China 2015: The Cars of Changchun

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

After exploring the Shanghai car landscape, we are now headed North to land in Changchun, the capital city of the Jilin province and known as the Chinese Detroit.

Where is Changchun?

The city itself has 3.6 million inhabitants. Including the greater Changchun, this figure climbs to 8 million, or almost as much as Paris or London! Yes, you’ve read that right: There are cities in China you may not have heard of that are larger than most European cities. Changchun was the Japanese capital of Manchukuo between 1933 and 1945. It houses the former residence of Puyi, the Qing dynasty’s final emperor (also known as the ‘puppet emperor’), whose story was made into the 1987 movie “The Last Emperor”. Adequately, Changchun also used to be the capital of the Chinese film industry in the ’50s and ’60s.

Nowadays, Changchun is known as China’s Detroit. It is the largest vehicle manufacturing, research and development centre in China, producing roughly 10 percent of the country’s automobiles in 2014. First Automobile Works (FAW), you would have guessed, is the first ever Chinese carmaker and has its headquarters here along with its various joint ventures with foreign manufacturers including FAW-Volkswagen and FAW-Toyota. This impacts the Changchun car landscape greatly as we will discover in a lot more detail below. Anecdotally, Changchun also produces 50 percent of all passenger trains in China.

FAW Besturn B50 taxi and BMW X1 in Changchun

Landing in Changchun means we have arrived in what I call ‘the real China’: I did not see a single foreigner the entire time I stayed here (24 hours) and my very presence in the streets has everyone glued to their bus windows in curiosity, waving and smiling at me like they just spotted a movie star. Having around 50 bus patrons turn their head all in the same motion to keep staring while the bus drives on is a very interesting experience indeed. Must be the beard.

FAW Xenia S80 at Changchun Longjia Airport

As soon as I step on the airport tarmac, the evidence I’m in FAW city awaits in the form of a FAW Xenia S80 minivan in its Changchun Longjia Airport livery. It is the start of a constant flow of FAW models streaming through Changchun, but they were not the ones I expected. The FAW Xiali sedan, a decade ago among the best-sellers nationwide — although not produced in Changchun but 850km South in Tianjin — is nowhere to be seen. I only spotted two lonely Xiali N5s. It goes the same for the lower end of the FAW lineup: only a couple of Oley sedans and Xiali N7 hatchbacks and one Junpai D60.

FAW Besturn X80

No. What Changchun drivers can’t get enough of are the more upmarket FAW offerings, namely the Besturn sub-brand. The Besturn X80 SUV is absolutely everywhere; 2 or 3 of them at every block, no less. While only ranking #91 nationally in 2014, in Changchun it is flirting with the pole position.

FAW Besturn B70

Also very popular are the Besturn B50 and B70 — all generations of them (they both launched in 2006), with the 2014 B70 model already very present in the Changchun streets. I would safely bet on a Top 10 ranking here, even potentially Top 5.

FAW Besturn B50 and Jinbei Haise

The first generation Besturn B50 also accounts for roughly 5 percent of all taxis here. Only the flagship B90 has yet to become a local favourite, potentially because of its 139,800 yuan pricetag (US$22,800). I did see one FAW Hongqi H7, the first time I’ve seen one of these out and about, and Hongqi has one H7 exhibited in the Departures hall of the Changchun Airport along with very sleek brochures. To know more about the Hongqi prestige brand, check out my coverage of the Shanghai Auto Show here.

FAW Hongqi H7 at Changchun Dongjia Airport

As such, FAW secures itself the lion’s share of domestic carmakers who account for roughly 25-30 percent of a car park still largely dominated by sedans. SUVs are starting to be relatively popular, but there is no heritage of any SUV buying pattern in the past. Meanwhile, minivans and microvans are relatively rare compared to cities like Chongqing, and pickup trucks are non-existent.

Changchun street scene

In Changchun, we see the return of the Wuling Hongguang — well established here but a long way from matching its #1 national ranking — as well as a sprinkling of the microvans that preceded it. I spotted the first two Wuling Hongguang Vs and the first four Baojun 730 MPVs in circulation, confirming the mesmerising sales starts of these two nameplates are no legend but well and truly confirmed in the streets.

Haval H1

Great Wall is relatively strong here and I learned by studying the Changchun traffic that the Haval H6 Sport has, in effect, replaced the H6 over the past 18 months in terms of sales. That is before the new generation H6, unveiled at Auto Shanghai this year, will take the relay. Also of note were the success of the Dongfeng X3 SUV and ChangAn CS75.

