This is it: we have come to the actual Top 5 Chinese carmakers present at the Beijing Auto Show that you must know about. If there is one article you must read, it’s this one. And keep in mind there is a lot more info on each of the 145 active Chinese carmakers in our Exclusive (and live) Chinese Brands Guide. This is Part 3 and the conclusion of our coverage of the 2018 Beijing Auto Show on the 15 Chinese brands you must know about. You can check Part 1 (11. to 15.) here and Part 2 (6. to 10.) here.
There’s no disputing this: the most impressive Chinese carmaker this year in Beijing is EV brand NIO. I was already given a hint at my arrival in Beijing Capital International Airport with a giant banner advertising their first on-sale model: the ES8 SUV (see below). Whereas it is the first time I see the brand in any Chinese (or international) Show, NIO leaps straight to the top of the list, including foreigners, with a gargantuan stand that could well be the outright largest in Beijing. No less than seven ES8 were showcased, all in different colours and all next to each other in an impressive display.
But more than the stand, the car itself totally lives up to its expectations of a Tesla Model X competitor. The cockpit is very well finished and designed, and one advantage it has over the Model X is that it is actually very practical. The ES8 is a true seven-seat SUV which is the perfect format to conquer the Chinese market now that the one-child policy has been relaxed: the car can embark the parents, their two kids and three grand-parents. The obligatory giant touch screen is perfectly integrated into the central console and the vents are integrated into the design of the passenger side dashboard.
NIO Nomi AI assistant interactions
There are quite a few features in the ES8 that truly give it the edge, among them the sleek door handles and cool gearshift (see pictures above), but the piece de resistance is Artificial Intelligence Assistant Nomi (see two videos above). As NIO’s own Siri, Nomi responds to “Hi Nomi!” and can perform a variety of tasks from directing you to the next restaurant to opening the windows, telling a joke or taking a photo. Where Nomi becomes endearing is that it takes the shape of a rotating half sphere with blinking eyes that turns towards the source of the sound it’s hearing and responds with human characteristics. Needless to say it was the hit of the Show with the Chinese press – and myself.
NIO ES8 – No glovebox but cavernous storage space below the central bridge
NIO ES8 touch screen, Nomi AI (resting) and vent design
The ES8 is a true 7-seater SUV: the perfect format to conquer the Chinese market.
The NIO salespeople that swarm around the seven ES8 are all attentive and knowledgeable: they point out the car is priced between 348.000 and 448.000 yuan, that’s US$ 55.000-70.800 or 46.000-59.200€, once 100.000 yuan worth of EV subsidies have been deducted. Although it seems like a lot for a Chinese car (it is), that’s in fact almost one-third of the price of the Tesla Model X which will set you back between 888.000 and 1.4m yuan (US$ 140.400-218.400 or 117.400-182.600€). Would I like three ES8s instead of one Model X? You bet your weight in Chinese yuan I would.
It’s also the first time I see Chinese carmaker Weltmeister (German for world champion) in any Show and the marque is already behaving like an established manufacturer. Whereas it only unveiled its first offering, the EX5, last December, the Weltmeister stand had no less than three novelties: a muscled version of the EX5 – the EX5 Pro, the upcoming EX6 SUV and the Isidera sportscar concept. But what brought everything together was Weltmeister’s composure: its stewardesses were all wearing Weltmeister jewellery (see below) and the brand unashamedly banked on the interest generated during the Public days by only allowing access to the stand to people who became friends with Weltmeister on WeChat (the local Facebook). Cunning.
The interior of the EX5 itself is a mixed bag: some creative suede covering on the steering wheel, dashboard and doors, but some decidedly average plastics on both the central console and doors. The touchscreen is large enough, the door handles are new age like NIO’s and the whole package is definitely attractive so we forgive the EX5’s failings. Now we want to see the brand climb up the Chinese sales charts.
We already knew the Byton SUV Concept had the largest touchscreen in the world when the brand unveiled it last January at the Las Vegas CES, but this was the first time I saw it in the flesh. Nothing disappointed, and here I’m of the same mind as the flock of Western executives that were examining the car’s every inch during the first Press Day. Byton confirmed they were sleek with very sharp overall but mainly head- and taillight designs, but they also showed us they can be funky as well with a turquoise model exhibited along with the more serious grey example that was shown in Vegas.
