By on April 5, 2021

American automakers can usually count on selling just below 3 million vehicle sales in China every year. While that figure includes the caveat that the Chinese Communist Party requires foreign manufacturers to partner up with established local companies, it remains substantially larger than the number of cars Chinese brands manage to move in the United States per annum — which is effectively zero.

From BYD to Zoyte, just about every large Chinese manufacturer has issued a deluge of promises about breaking into our market over the last decade — including most of the names we’ll be mentioning below. Consider this sort of the “Where Are They Now?” of evergreen automotive content about regional disparities. Because very little has moved in regard to China’s involvement with the North American auto market and the current geopolitical climate doesn’t make us think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

But it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. 

Zotye Automobile International was last recruiting U.S. dealers in 2018 and even had a couple of importers on its payroll to help it figure out how to start shipping vehicles to the West. It even had a distributor set up in California with HAAH Automotive Holdings helping to build its sales network. Everything looked great and Zotye USA was supposedly months away from opening its first batch of franchised dealers, all of which had been right-sized to cater to a small Chinese brand with a highly limited lineup.

The company’s first entrant for the North American market was to be the T600 (above) — which happened to be a doppelganger of the Volkswagen Touareg and should not be confused with the similarly named Kenworth Class 8 truck. Retailing in Asia for as much as a secondhand Honda CR-V in good condition, the T600 looked as though it could take the credit risk segment by storm and was supposed to arrive in 2020. The brand had also stated that is had been making major strides in electrification in 2011, vowing to deliver one to the U.S. by 2015. But neither showed up.

What happened instead was Zoyte Autos’ controlling shareholder declaring bankruptcy in September of last year and Ford Motor Co. dissolving its planned EV partnership with the brand in China. However Blue Oval claimed the decision was made due to CCP government policies having changed to a degree that it no longer felt confident it could adhere to regulatory measures under the existing plan.

HAAH Automotive Holdings also had plans to build Chery’s Exeed XT SUV (below) using a new brand name that didn’t so much like Chevy. Despite also appearing to have fallen through, a revised strategy has the model coming to the United States as the Vantas XT sometime this year. Models will be shipped from China as knock-down kits, with about half the loose components allegedly coming from U.S. suppliers.

Since Chery’s launch date has been pushed back, we suppose there’s a chance it could hit the target. But we’ve heard nothing about where these vehicles will be assembled and that kind of stuff usually takes quite a bit of time. Even though the Exeed/Vantas did seem to be capable of throwing the compact crossover segment an interesting curveball, we’re not under any illusions that’s going to happen within the next 12 months. Still, one has to admire the brand for bothering to set hard targets for itself.

Though my favorite Chinese automaker vying to get into the United States has to be Guangzhou Automobile Group, perhaps better known to you as GAC. Unlike its contemporaries, GAC had set up a special division to research how to make its products work for the American market and you could those efforts manifesting in the real world. It even had booths rivaling the size of many established manufactures at many of our biggest automotive trade shows — back when we still had the opportunity to attend such events.

While its Chinese staff was extremely particular with the branding and acted highly annoyed whenever someone said “Gak Motors,” I also watched them survey just about every person that walked into their booth. While the brunt of their products were a rung or two down from what seemed acceptable and we mocked the exhaust finishers attached to nothing, their dedication to consumer engagement was truly enviable and made the other manufacturers look lazy. It was clear that GAC had not come to play and was clearly serious about selling in the U.S.

GAC GS8

At the 2018 North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit, the staff informed us that the company intended to launch their large Trumpchi GS8 utility (above) here. Scheduled for 2019, the SUV would represent GAC achieving a goal it had held for years and it quickly went to work meeting with dealers at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention. However, tensions created by the Sino-American trade war forced the automaker to delay some of its plans, with it remaining confident that we would see the GS8 (and its “Trumpchi” brand) arrive by 2020… back when GAC cared.

We’re obviously still waiting and I think that’s ultimately what we should take away from all of this. Chinese brands aren’t universally up to the challenge of delivering the kind of vehicles Americans are accustomed to. Most of these SUVs are already derivative in their designs and too meek in terms of the powertrains and features being offered (though not always by that much, if we’re to be objective). Consumers who just want an affordable crossover would probably be well served by a GAC or Zoyte product. But those accustomed to more of everything might find them lacking in too many areas to make the almost assuredly lower MSRPs feel sensible.

