China 2015: The 10 Most Impressive Chinese Carmakers at Auto Shanghai (Part 1)

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

Consistently loud: Foton

We ended our last overseas adventure, the Trans-Siberian Series, in Mongolia with an exploration of the best-selling cars in this cold country. I’m resuming my exploration of this part of the world, leaping South to Shanghai in China where the biennial Auto Show took place in April.

Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to investigate the plethora of Chinese carmakers at the show (over 40) and trim it down to the 10 most impressive. It’s an abashedly subjective ranking. However, know that many aspects were considered to establish it: from interior/exterior quality and design of the models revealed, the number/validity of new cars, concept cars, brochures, staff availability, savviness and friendliness, as well as whether or not they improved since last year at the Beijing Auto Show.

In brackets are the ranking I gave these manufacturers at the Beijing Auto Show in 2014.

Discover the carmakers ranked from #10 to #6 below the jump…

10. (25) Foton

Most Chinese manufacturers are so busy trying to hide their cheapskates by climb up the premium ladder with more designs and improved quality (all commendable efforts by the way) they forget to carve themselves a unique positioning in the market.

Not Foton.

The manufacturer is a heavy/medium truck specialist, notably through a joint-venture with Daimler selling its products under the Auman brand, ubiquitous on any Chinese construction site.

Foton Sauvana interior

The brand only dabbles in the passenger car segment. In Shanghai, they launched the Sauvana SUV and the Toano van, two of their better-designed offerings to-date. The music was old-fashioned, the press conference was Wheel of Fortune-loud, the ‘Big Foot’ style Tunland pickup was obnoxious and the V3 microvan equipped with oversized speakers was booming. Yes, their positioning is totally unique among domestic (and foreign) brands present in China.

Foton Sauvana interior

The Foton V3 “Nightclub” – the back door unveils the mother of all loudspeakers…

Foton is targeting the construction site set, the low hanging fruit already very familiar with their brand – whether it be the truck drivers that don’t actually own the trucks they drive, the site manager, engineer, etc. It’s smart, they know their target market, don’t shy away from it, embrace it and give this market exactly what it wants.

The Sauvana’s interior has nothing superfluous but is comfortable and sturdy. All the big Chinese lads that were wearing their sunnies inside the hall were sucked in. Everything about Foton’s delivery at Auto Shanghai was consistent. Well done.

Baojun 560

9. (12) Baojun

Since Beijing last year, Baojun (a brand born from the SAIC-General Motors joint venture) has multiplied its monthly sales in China by 10 thanks to the most successful passenger car launch in the country’s history, the 730 MPV, now clocking up 30,000 deliveries on average each month. So you would forgive them for basking in the glorious sun for a bit. That would be underestimating Baojun. Completely unbeknownst to me and showing another stroke of genius and ballsiness, Baojun cleared all its other models from its stand, including the 730, to make room for what could soon be one of China’s best-selling SUVs: the 560.

Baojun 560 interior

The stand technically also includes the Wuling brand (specialised in microvans and MPVs) but no models were shown. With a price starting at 80,000 yuan (12,900 USD), a satisfyingly modern design and an interior quality matching the 730, the Baojun 560 has all elements needed to be a hit at home. I’m very impressed by how fast Baojun is tapping into the main trends at play in the Chinese market, namely the MPV and SUV sales surge.

Soueast DX7

8. (18) Soueast

Soueast is Mitsubishi’s joint venture partner to produce the Japanese manufacturer’s Chinese lineup. But Soueast is making huge progress at emancipating itself from Mitsubishi and has come a very long way since Beijing.

Soueast DX7 interior

The hero in the Soueast stand was the DX7 SUV, the brand’s very first entrant in the booming segment, sticking very faithfully to the R7 concept presented in Beijing last year. The interior feels expensive and comfortable and I loved how the rotary shifters feel smooth and heavy under the fingers.

Soueast DX7 interior

But it doesn’t stop there. The V Cross crossover had some of the best-sounding door ‘clomp’ of the Chinese industry. The Soueast range brochure, matte-covered with shiny Chinese writing, is in the Top 3 premium looking for a Chinese carmaker. And Soueast ticks the new energy box with a good-looking V5 EV presented at the Show.

Only piece of constructive feedback for Soueast would be to take a leap of faith and rid the stand of the Mitsubishi models you produce. It’s a proud signal that you can produce Japanese quality, but the honest truth is that it drives potential customers away from the brand.

You are doing it right, Soueast. The year-on-year improvement is spectacular.

Chana Oussan

7. (8) ChangAn

Relaxed presenters at the ChangAn press conference showed a confident brand. Honest interior quality and great door clomps on the ChangAn CS75 and Raeton – among the best for Chinese models – are in line with my observations on the brand last year in Beijing. ChangAn has been delivering fantastic sales results as of late. Last year, a bright pink Eado XT added a touch of playfulness. This year, an aggressive bright yellow Eado XT racecar plays a similar role. However, not including the CS75 and Raeton, most models still feel rather cheap.

Chana Oussan interior

It’s the commercial vehicle stand (where ChangAn becomes Chana) that lifts ChangAn to such a high position in my ranking. Keen hostesses gave away goodie bags to everyone passing by, and that bag tagged along with me all the way to the Russian border in Mohe before dropping dead – a good effort. A charging station keeps people inside the stand and there’s a rather cheesy activity with models dancing and jumping around. However, with this year’s imposed starlet-drought, it kept photographers happy and snapping. Big thumbs up for clearing the stand of all other models to focus on the all-new Oussan MPV – the same way Baojun did for the 560.

