By on February 15, 2015


With the return of two storied nameplates like the Ford GT and Acura NSX, it’s easy to understand why the only Chinese automaker with a display at the North American International Auto Show last month in Detroit, Guangzhou Automobile Group Co., didn’t get much attention. For the past decade or so, a number of Chinese car companies have had displays and press conferences at the media previews to the Detroit show, some of them with plans to export cars to North America, but so far little or nothing of substance has come to fruition from those plans. Whether or not they end up selling Chinese cars here, it does make a little bit of sense to take advantage of the presence at the NAIAS of thousands of members of the international press. That’s probably why GAC used the 2015 NAIAS to have the world premiere of their GS4 compact SUV. In addition to the GS4, which appears to be more of a car based crossover than a serious SUV, GAC also showed their GA6 sedan (which they say was developed for “the higher end market”) and the WITSTAR concept (that included it’s own built in aquarium between the back seats).


Surprisingly, they kept their display in the concourse of Cobo Hall up for the duration of the industry preview and public days of the show as well, no doubt to gauge the reaction of American consumers (and those Canadians who cross the river from Ontario to see the show as well) should they decide to bring product to this continent. From comments I overheard, consumer reaction may not have been as positive as they hoped.


Most automotive writers and journalists who cover the car scene leave Detroit by the time the sun goes down on the second day of the NAIAS media preview. I have the advantage that Cobo Hall is just a 20 minute drive from where I’m sitting now so if I forget to shoot photos or video of this or that car in the hubub of the preview, I can always pop downtown during the public days of the show. The GAC cars were on my list of fill-ins, and while I was circling the car taking my usual sequence of car shots, I watched a couple of men check out and sit in the GS4.


What they saw was a car with the interior trim standards of something from Korea at least a couple of product cycles old. Nothing particularly terrible looking but despite GAC’s claim to be “on par with global rivals”, it’s not quite on the level that most manufacturers are meeting or exceeding these days. The gentlemen adjusted their seats, and fiddled with the controls. As I waited for them to exit the car so I could get more photos, they were talking not about how the GAC GS4 looked and felt, but rather how it smelled. “Offgassing” was what they said.


After they exited the car and I went to take some interior photographs, I got a whiff (quite literally) of what they were talking about. Standing about 18-24 inches from the car, in the open doorway, the chemical odor was stronger than any “new car smell” I’ve ever experienced. If this is what it smelled like in the relatively cool concourse of Cobo Hall in January, one can only imagine how strong the offgassing would be on a hot summer day with the car sitting in the sun.


GAC may truly believe that they are on par with global car companies, but right now their products feel and smell too cheap to compete even with the bottom feeders of the North American market. If they tried exporting their current vehicles to North America, to use another golf idiom, they wouldn’t make the cut.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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27 Comments on “How Do You Say “New Car Smell” (or “Offgassing”) in Chinese?...”

  • avatar

    Canadian who crossed the river here. I sat in the sedan. The interior is, as Ronnie says, about on par with a 5 year old Hyundai. Plastics are hard and slimy. The HVAC knobs are functional, not stylish. The steering wheel buttons feel brittle, like chiclets. It also follows the Korean model of “stuff it full of features that you can’t normally get in a car this cheap.” I don’t remember it smelling particularly obnoxious, though. Maybe it had aired out a little by the time I got to it. I think that if GAC brought these over and offered them for $2,000 less than an Elantra, they’d sell a few to the value-conscious.

    Their concept car was really cool, as well. Remember when companies made actual concept cars, instead of “90% production ready” teasers for their next redesign (yes, Honda, I’m looking at you)? And they had wild, far-out features never meant for production, like an aquarium in the back seat for no reason? China remembers.

    • 0 avatar
      Dy-no-mite Jay

      I sat in both when I visited the auto show. The SUV seemed OK. When my wife and I sat in the sedan, the headliner bulge/console felt cheap and hollow when my head hit it when I looked in the back seat, the passenger door had a terrible creaking sound when you opened or closed it and the shifter bezel had snapped off. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed.

  • avatar

    Most brand-new Chinese cars I’ve had the misfortune of sitting on had that awful smell just like the smell the stores selling cheap Chinese toys have. I have no idea what toxic chemical compound causes it but it’s a plague in cheap Chinese plastics that they need to end if they want to sell any cars in any developed country.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Doctor

      That smell is probably mold release agent. Poorly designed injection molds or a poorly optimized molding process will often leave plastic parts stuck in the machine after it completes a cycle. Mold release (usually a silicone lubricant) acts kind of like nonstick cooking spray.

      Of course if you keep spraying your mold cavities with tons of the stuff you end up with the “slimy” feeling that’s usually associated with cheap plastics.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s funny you should say this. I’ve never owned a Toyota because of that same awful smell. They remind me of the cheap Japanese electronics I use to get as a kid, they all had that weird smell

  • avatar

    Still those are decent looking cars and if the price is low enough people will buy them. That’s how Hyundai and Kia got going here.

  • avatar

    GAC isn’t exactly China’s best car manufacturer or even close to it though so realistically it’s probably going to be one of the better manufacturers that ends up making the leap here.

  • avatar

    Why the aquarium between back seats ? It’s the stupidest way to show off your product whether concept or not.