VW Jetta

That’s it for the Chinese. What brands compose the remainder of the Changchun park?

One word: Volkswagen. Or two: VW Jetta.

Being produced locally since 1991, the Jetta is logically the best-seller in Changchun whether it be with taxi companies or private buyers. I spotted hundreds of them in the streets in the space of only a few hours. The first generation Jetta (1991-1997) and its facelifts König (1997-2010) and Pionier (2010-2013) still account for around 75 percent of the Changchun taxi park, with the current generation called Jetta Night (2013-) holding a 20-percent share and growing. Come back in a few years time and the new gen will be dominant.

VW Jetta taxis in Changchun

In fact, all mass-market Volkswagens produced in Changchun are popular here: the Sagitar (the Chinese name for the Jetta we know in the U.S.) follows the Jetta, ahead of the Bora, Magotan and Golf. Changchun is the first Chinese city where I spotted the European best seller in significant numbers, including one station wagon.

Chery E3

Even though Toyota produces in Changchun, it’s Honda that could snap the title of most popular Japanese manufacturer with a regular flow of Criders, CR-Vs, Citys, Civics and Accords, whereas in the Toyota camp only the Vios and to a lesser extent the Yaris L and RAV4 have made a real mark so far. Mazda has also made a very strong and very recent impression with the 3 Axela and 6 Atenza — the names of the latest generations have taken to differentiate them from the earlier ones still on sale — placing way above their respective #84 and national rankings. Korean-wise, the Hyundai Mistra and Kia Optima have also struck a chord with Changchun car buyers, and the ix25 small SUV is off to a great start.

Mercedes C-Class

There is one car of choice for the wealthy: the Audi A6L, surprisingly frequent despite its price starting at a whopping 355,000 yuan (US$57,300). But it doesn’t stop there. Changchun wealth is clearly visible through the cars that roam its streets, including three Porsche Macans spotted in one hour, a handful of BMW X5s and X6s, a new generation Mercedes C-Class, and a dozen Audi Q3s and Q5s produced locally.

Changchun street scene

Let’s finish on an American note: It would seem that each Chinese city has one resident Ford F-150 Raptor scaring its pedestrians and Changchun is no exception — with the added surprise of one Toyota Tundra. Next stop is Yanji in the Yánbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture at the border with North Korea…

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia and runs a website dedicated to car sales, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog.

Toyota Yaris L

Changchun street scene

VW Jetta taxi

Hyundai Mistra

Maxus M80

Haval H6 Sport

FAW Xiali N7

FAW Besturn B70

Porsche Macan and Audi A6L

Toyota Vios

Matt Gasnier
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  • Derekson Derekson on Aug 15, 2015

    That "Jetta Night" appears to be what the rest of the world knows as a Vento, which is basically a Polo sedan in the same way that the Jetta is sort of a Golf sedan (less so in the current generation).

    • Porschettac Porschettac on Jan 25, 2016

      I assuming here is Matt's mistake, there is no Jetta "Night" version in Chinese market, the new jetta is just called jetta, and it's localized by Chinese team (design for Chinese market)and assembled by many local components suppliers, that's one of the major reason the quality of low-end VWs is getting worse I think, as well as Shanghai VW's lavida and FAW-VW New Bora, all of them are local design and you can not find them out of China.

  • Geekcarlover Geekcarlover on Aug 16, 2015

    "Chinese Detroit" I'm assuming you meant that in a nice way.

    • Porschettac Porschettac on Jan 25, 2016

      for sure Changchun is so called "Chinese Detroit", because the FAW is state-owned enterprise, managed and controled by the gorvernment, but Changchun's car manufacture is getting down from volume and competitiveness compare with Shanghai, Shanghai is the real Chinese Detroit

  • Carson D I hadn't seen a second-generation Courier with a Mazda engine before. I've seen a few with Ford engines. There was one at the Cox Driving Range that they used to collect golf balls. Golf would definitely be more entertaining to watch if they used moving targets.
  • Tassos ooops, Tim, you missed this one. Would make a lovely "Tim's used car of the day". It satisfies all the prerequisites except the wildly overpriced bit.
  • Tassos ASTON AND BOND BY A MILE. While Aston Martin sells a TINY FRACTION of what even the rarified Ferrari and Lambo sell, it is unbelievably well known. Credit the idiotic, but hugely successful and sometimes entertaining James Bond Movies.
  • Tassos 1988? Too young for me. It's all yours, Tim... BAHAHAHAHA!
  • Gray Awesome. Love these. But, if I had the money for a Fox-body, there is a clean '84 GT 350 here for little more than half the price.