Chana’s Commercial Manager Allen was eager to engage in a friendly yet professional manner with me, asking all kinds of questions about my opinion of Chinese cars and what boxes they need to tick for me to be satisfied. I was the one being interviewed for once and it was rather refreshing.

When I asked him why there were no other Chana models exhibited on the stand, he had the perfect answer: “People have known these vehicles for years, so we don’t really need to show them again. If someone is interested I can give them all the information they need,” pulling out leaflets for the entire Chana lineup with a big smile.

On top of your game Allen.

ChangAn Raeton interior

The negative – as is the case for so many Chinese carmakers – is the branding: the new Oussan MPV had a Chana logo on it, whereas I was told Chana was ChangAn’s commercial vehicle arm. It, as well as the entire stand, had a distinct passenger vehicle feel. Even Allen was a little confused. Although, when you step inside the Oussan, despite the shiny tablets attached to the back of the front seats, the contrast with the sleek exterior design is blatant with a dashboard made of too much shiny plastic. In fact, it looks and feels like this is an MPV manufactured by an LCV company. Oh, wait…

Qoros stand

6. (25) Qoros

Qoros, a joint-venture between Chery and Israel Corporation, has been touting itself as the most European of Chinese car manufacturers, hiring European designers and engineers to come up with their first offering, the 3 hatchback and sedan. Although their product is very well finished and up to European standards, they’ve sold just 39 units in 2014 in their test European country (Slovakia) and less than 4,000 at home in China. Their claims of a 150,000 units annual production capacity have made me struggle to give Qoros much credibility.

Qoros PHEV 2 concept

Auto Shanghai may be the turning point to change all that. It’s one thing to claim you want to achieve European standards with your cars, but it’s another to convince people you are on the right track.

The Qoros press conference was the most culturally relatable to a foreign media audience, using a conversational format between two presenters speaking English the whole time. But the real game changer from Qoros was its stand, mimicking a European café, complete with high stools and tables, a coffee bar and waiters serving complimentary finger food. Granted, this has nothing to do with cars, but Qoros is aggressively creating a very distinct and clear brand image for itself that’s essential if it wants to achieve the bold targets it has set itself. And it worked wonders at Auto Shanghai: the Qoros stand was packed to the rafters during the entire first media day, something no other manufacturer can claim, Chinese or foreign.

Qoros 3 crossover

Now – the cars. The bright red 3 crossover was nothing really new yet looked pretty good. The big novelty on the Qoros stand was the PHEV 2 concept, creatively going against the grain. Its confronting design turns a few conventions on their heads, one being the shape of the headlights, at a 90 degrees angle from absolutely all concept cars exhibited at Auto Shanghai. One thing though: in the midst of all this aspiring European vibe, the PHEV 2 featured big ‘made in China’ badges both on the front grille and on the back bumper, which, although obviously correct, is at odds with the rest of what Qoros is showing us here.

So are we European or Chinese Qoros?

Qoros stand at Auto Shanghai 2015: packed to the rafters.

Qoros coffee

Matt Gasnier
Matt Gasnier

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2 of 6 comments
  • RHD RHD on Jun 11, 2015

    The guy who runs the gearshift knob factory must be making a killing - almost every manufacturer is using the same part! Good for them, though. Chinese drivers will know how to drive, and the Americans will know how to... let the car parallel park itself via remote control.

  • InterstateNomad InterstateNomad on Jun 13, 2015

    Nice review. I'm looking forward to the next part.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X '19 Nissan Frontier @78000 miles has been oil changes ( eng/ diffs/ tranny/ transfer). Still on original brakes and second set of tires.
  • ChristianWimmer I have a 2018 Mercedes A250 with almost 80,000 km on the clock and a vintage ‘89 Mercedes 500SL R129 with almost 300,000 km.The A250 has had zero issues but the yearly servicing costs are typically expensive from this brand - as expected. Basic yearly service costs around 400 Euros whereas a more comprehensive servicing with new brake pads, spark plugs plus TÜV etc. is in the 1000+ Euro region.The 500SL servicing costs were expensive when it was serviced at a Benz dealer, but they won’t touch this classic anymore. I have it serviced by a mechanic from another Benz dealership who also owns an R129 300SL-24 and he’ll do basic maintenance on it for a mere 150 Euros. I only drive the 500SL about 2000 km a year so running costs are low although the fuel costs are insane here. The 500SL has had two previous owners with full service history. It’s been a reliable car according to the records. The roof folding mechanism needs so adjusting and oiling from time to time but that’s normal.
  • Theflyersfan I wonder how many people recalled these after watching EuroCrash. There's someone one street over that has a similar yellow one of these, and you can tell he loves that car. It was just a tough sell - too expensive, way too heavy, zero passenger space, limited cargo bed, but for a chunk of the population, looked awesome. This was always meant to be a one and done car. Hopefully some are still running 20 years from now so we have a "remember when?" moment with them.
  • Lorenzo A friend bought one of these new. Six months later he traded it in for a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He already had a 1998 Corvette, so I thought he just wanted more passenger space. It turned out someone broke into the SSR and stole $1500 of tools, without even breaking the lock. He figured nobody breaks into a PT Cruiser, but he had a custom trunk lock installed.
  • Jeff Not bad just oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the recalls on my Maverick have been fixed with programming. Did have to buy 1 new tire for my Maverick got a nail in the sidewall.