  • avatar

    The appearance of a Chinese auto brand here might bring some much needed lower price pressure.

  • avatar

    Someone there has to have a clear-eyed view of how they just do not compete. Why do they not ship them here and then have a local operation to replace the seats and some of the more offensive interior components with something from a US based supplier? One could imagine slapping in some Lear-standard seats and knobs. It would cost money, but it would allow them to achieve quick penetration, and then they could either ship some samples back home and reverse engineer them, or they could just buy the US suppliers and integrate them.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Doctor

      The key phrase is “costs money” most people associate Chinese assembly with “cheap”, so if they’re going to try NA sales costs need to be kept down so that the vehicles can be offered at a low price after shipping and import duties.

      In all honesty, we’ll probably see more vehicles like the Chinese-built Honda Fit long before any of their domestics come here.

      • 0 avatar

        You beat me to it..

        The cost of doing final assembly in the U.S. would likely erase the significant price advantage that these vehicles would need in this market.

        Plus, this would raise an interesting question: Wouldn’t the SUV have to enter this country with seats of some sort, to avoid being considered a “truck,” and therefore subject to the “chicken tax?”

        The idea sounds similar to what Ford was doing with the Transit Connect, only in reverse…

    • 0 avatar

      I think that Elio Motors is smart to be working with suppliers who have substantial North American operations, including Lear for their seating. It will be interesting to see just how cheap the Elio trike looks and feels if it gets to production.

    • 0 avatar

      If you compare them to where Korean cars were a decade ago – some of them really were crap and death traps. The Daewoo line stands out as bad, and echos of bad continue for GM. Hyundai and, to a lesser extent, Kia, have had an amazing reinvention. I remember in 2005 hearing a local radio ad for an Ann Arbor or Westland Kia dealer who was offering two for one on the Rio, or a free Rio if you bought something else. Of course, that Rio was crap, it was a death trap, it was a penalty box, etc.

      The bad smell and horrible interior are deal breakers for any buyer. So, they would have no chance of selling them. If they can isolate the truly offensive parts from just that which is a decade old – lots of manufacturers have gotten a lot of mileage from old bones.

      It seems like they would have to expect to take a loss to break into the market. However, if most people remember the Korean car transformation from junk (even the Japanese car transformation from junk to pinnacle of engineering perfection), if the Chinese could surprise by doing something like working with somebody who already knows what NA buyers want and expect, they could leapfrog the usual cycle of crap-to-respectability.

      There is some truth to the old Sloan idea of building locally, because people do have different expectations and flavors, and the idea of being able to ship from China and hit American tastes – Honda could do that because they have decades of fitting American tastes here; I’m sure this just paraphrases what has been said – the new guys don’t, and, without accepting heavy initial losses as the cost of entering the market, they aren’t going to anytime soon.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    They should find out where the smell is coming from and not use whatever is causing the smell. Also they should make sure there are no interior parts that come off and make standard equipment power seats, power windows,power steering, power brakes, power locks, heated seats, heated mirrors, air conditioning, and floor mats and price their vehicles about 2k less than the competition. The Chinese are going to have to offer more value for less money if they are going to enter the US market–there are just too many good compact cars and cuvs that the consumer can choose from. The looks of these vehicles are very generic and could easily pass for a South Korean or a Japanese vehicle.

  • avatar
    daniel g.

    same here in argentina, Chery motors offer one of the best car equipment for the money (well maybe…)the odor issue is similar, we expect to see their products now from brasil if improve this aspect.

    Don’t remember correctly, but maybe Miguel Angel Galluzzi says “…chinese manufacturer don’t want expend money in desing..” small reference to nissan idx in the C pillar to back in the GS4?

    Mmmm, maybe is a good call to make…

  • avatar

    Interesting to see how they’d perform in a driving test.

    Bet they cut a mean corner. :-P

  • avatar

    Fail, fail, fail. Back copied from Ford EcoSport. Front from Hilux. And I have yet to drive a Chinese car with a drive even comparable to the real makers. Some years ago I thought that’d by 2015 they’d be making inroads. Now, in any market with a semblance of maturity, I can’t think they’ll fix the problems until 2025 at the earliest. Seems like the will just isn’t there.

  • avatar

    The Chinese will never break into the mainstream auto market in the US. They’d do better investing in electric vehicles and starting there since the competition isn’t nearly as fierce. The competition in the mainstream auto market leaves zero room for Chinese competition. The domestics are on the top of their game and their import competitors have already set up shop here.

    Chinese cars are DOA in the US.

  • avatar

    Aquarium? Yeah, go with that.

    Signed, Every Other Car Company

  • avatar

    Close your eyes and take a deep sniff…

    Ah, I’m in a Dollar Store!

    I’m no plastics expert, but if it airs out in a month or two, it’s mold release; if it lasts longer, keep the windows cracked until you trade it in on something less toxic.

  • avatar

    Every time I’m doing a parking maneuver, I’m always reassured when there’s water sloshing around behind me.

    Perhaps they could replace it with multicolored gumballs instead. Less noisy.

  • avatar

    Lie to me,it(the aquarium) is so that they can eat fresh sushi whilst stuck in a traffic jam(or two!)

  • avatar

    I absolutely refuse to ever by a car made in China. They’ll need another 30 years to get onboard…

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