The world-record touchscreen is even more impressive in real and it was fully operative in both cars on display. The car also had a large touchscreen inside the steering wheel! Although I have my doubts on the practicality of such a placement – and its safety for that matter – you can’t help but applaud Byton for pushing the boundaries. The dashboard screen was advertised as able to play movies in widescreen format – again, would you really want to do that when you are driving alone? The possibilities for distraction are endless, but then again, if the Byton SUV turns out to have a reasonable amount of self-driving capabilities everything becomes possible. To top it all up, all materials inside the car showcased high levels of sophistication (see photo gallery below). Byton is one company I definitely can’t wait to follow over the next couple of Chinese Auto Shows.
Launched in January 2018, Jetour is a new Chinese marque by the commercial division of Chery – Karry – and dedicated to larger vehicles than the aforementioned brands. It is aimed at budget-conscious buyers in smaller cities and targets Baojun. With that context, the large Beijing Auto 2018 Jetour stand, the very first appearance of the brand in any Auto Show, went way beyond what I had expected of this newborn marque. It featured the brand’s first offering, the appropriately proportioned seven-seat SUV X70, in both sporty S and Coupe variants, as well as an aggressive-looking SUV concept. In a rare display of logical and transparent branding for a Chinese manufacturer, the Chery connection was indicated by a tiny “Chery Holding” mention on the stand’s giant screen and the brand’s brochures.
An impressive feat for a brand we didn’t even know the name of just three months ago, Jetour has two sleek brochures to give us at the Show, including one named “Brand Brochure” explaining the marque’s purpose and philosophy. But the most striking piece of information that was openly shared in the brochures available to pick up was Jetour’s future launches (pictured above). Jetour is planning on having no less than seven nameplates on sale by 2020: four SUVs and three MPVs, all of them also available as EVs. On top of the X70, the X60 and X95 are already pictured in the brochure as well as their interior. A very ambitious plan indeed, communicated with attractive confidence.
Jetour salespeople were also pleasantly at the ready – sharing business cards that weirdly only displayed Chery and Karry logos – with one member making sure I didn’t miss out on the fact that the rearview mirror was interactive and could also take selfies. I’m just hoping that this only activates when you are not in movement and actually need the rearview mirror for its original purpose… It was a good idea to point this out to me because the rest of the interior is only okay, with a small touchscreen by Chinese standards and too much shiny black plastics, the only element in the entire Jetour picture that betrays its low-cost purpose inside the Chery universe.
Along with Jetour, COS is another very impressive inaugural performance by a brand with humble beginnings. It is a new marque by the Oshan MPV division of Changan, like Jetour aimed at a rural clientele and Beijing acted as its official launch to the world. COS managed to hit the mark so accurately it eclipsed mothership Changan’s attempts at standing out. The COS stand was strikingly shifted from the line of the rest of the stands in the exhibition hall, appearing at a 3/4 profile angle (see below), already sending a message. The stand’s information desk was a mix of matte white and rounded bare wood that exuded quiet, down-to-earth sophistication.
So far, so good. The brand’s logo, a blue dash sandwiched between two white lines, is enigmatic and may prove a hard choice to help establish the new brand’s name. Time will tell on this one. The marque’s first offering, the creatively-named 1° (for one degree), isn’t a copy of existing Changan models, which is a good start. The exterior design is modern, sober and toned down which goes against the rulebook of the extrovert traits that characterise rural customers – a risk has been taken here by being a little muted – but I do prefer this design direction. As for the interior, it is surprisingly well put together, a country mile ahead of the Jetour X70.
COS went all out on the 1° cockpit, at least for the models exhibited at the Show. A large touchscreen beautifully integrated in the dashboard, luxurious pattern on the tunnel and doors, Pioneer speakers artfully positioned alongside the inside door handles, matte-painted gearshift and gold-painted controls for the driver: this does look like a much more expensive car than what it is. The back passengers get a purified air vent, and the entire interior was fitted with dark blue leather. Hopefully this will be carried over to the on-sale models.
This concludes our coverage of the 2018 Beijing Auto. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. Now stay tuned for our traditional Photo Reports of a new region of China (Inner Mongolia) as well as a new facet of our coverage of the Chinese car market: China Test Drives…