You’re probably wondering how that’s any different from what happened with Japan or Korea, both of which broke into our market selling products far below the typical size and engine displacement at prices well under the typical exchange rate. While there are plenty of similarities, Japanese and Korean automobiles arrived long after their relationship with the United States had bottomed out completely (war). Meanwhile, the Chinese opinion of the West continues to degrade, and survey data here would suggest the same thing has been happening on our end. Throw in the trade war and China’s extremely vocal commitment to expanding its own global influence and it’s genuinely difficult to imagine there being enough enthusiasm to see Chinese cars being sold in sufficient numbers to warrant the international commitment.

Then again, there are other ways of doing business here.

ff91

Faraday Future started operating in 2014, stationed in California with one of the most confusing ownership structures we’ve ever come across. Clearly inspired by Tesla and a slew of Chinese EV startups — including LeEco, which was also founded by Jia Yueting — the company found itself biting off far more than it could chew and has been habitually in debt ever since. Despite continued work on its FF91 crossover (above), the company has repeatedly broken its production promises and now looks to be dead in the water while investors play hot potato with whatever assets remain.

Many would argue that Geely (or perhaps General Motors, if they wanted to be cute) is the first and only Chinese automaker to break into North America (honorable mention: Wanxiang/Karma). While all of the brands mentioned above have repeatedly pushed back deadlines for a U.S. launch, Geely just bought Volvo Cars in 2010. But it also tried the traditional route. Back in 2006, the Chinese brand was in Detroit showing off a compact it wanted to export to the U.S.

While its official push in the market is now most likely to come by way of Lynk & Co — a brand making headway in Europe as you read this and was supposed to launch in the U.S. this year — owning Volvo technically gives the manufacturer an incredibly important in with North America. It’s not quite the same as selling Chinese exports, since Volvo’s operations remain headquartered in Sweden. But the last couple of years showed Geely rolling back some of the European brand’s autonomy and even pitching the concept of a full merger (though that idea was abandoned in February). Regional headaches aside, it’s not a bad place to be with the Chinese auto market having recently plateaued.

Despite there being plenty more people in China that could buy cars, the economic situation has made it difficult for rural areas to continue accruing the necessary wealth. Roughly half of the nation’s urbanites have at least one vehicle per household but those living in the boonies only have a 25 percent ownership rate. There’s not much money in chasing those rural customers down, so manufacturers are looking elsewhere. For now, it seems most of China’s sales gains are happening in the developing world — even though the country is still navigating how best to improve its diminutive market share in Europe and break into North America, assuming that’s still an option. But the COVID era appeared to indicate China losing some amount of interest in the latter market, making us wonder if the long-term strategy has changed or if this is just another postponement of the planned industrial push westward.

[Images: Destinyweddingstudio/Shutterstock, Volha-Hanna Kanashyts/Shutterstock, VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock, GAC, Faraday Future, Geely]

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42 Comments on “What Happened To the Chinese Automakers Wanting a Piece of the U.S. Market?...”


  • avatar
    el scotto

    We were at war with NORTH KOREA. We still have U.S. personnel in South Korea. Japan has become one of our staunchest allies. U.S. personnel there too. Our relationship with China is a whole other ball of wax. Not sure if that was attempted snark or poor proofreading.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Natural resources, leadership in low cost tech manufacturing, scale in battery & EV manufacturing are advantages held by China.
    China WILL export EV to North America unless prevented by trade restrictions.

  • avatar
    C5 is Alive

    Common sense would behoove the U.S. and the rest of the civilized world to sever whatever ties we can to the ChiComs before the shooting starts.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      What shooting, precisely? Seems to me the Chinese have spent quite a bit of time building Shanghai, so they’re proud of it and would not like it to get nuked. And I’m sure you don’t want New York nuked.

      I don’t know where a shooting war between us and them would start, but that’s where it would end.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Can we keep Shanghai but lose NYC?

      • 0 avatar
        C5 is Alive

        History demonstrates that wars often must be fought despite the massive losses. A world dominated by the ChiComs is not one any rational human being should want to live in, though it’s unfortunately obvious that no one has the stomach to do what is necessary to prevent that from happening.

