2010 Beijing auto show: Chinese automakers
What's new with China's four biggest automakers?
Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe, AP Photo
Beijing, China - The most awe-inspiring aspects of the Chinese car market for outside observers are the sheer numbers. In 2009 alone, Chinese new vehicle sales leaped by over 46 per cent, to almost 14 million. And with a population 40 times that of Canada's 33 million, there's still plenty of room for sales growth. In fact, some industry experts are predicting 16 million new cars and trucks could be sold in China this year.
Equally awe-inspiring is this year's Chinese international auto show. Toggling between Shanghai and this year's location in the nation's capital of Beijing, with over 1,000 cars on display it's arguably the largest auto show on the planet. And while many Western automakers export or partner with local companies here, the biggest potential comes from China's homegrown automakers. At this year's show, local automakers debuted almost 90 new models.
With so many different manufacturers making domestic debuts, I opted to pick four automakers that best represent the still quirky and unique nature of this Asian nation's relatively infant auto industry.
Even when compared to last year's show in Shanghai, Sino automakers are quickly becoming more sophisticated in their designs. Although not totally absent in the halls of this year's Beijing show, there were less eye-ball-straining examples of quirky Chinese concepts. For example, Morris Garages (MG), a subsidiary of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) launched its first attempt at a small hatchback, the Zero Concept. It wouldn't look out of place if it hailed from one of the Italian design houses.
Morris Garages (or MG) were part of the MG Rover assets China's Nanjing Automobile bought in 2005 (Nanjing was subsequently taken over SAIC, the third-largest among China's "Big Five" automakers, including First Automobile Works, Dongfeng Motor Corporation, Chang'an Motors, and Chery Automobile.). To date, Nanjing is best known for its Roewe 75, a Sino version of the old Rover 75, designed under BMW's watch.
In addition to its clean exterior, the Zero sports a floating centre console with touchscreen controls on the inside. MG says the Zero is an indication of the future of its small car designs.
While Chinese automakers have been threatening to flood North America with cheap cars, the inability to meet our more stringent safety regulations and the downturn in the U.S. economy has put the brakes on those plans. But if any Chinese automaker is going to be the first to sell cars on our shores, my money is on Geely.
As a follow up to sealing the deal to buy Volvo from Ford, Geely is setting a homegrown auto show record here at Beijing. Its massive exhibit boasts 39 vehicles covering three brands: Emgrand, Gleagle and Englon.
Looking like the little brother of a Mitsubishi Eclipse, the halo car (if you will) of Geely's new midrange Gleagle brand is the GS compact coupe. It's powered by a 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with 127 hp and can be equipped with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual clutch automatic.
Moving up in size and prestige to Geely's luxury brand (and set for a 2014 launch) is the Emgrand GT hybrid coupe. Hybrid? Yes. The aggressively styled GT is slated to be powered by a plug-in electric hybrid with a 2.4-litre inline-four making 160 hp and 165 lb.-ft. Two 27.5-kilowatt wheel-hub motors add all-wheel-drive functionality and an additional 132 lb.-ft of torque.
While BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi all debuted extended-wheelbase versions of existing sedans here at the show, Geely's Emgrand GE is also targeting well-to-do Chinese executives who prefer to have someone else do the driving.
Set for a 2015 introduction, and featuring the same plug-in hybrid powertrain featured in the GT coupe, the GE limousine can be equipped with either a rear bench for two passengers or a single large seat (imagine a royal throne) flanked by extra storage compartments.
Geely also showed off its IG (Intelligent Geely) city car. Roughly 10-cm longer in length than the forthcoming Scion iQ, this 2+2 gullwing coupe features a 1.0-litre engine and CVT transmission. Rumour has it that Geely is attempting to produce a budget version of it to take on the Tata Nano.
You may know Chery via serial entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. In 2005, Bricklin (the same man who created his eponymous New Brunswick-made gullwing SV-1 sports car between 1974 and '76) began working with Chery to bring cars into North America. The plan was to import five new car lines and have 250 dealers in U.S. selling 250,000 cars a year by 2007.
However, after two delays and various disagreements over finances and car design, the deal broke down. But Chery still exists. And like SAIC, it's one of Chinese largest automakers. At the Beijing show, it continued to widen its Riich and Rely brands with several new models.
Rely is Chery's people-mover and SUV brand. Chery says its new X5 (no relation to BMW's SUV) is a serious off-roader. It can be ordered in four-wheel drive with an electronic differential lock and more than seven inches of ground clearance.
The smaller X1 (again, not a BMW) is Chery brand Riich's idea of a mini-crossover for the city. Think poor man's Mini Countryman or Nissan Juke. Power comes from an 83-hp 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine.
The top-line Riich G6 sedan (not be confused with the former Pontiac sedan) is meant to take on imports like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. A 168-hp turbocharged 2.0-litre four is matched to a five-speed manumatic gearbox. The G6 also comes with luxury features uncommon-for-a-Chinese car like a navigation system, heated and cooled seats and a touchscreen DVD entertainment system.
Now, it's not uncommon for Chinese automakers to buy older tooling from out-of-date Western models and then apply a styling makeover to give them the appearance of "all-new." But Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co.'s quickie styling redo of the old Saab 9-3 and 9-5 isn't fooling anyone.
As most Saab fans know, BAIC bought the old Saab tooling for about US$200 m late last year from General Motors, after it couldn't to reach a deal to buy Saab outright from the U.S. automaker. Eventually, GM would sell Saab to Dutch supercar maker Spyker. But now after fitting new front and rear fascias, the old Saabs are known as the C60 and C71, respectively.
Although there's no mention as to what engines will be powering the reborn, regular gasoline former-Saabs, BAIC also debuted an electric version of the old 9-5, dubbed the C71EV. There's a quick-charge battery located on its floor, but aside from an estimated 140-km range, few other details were given.