LUCA CIFERRI

Why Chinese cars, crossovers should worry Europe's brands

Chinese on a roll: 10 domestic vehicles tested in 1 day.

Photo credit: Internet Info Agency, Beijing
Luca Ciferri is Associate Publisher & Editor at Automotive News Europe.
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A day spent at a test track near Beijing driving 10 vehicles from local brands convinced me that European volume automakers should be aware of some passenger cars and compact crossovers that could be coming soon from China’s automakers.

Models such as the Geely X1 small car, the Luxgen U5 and Northeast DX3 compact crossovers and the Changan Eado midsize sedan are on par with products from Europe’s volume brands in terms of design, handling, performance, fit and finish and overall quality.

One key weak point of the China brands continues to be their transmissions. Four-speed automatics won’t satisfy European customers in segments where six-speed transmissions are common, such as compacts. In the midsize segment, eight or even nine-speed transmissions are expected in Europe and many of those come as dual-clutch systems. None of the Chinese models I tested came close to meeting those expectations. The models I saw also had a bit too much chrome for European tastes.

But, what should really worry Europe’s volume automakers is how affordable the Chinese models are. If those models entered Europe at prices that low, only Dacia would be able to mount a challenge at the budget end of the market.

The Geely X1 is slightly shorter than a Ford Ka+ small car, but the top-of-the-line model that I drove retails for the equivalent of 7,500 euros in China and the base version starts at 5,200 euros. Meanwhile, the Ka+ starts at 9,990 euros in Germany.

It’s unfair to call the Luxgen U5 compact crossover a true rival to the Toyota CH-R that it closely mimics, but the fully loaded variant with a decent continuously variable transmission (CVT) costs less than 13,000 euros. In Germany, a CH-R with roughly the same power – a 116-hp, 1.2-liter gasoline engine mated to a six-speed manual – starts at 21,990 euros.

What was absolutely astonishing about the Luxgen was the size of its touchscreen. At 12 inches it is bigger than the 9-inch touchscreen found in Volvo’s 90-series models and not that much smaller than the 17-inch display in the Tesla Model S, which retails for more than 100,000 euros in Europe.

The Changan Eado, designed by the Chinese automaker’s huge styling center in Turin, looks good, drives well and the fully loaded model I tested in China retails for the equivalent of 13,750 euros. A similar-sized sedan such as the Ford Mondeo starts at 25,990 euros in Germany, but that is without a leather interior.

The size of the Luxgen U5's touchscreen is between that in the Volvo XC90 and the Tesla Model S.

Photo credit: Internet Info Agency, Beijing

Disappointing SUVs

While a racetrack is not the ideal location to evaluate the real day-to-day performance of family cars, it is an even worst place to test SUVs. That being said, the two passenger cars and two of the three crossovers I tested ranked from decent to good in terms of driving dynamics.

However, four out of the five SUVs I drove were disappointing at best. The clear takeaway was that even if the Chinese brands tried to push into the SUV segment here, the poor driving dynamics of their models probably would discourage even the most budget-conscience customers from making the switch.

The one exception was the Qoros 5. Designed and engineered by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, the Qoros 5 was comparable to any volume midsize SUV offered in Europe. Nevertheless, at the equivalent of 25,300 euros for the top model, the Qoros 5 is considered near premium in China and definitely would not be a bargain in Europe.

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You can reach Luca Ciferri at lciferri@crain.com.

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