        What’s even more frustrating is the civilized world missed a golden opportunity last year to curtail China through more diplomatic means. Massive, targeted global outrage should have shamed the ChiComs into submission once it became clear how they lied to the WHO about the virulence and spread of COVID-19.

        Instead, we fretted about offending them with the term “China Virus.”

        • 0 avatar
          FreedMike

          “Wars must be fought despite the massive losses…”

          You mean, like all life on planet Earth?

          Ok…

          • 0 avatar
            C5 is Alive

            We WILL eventually have to fight the ChiComs, FM. Probably over Taiwan. That is all-but certain.

            The only alternative is capitulation. It’s truly a pity if you find that an acceptable one.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          Greedy multinationals set up shop in China with a blind eye or tacit approval of government.
          So here we are.
          TPP was designed as one way to start isolating and countering China in the Pacific rim but myopic leadership killed it.
          Multilateral cooperation is now needed to deal with China. If done properly then China would be detered from armed conflict. They would consider war if just the USA was a foe but not if most of the free world was the foe.

          • 0 avatar
            ToolGuy

            “Greedy multinationals…”

            Without taking anything away from your point – as Lawrence H. White has loosely stated, blaming “greed” for economic problems is like blaming plane crashes on “gravity.”

            https://www.forbes.com/sites/artcarden/2011/10/13/lessons-from-and-for-the-class-struggle-on-wall-street/?sh=593053a1ac5f

      • 0 avatar

        :you don’t want New York nuked.”

        I am not sure about that. There was a mass exodus from New York for the reason. Some wants to nuke NY.

  • avatar
    dwford

    I’d say the trade war mostly. That’s the excuse Ford gave for not importing the new Focus from China, and GM sure cried a lot about it while continuing to import the Envision.

    Another reason is that cars are a huge investment for most consumers, and consumers seem to increasingly be gravitating towards “sure things.” People don’t have the money to gamble on vehicles that might have mechanical issues etc. You see that in the way consumers totally turned away from Detroit compact and midsize sedans, forcing those automakers to give up on the segments. Not too many consumers would be willing to take the risk on a totally unknown brand, even at a lower price.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      dwford
      The Fusion, Focus, Cruze and Impala all sold in high numbers When Ford & GM decided to discontinue them in the U.S.

      • 0 avatar
        dwford

        They sold in high numbers to unprofitable rental car companies and fleets, not to regular consumers.

        • 0 avatar
          Peter Gazis

          dwford

          For most of the last decade, the majority of vehicles on rental lots have been Nissans and Hyundais.
          You know the crap TTAC keeps shoving down our throats. Saying this $h!t actually compares to BMW.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            Nissan and Hyundai can make money on that business model. GM and Ford couldn’t (or figured they could make more using their manufacturing capacity for higher-profit vehicles). That’s why D3 stopped making sedans, or will very soon.

            And, no, Nissan doesn’t compare to BMW, and neither does Infiniti. But unless we’re talking something really special – say, a M3 – I’d take any Genesis over a BMW 9.9 times out of ten.

          • 0 avatar
            Peter Gazis

            Nissan Profitable? You’re living in a fantasy world.
            Wages in South Korea are rising. Hyundai’s profits went down in 7 of the last 8 years.
            Here in Chicago, a few airport limo companies bought a few Genesis G80s and G90s. The cars were junk. They quickly went back to using Lincolns.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            “Here in Chicago, a few airport limo companies bought a few Genesis G80s and G90s. The cars were junk.”

            Source? Ford isn’t exactly putting out that stellar of product either and for a while their livery were using MKTs, not Navis.

          • 0 avatar
            Peter Gazis

            28-Cars-Later

            Source?
            (see Limo lot at any major airport)
            Also:
            Do your own f__king research. I’m not a dancing monkey. I don’t need to prove $h!t to you. Anyone in the market for a luxury vehicle is probably a frequent flyer. They already know what vehicles the livery companies use. Your lack of knowledge tells me you’re probably a keyboard jockey who rarely gets out of his parents basement.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            @Peter:

            I didn’t say Nissan was profitable now, only that they had been making money selling to rental fleets.

            “Dropping profits” doesn’t mean “unprofitable.”

            “Unsuitable as livery car” doesn’t equal “junk.”

