford Ecosport, Zotye T600, Honda Vezel and XR-V, Peugeot 2008 and Hyundai ix25. I also spotted my first Dongfeng Fangshan AX7, GAC Trumpchi GA3 and Qoros 3 SUV of the trip, the Great Wall Voleex C50 with a facelifted front aligning its design with the Haval lineup, and a handful of ChangAn V3 sedans.
Harbin is the home of Chinese manufacturer Hafei, but as opposed to Changchun where locally-produced FAW models were at every street corner, here the Hafei influence, although present, is much more muted. This is because state-owned Hafei is struggling. Acquired in 2009 by ChangAn, it only uses 10% of its production capacity of 400,000 vehicles a year. A long-term sales success is the Hafei Saima, a license-built Mitsubishi Dingo launched in 2001 that has received a couple of facelifts since but kept its body shape. All three generations of the model can be seen regularly in Harbin but it should not rank higher than 20th overall. A reasonable amount of various Hafei minivans also roam the streets, including a few Hafei Minyi Police minivans as pictured at the very end of this Photo Report.
Another distinctive trait of the car parc in Harbin is the unusual frequency of – really – expensive nameplates. It’s one thing to see many Audi A6 in wealthy Shanghai, it’s another to witness a continuous flow of BMW 5 Series and VW Magotan in the centre of Harbin. The 5 Series is especially frequent which is very surprising given Volkswagen’s traditional stranglehold on this segment in China and on the Harbin market as a whole. The Audi A8L and BMW 7 Series are not rare either here, which completes the particularly visible display of wealth in Harbin. Mercedes, on the contrary, isn’t as strong here. Finally, I spotted one shiny FAW Hongqi H7 swooshing past my overheating Jetta taxi on the way to the airport.
Even though Harbin is the most developed city I visited so far in China after Shanghai and Beijing, pickup trucks still seem to be allowed in town (many large Chinese cities forbid the entrance of pickup trucks within their walls). And it was the opportunity to spot the more obscure representants of this segment, such as the Huanghai Plutus Luxury, a shining new bright blue Kawei K10, and an unknown new pickup showcased in the ChangHe dealership spotted on the way to the airport. The Harbin police has received a new batch of brand-new BAW BJ40 Jeeps, and the highway to the airport is lined up with dealerships of almost all manufacturers present in the country, including no less than 3 Wuling dealers pushing the new Hongguang V minivan and large Journey MPV, 3 Dongfeng stores displaying a large amount of 330/360 and larger MPV and one huge Lexus dealer that seems to still be playing catchup based on the low amount of Lexus I spotted in the streets.
The stranglehold Volkswagen maintains over the taxi market (roughly 9 out of 10 taxis in circulation in Harbin are Volkswagens) transpires onto the private car parc, with Volkswagen by far the most successful brand in town. The VW Jetta Night should be the overall best-seller here, with the Bora, Sagitar, Magotan and Santana also popular in this order. It also seemed to me that the Gran Lavida was more successful than the Lavida sedan here, which if it is in fact true, would be the first city I visited to display this pattern.
One discovery I made in Harbin is the fact that the previous generation Jetta (named Pionier) seems to still be in production and selling as I spotted a couple of spanking new specimens not even registered yet (no license plate) in the centre of town. A final note on the Harbin Volkswagen parc is the indifferent success of both the FAW- and Shanghai-Volkswagen joint-ventures, interesting as we are clearly closer to the FAW fief (Changchun) than we are to Shanghai. The Jetta, Bora, Sagitar and Magotan are manufactured by FAW-VW, whereas the Lavida, Gran Lavida, Santana and Passat as well as the entire Skoda range are manufactured by Shanghai-VW, and Skoda is at its strongest in Harbin, well above any other Chinese city I visited so far.
As we travel further North, the consumer’s taste logically grows more and more similar to neighbouring Russia, and this hasn’t been as true as in Harbin. What I called the ‘steppe’ trends during my previous trips to Western China and Mongolia are back with a vengeance in Harbin, namely a fondness for mid- and large SUVs coming from Japan and Korea. The Hyundai ix35 leads them all, with its facelifted front only available in China and South Korea, with the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Qashqai and Kia Sportage also very popular in Harbin. One namplate I have noticed a lot more frequently than before during this trip is the Toyota Prado, including the latest generation on sale for the past 18 months.
This concludes the exploration of the cars of Harbin, next we are travelling to the northernmost point in China. Stay tuned!
The Full Photo Report (26 pictures) continues below.