I am now starting to get a bit of experience under my belt driving Chinese cars in China. The most successful new nameplate launch in the world the Baojun 510, China’s best-selling SUV for the past five years the Haval H6 and China’s most successful new launch in the past 12 months, the Baojun 530, have now all been tested. But before these all happened, I was invited to a Press Event by Geely’s new premium brand, Lynk & Co, as part of the Beijing Auto Show. I was very impressed by Lynk & Co’s stand at the Guangzhou Auto Show last November and by the 01’s sales performance with its first batch of 6.000 units sold online in two minutes last year. Since, the 01 has risen to over 9.000 monthly sales, now frankly outselling both the WEY VV5 and VV7, its most direct Chinese competitors. In April, Lynk & Co stood 30% below WEY brand sales with still only one nameplate. Lynk & Co is planning on debuting sales of the 01 in Europe and the U.S. in early 2020. So this is definitely one of the most interesting new Chinese brand ventures to follow.
The Lynk & Co Press Event consisted of a visit of the brand-new Zhangjiakou factory located 200km northwest of Beijing – its very first opening to the press as Chinese media had not been allowed in yet – as well as a test-drive of the all-new 02 crossover which was unveiled in Amsterdam at the end of March. Before we could start on the factory visit we had to give up mobile phones and cameras as we would be exposed to sensitive information about the manufacturing process. Also, three camouflaged 03 sedans spookily followed us throughout the tour, so that’s one more reason we couldn’t take snaps.
Zhangjiakou is an unusual location for a car factory and the first of its kind in town, complicating the logistics of parts supply for Lynk & Co but enabling the brand to service the local market. It is part of a push by both the Chinese and the Hebei province governments to vitalise the currently underdeveloped region, which will host most skiing events during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. This is the largest factory investment in the Geely Group so far at 12.5 bn yuan (approx. US$2 bn or 1.65 bn €), and the largest Geely Auto factory at 800.000 square metres. It is constructed and managed following Volvo’s global quality standards (Geely purchased the Swedish manufacturer in 2010) and has already hired 1.800 workers sourced in the local population, with a capacity for up to 3.000. The factory showcases the latest innovations in automotive manufacturing, with 285 robots used in the main welding line, RFID chips on each car and a forklift-free environment.
The factory Director, Xiangbei Tong, whose English is better than most native speakers (he says aluminum to the Americans among us, aluminium to the others), takes us on this tour, starting with an impressive transparent mezzanine that allows an unbeatable look at the largest robot in the auto industry, 1 ton Titan, in action. Xiangbei has been at the helm of the Zhangjiakou factory for the three years it took to get it production-ready and is now proud to announce that 02 production has now shifted to mass and saleable products. The production rhythm is currently 30 vehicles per hour, with an annual production capacity of 200.000 units dedicated to the 02 crossover first, adding the 03 sedan as well as their PHEV variants at a later stage. But Xiangbei points out the factory could be adapted to produce the 01 as well if needed.
I was able to obtain exclusive volume targets for the 02: 320 were produced in April to service the Beijing Auto Show and Lynk & Co dealerships, with 2.600 planned for May, while the annual production figure announced by Lynk & Co for the 02 in 2018 is 82.000, meaning 79.000 will come out between June and December, a 11.300 monthly average. That’s high, but in line with the current figures delivered by the 01 which has now reached 33.783 wholesales in its first 5 months, or a 6.757 monthly average with over 9.000 in April. Production start date for the 03 sedan is still under wraps, although Xiangbei assures “we’re ready!”.
It’s now time to get behind the wheel of Lynk & Co’s latest baby. Or should I say Volvo’s latest baby, as the 02 uses the same CMA platform (for Compact Modular Architecture), engine, transmission, chassis and electronics as the Volvo XC40, the European Car of the Year I will be driving in Sweden in a few months. As the head of 02 R&D Zhu Ling explains to us, the only main difference is the car’s suspension, tweaked to fit Chinese customers’ taste for a more comfortable drive, rather than a dynamic one. The 02 is an AWD with four drive modes and its engine is a 190hp 2.0T which, in the Powerpoint presentation given to us before the drive, gets pitted against the 154hp 2.0TD Mercedes GLA, the 156hp 2.0 Mazda CX-4 and the 150hp 2.0 Nissan Qashqai, giving us a good idea of which foreign competitors Lynk & Co is aiming at in China. The 01 achieved the highest Chinese NCAP crash-test score ever, and the company is confident the 02 will do better.
Lynk & Co makes sure we know the 02 offers a long list of safety features including adaptive cruise control (from 0km/h!), front collision and lane departure warnings, traffic signal recognition, automatic parking and rear cross traffic alert. I have already tested most of these on the Volvo XC90 in North Cape in 2016 and the Volvo V90 in the Norwegian Fjords in 2017, and can vouch for their formidable efficacy. One I hope I won’t have to test is the bonnet popping up on impact to avoid pedestrian head collision with the windshield, a first in a Chinese vehicle. Compared to the 01, the 02 is lower, shorter and wider, giving off a much sportier outlook. 01 dimensions are 4512/1857/1673cm while the 02’s are 4448/1890/1528cm. The one design detail my OCD mind struggled with is the cut of the back doors encroaching on the wheel arch in a frustrating way. The 02 is cheaper than the 01, priced from 142.000 to 198.000 yuan (US$22.300-31.100 or 18.900-26.400€) vs. 158.800-220.800 for the 01, and also undercuts both the WEY VV5 (150.000-160.000 yuan) and VV7 (167.800-188.800).
We also learn that the 02 is capable of reaching 0-100 km/h in 7.8s, then braking back to 0 km/h in less than 36 metres. It’s these two stats that we are encouraged to emulate on a cleared track near the factory. Lynk & Co had giant 02 billboards towering over the track so they could be captured on footage filmed by a DJI drone that followed the cars as they accelerated. Slipping inside the car, I reconnect with the posh yet practical interior I knew from the 01, but one element catches my eye immediately: a fine sparkling charcoal surface covers the dashboard and doors, looking very exclusive indeed. Zhu Ling confirms I’m not the first one to have noticed, with the Chinese media having quizzed him about it earlier. He had to find a material that looked like it came straight from the fashion industry yet had to be resistant enough to not get dirty or scratched easily, and chose polyurethane.
We were told by the Lynk & Co technician on board that the 02 cannot launch if you don’t have your seatbelt on or if one of the doors is open – this does sound very strict in a very Swedish way – but the latter did not function properly as I was able to move the car with the driver’s door agape. It gives off a pleasant lurch forward when launching and does react mighty fast indeed with the accelerator pressed right down (although once you have accelerated in a Tesla the world is a much different place, but that’s a different story altogether). The gears are well staged so the car doesn’t seem to waste too much time reaching 100km/h, or 130 for that matter, but we couldn’t quite match the 7.8s announced.
We pushed the 02 to 150km/h on the highway afterwards with no perceivable behaviour change. Perhaps the most impressive feat is the brutal braking that gets delivered with complete silence and no tire screeching of any kind. At the time of driving, this was the most impressive Chinese car I got to get my hands on, and by far. And it still stands today. But keep in mind we remained in a very controlled environment and the following abrasive piloting of the Haval H6 produced similar levels of reassuring moves under more stressful conditions. It’s not by chance that the two cars are priced very similarly in China…
But there are more surprises coming my way… stay tuned for our next China test drive, the Geely Boyue.