          • 0 avatar
            Peter Gazis

            FreedMike
            If the Americans can’t make money building these cars in Mexico. The Japanese and Koreans. can’t make money on them either. Everything else is smoke, mirrors and anti-American bullcrap.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      dwford
      The Fusion, Focus, Cruze and Impala all sold in high numbers when Ford and GM decided to discontinue them in the U.S.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Except for Tesla products, mfrs are held to a very high quality standard these days. Hyundai/Kia recognized this when they introduced their 10/100 warranty in 2000.

    The alleged trade war with China is a factor also, but I say “alleged” because we pay lip service to Chinese trade offenses while happily paying for their goods every day.

    But practically speaking, the US market is saturated. *Any* new entrant will have a very difficult time, and that includes a reentry of the Stellantis products from Opel, Peugeot, and Vauxhall. Sales and service support demands a huge investment to show viability.

    Consider an opposite reality: what would it take to keep Fiat viable in the US? They have no 2021 products here, a shrinking dealer network, terrible reputation, and no resale value. If you can fix Fiat, then you have what it takes to import Chinese cars.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    The future of trade with China is visible today. Do a search on Chinese cotton from Xiangjiang, Nike and H&M and look at how the CCP is gaslighting it’s people by telling them how controlled by the US government Nike and H&M and the cotton industry are. These groups spoke up about not using cotton that was farmed by forced/slave labor.

    In November, 2020, articles came out asking VW how they could be sure they’re not hiring forced/slave labor in their plant in the Xiangjiang province. VW’s president said he couldn’t be sure that VW China wasn’t doing that.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      The entire situation with China under Xi feels like a movie we have seen before, maybe 90 years ago. A nationalist, authoritarian state, with a heavy emphasis on propaganda, repressing minorities inside their borders, gaining influence abroad through trade policy and massive strategic industrial subsidies, and developing military might. Only this time, the bad guys have nukes at the start of the movie.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    “Made in China” is a whole sociopolitical football these days, particularly with the pandemic. Any company would have issues introducing a whole new brand right now, probably doubly so for a Chinese company.

    I think if they want a shot at our market, then they’re going to have to do what the Japanese, Koreans and Germans did: start building plants here. That carries all kinds of product implications, the most important one being that their stuff will have sell on quality, not price. They won’t be able to just flood the market with stuff made by people working for nothing.

  • avatar
    Peter Gazis

    With the whole world about go electric it would be pointless for China to bring gasoline models to the U.S. As the Japanese companies all fail. The Chinese should be able to pick up dealership space dirt cheap.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    “Trumpchi” brand.

    How long before the Donald sues them?

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Chinese automakers will assemble them in Mexico. Easy squeezy. China and Mexico are perfect business partners, both have exactly what each other needs. China has been mining lithium for more than 100 years and Mexico is home to 70% of the world’s mineable lithium.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    regardless of politics, the US (and the world) has too many car brands.

    While I love choice, it’s irrational for Chinese carmakers to try to squeeze their way into the US market….too little bang for a mature market that will never break 20MM sales for the foreseeable future.

    India, Vietnam, Indonesia probably offer better bangs for the investment buck.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Whenever I read about importing Chinese vehicles to the US, I think about how the slimy huckster Malcolm Bricklin attempted it way back in 2004 with Chery and, as one might expect, the whole deal ended up in court. If the Chinese are reduced to dealing with guys like Bricklin, I don’t see it ever actually happening.

  • avatar
    Tstag

    The only Chinese brand making any headway in Europe seems to be MG. Sales in the U.K. at least are growing fast, reminiscent of the success Kia had in its early years. They are also accelerating quickly in India. It may just turn out that China’s most successful brand is er ‘British’

    • 0 avatar
      WallMeerkat

      They also tried to sell Great Wall pickups, which looked like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style Isuzu Denver Rodeo DMaxs, but I think euro emissions rules killed that venture. And they sell old LDV (Previously Leyland DAF / Freight Rover) Maxuses here under the SAIC Motor brand.

  • avatar
    FalconRTV

    Their committee designed cars and RVs (no one mentions Chinese RVs) deserve hefty tariffs in the same way they slap arbitrary tariffs on various Australian goods.

    Buying Chinese means you’re directly supporting an ugly totalitarian regime.

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