China's Qoros challenges Europeans on home turf

The China-built Qoros 3 hatchback (shown) will target European compacts such as the Peugeot 308.
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GENEVA (Bloomberg) -- Chinese automaker Qoros Auto Co. is out to challenge Volkswagen Group, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen and other Europeans on their home turf, signaling a broader push by the country's car manufacturers to target Western customers.

Qoros, a joint venture between China's Chery Automobile Co. and Tel Aviv-based holding company Israel Corp., presented the 3 compact hatchback at the Geneva auto show this week, a year after creating buzz at the show with a sedan version of the car, its first model ever.

The hatchback will compete directly with the VW Golf, while the sedan takes on the VW Jetta. The models are part of a broader rollout that will include a crossover later this year as Qoros widens its lineup to at least five vehicles.

The expansion, which follows Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor Co.'s entry into Bulgaria, is the biggest effort yet by one of the country's carmakers to crack Western markets.

"We have the big advantage that we're starting from scratch, from zero," said Stefano Villanti, head of sales and product strategy. "We have no legacy, no baggage. We have the luxury of looking at the car world with a fresh eye."

VW, Europe's biggest automaker, and other Western carmakers in recent decades helped develop China's auto industry by teaming up with local manufacturers, a move required by the government to produce in the world's largest auto market.

Those Chinese companies are now increasingly eager to expand abroad. Dongfeng Motor Corp. agreed last month to buy a 14 percent stake in PSA, Europe's second-largest carmaker, to gain technology to develop its own brands.

Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. bought Sweden's Volvo Car Corp. in 2010 and Manganese Bronze, the maker of London's iconic black taxis, in 2013.

European design

"We will eventually see more Chinese brands coming into Europe," said Tim Urquhart, an analyst with IHS Automotive in London. "It won't be an overnight flood. It's going to be a very slow and gradual process."

Qoros will begin its European push in Slovakia, with most of the brand's sales probably still coming initially from China. Global deliveries are forecast to increase to 188,200 vehicles by 2020 from about 34,000 this year, IHS estimates.

The 3 hatchback that debuted this week in Geneva is 90mm (3.5 inches) longer than the Golf and, with 156 hp, boasts almost twice the power of the VW model's base version.

Qoros' 3 sedan, which started deliveries in Slovakia earlier this year, costs 20,960 euros ($28,790). While the Golf starts at 17,175 euros, a car with similar power costs 27,250 euros. The hatchback's price hasn't been released yet.

VW attention

"Qoros is shooting into a segment which is the toughest and most fiercely contested segment at the moment," said Thomas Schiller, a Munich-based partner with Deloitte. "Qoros's approach is very ambitious. They'll need a lot of staying power."

The 3 sedan drew the attention of VW CEO Martin Winterkorn at Geneva last year. He made the car one of his stops on a tour of the show floor, reviewing the interior and checking gaps between body panels.

VW said it doesn't comment on competitors, when asked about Qoros. The 3 hatchback features an 8-inch touchscreen and a cloud-connected platform that enables the customer to access social networks and book service appointments.

"Our connectivity is something where we are unique," Volker Steinwascher, deputy CEO, said in an interview in Geneva. "Young customers don't want to lose their mobile-phone connection."

Qoros, founded in 2007, produces its cars at the company's plant in Changshu, about 100km (62 miles) northwest of Shanghai. The facility has initial capacity to produce 150,000 vehicles annually and can expand to 350,000 if needed.

Munich design

Israel Corp., which also owns stakes in the chemicals, energy and shipping industries, got involved as part of its goal of investing in companies in emerging markets with high-growth potential.

Qoros, which has a design center in Munich and engineering facilities in Graz, Austria, is tapping European expertise, including hiring former executives from VW and BMW Group, to woo the region's buyers.

Qoros's vehicles were created under Gert Hildebrand, a former BMW designer who oversaw Mini's resurgence. The underpinnings were made in close cooperation with Magna International's Magna Steyr unit, which assembles cars for Mini and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz.

"We developed the car together with Qoros to be absolutely the benchmark," said Karl-Friedrich Stracke, responsible for vehicle technology and engineering at Magna Steyr. "They have a very good chance to get this done."

5-star rating

The Qoros sedan was awarded a five-star score in EuroNCAP safety testing, after getting the best results of all vehicles tested by the government-sponsored agency in 2013.

The brand is seeking a foothold in Europe by targeting Slovakia because the country has no domestic nameplate with which to compete. With 324 cars per 1,000 inhabitants, the country has the fourth-lowest vehicle density in the European Union.

That gives the Chinese brand potential to carve out a niche as the market catches up to neighbors. A wider expansion in the region is still two to three years away, Villanti said.

"It's very sensible that they are not aiming for a broad rollout in Europe, which would burn all their money," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "They are taking a cautious approach and gaining experience in Slovakia."

The brand's push comes as the Europe starts a gradual recovery. A six-year contraction, stemming from the sovereign-debt crisis, forced the region's nameplates to close plants and cut spending as demand dropped to a two-decade low.

Interesting adventure

Even with growth now in the cards, competition remains intense. Stephen Odell, Europe chief at Ford Motor Co., whose Focus compact will compete with the Qoros, said in Geneva that he saw no signs of pricing pressure easing.

Qoros also faces reinvigorated rivals. Peugeot won the 2014 European Car of the Year award with its 308 hatchback, which is in the same segment as the 3 hatchback.

"I find this business case and adventure very interesting," Peugeot brand CEO Maxime Picat said of Qoros during an interview in Geneva. "It can become a nice success story or, on the contrary, it could fail, being considered as a Chinese carmaker in Europe."

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