Chinese cars seem to be uniamously held with suspicion in both international and domestic markets, international consumers are more than familiar with the risk that comes with buying Chinese white goods, so why would they invest upwards of $10,000USD in a Chinese automobile? It’s an even bigger risk in the Chinese market where Chinese consumers are more than familiar with the sloppy management and workmanship in Chinese factories partly because they are the workers and managers in said factories.
But what about those manufacturers and car models that were ahead of their time and launched their cars at the wrong time to an unwilling audience?
1. Brilliance Coupe
In the dark days when Chinese coupe choices were limited to just the Geely Beauty Leopard and the subsequent Chinese Dragon, the Brilliance Coupe was a ray of light from God, it was if a Chinese automotive heavenly father said “Let there be light!” and the Brilliance Coupe rolled down the production lines. The Coupe, like the BS4 on which it was based, was ‘benchmarked‘ (some might say copied) against the Mitsubishi Lancer (either ’07 or 2000 model) which gave it some good handling. Engines came from Mitsubishi with an anemic 2.0L and a noisy but torquey 2.4L naturally aspirated models, a range topping 1.8T was also offered which came from Brilliance’ own range.
When it aired in 2007 the Coupe was the talk of the town, Chinese media seemed to like it saying both the handling, power and economy were all well regarded. Sadly, consumers were not yet ready to dump 180,000RMB or more into an unknown coupe. My friends at Brilliance who at the time were all circa VP level saw their enthusiasm for making a world class car sports sink rapidly, the Brilliance was born too early, if the same car appeared in 2013 we’re sure it would stand a chance. Brilliance updated the Coupe in 2010 with new leather seats, and were reportedly playing around with CVT gearboxes as late as 2011 but the car was ultimately culled from the Brilliance line up, a victim of a premature birth.
2. Brilliance Wagon
It’s hard to argue against Brilliance being a pioneer in the Chinese market, the Shenyang based company are clearly try to exploit every niche possible and open up as of yet untapped markets but it seems their attempts to swim against the stream always come with a large R&D price tag followed by failure. The Brilliance Wagon followed the BS4 sedan into production, the BS4 known as the Jun Jie in the Chinese market had a 2.0L and a 1.8T engine that followed over into the Wagon. The wagon initially launched in plain form but later it came jacked up with beefy plastic rims to give it that wagon-crossover style, Brilliance launched the Subaru Outback before the Outback even launched. Sadly for Brilliance, the Brilliance Outback-Wagon failed to sell, Ive only ever seen one with a Shenyang plate on it on the outskirts of Beijing, meaning it was probably a Brilliance owned car.
Reasons for failure are likely to be price related and a lack of promotion, the Wagon came in at 120,000RMB for the 2.0L and rose to 170,000RMB for the range topping 1.8T 5 speed auto versions, this price bracket falls squarely into VW Sagitar/Golf and Ford Focus sales territory. Would you rather have an international car, or a Chinese car? For local consumers the choice was obvious. Another Brilliance soon to fall into the history books.
3. Chery QQme
The QQme entered into being in 2005 as a concept car at the Shanghai Auto Show, then it was referred to as the QQ5 or the S16. Chery went to Enrico Fumia, legendary designer of many a Ferrari, Lancia etc. You can read about it on Fumio’s own website where it is called the Chery WOW (presumably after viewing it you say “Wow, that’s ugly as SHI…..”) Chery wanted a concept that everyone would talk about and Enrico agreed. Later Chery pushed the S16 into production and gave it the QQme moniker, its sole mission was to rout the Geely Panda from the market and give Geely a thrashing. The QQme was designed as if we were living in a Jetson’s age, but we weren’t, we were living in the cruel reality of 2009-2010 and the QQme was laughed at by just about everybody, the Panda became a strong seller for Geely and the QQme was scaled back. We dread to think about the losses incurred by Chery on the QQme. It’s still on the market in 2013 as a 2009 and 2010 model, the QQme came too soon for the car market, perhaps we can revisit it in the next 20 years.
Chery thought the individuality of the QQme would make it a sales winner, but consumers stayed away from the Me not knowing which end was the front of the car. The Me remains a rare sight on Chinese roads in 2013, we cant say for sure how many were sold during its time on the market but we suspect that Ferrari outsold it. The QQme is sure to be a future classic, buy them while you still can.
4. Geely Beauty Leopard
When Geely got itself into the car making business ten years ago it looked to the then Xiali Charade which itself was a Daihatsu Charade built under license. Back then during China’s Wild West of development stage IPR wasn’t so important so Geely snapped up the then ‘People’s Car‘ and went about building its own version at a cheaper price. Shortly afterwards Geely moved to use the same platform to create a sports car.
The Beauty Leopard was born, and like most genies, you couldn’t put it back in the bottle once it was out. Powered by a 1.3L engine it wasn’t going to melt any tarmac at traffic lights. Sales were initially quite strong thanks to the low price but ultimately fizzled out. One Geely employee who was once close to CCT told us that in liu of a yearly bonus they received the last run of Beauty Leopards, they were not taken back by the legendary karaoke system and would have happily taken the lesser cash bonus. The Chinese market just wasn’t prepared for the all out awesomeness offered by the Beauty Leopard, they are a rare sight on Chinese roads these days but seem to be popular with young men in the countryside, making it a Rural Zonda of some sort.
5. BYD S8
You maybe noticing a pattern here, sports cars from Chinese manufacturers just don’t seem to sell. The BYD S8 joined the ranks of Chinese cars that were before their time when it came about in 2006 at the Beijing Auto Show. Sharing the looks of a Renault Megane (also sold in China in convertible form) and the Mercedes SLK, it boasted a 2.0L engine from BYD’s own range and a drop top roof – a first for a Chinese auto manufacturer. The 2.0L engine was a four cylinder naturally aspirated unit that didn’t provide enough power to warrant an automatic version being added to the line up but one eventually did come. In the 2.0L 0-100km/h times were circa 16 seconds, partly thanks to the underpowered engine and also the hefty weight that a solid drop top brings. Sales were far from great, we can’t tell how many cars were sold in the early days but it is likely the lack of power and high price tag of 160,000RMB to 206,8000 made just about everyone look the other way. BYD S8 owners forums are rather quiet, aside from one guy complaining that the quality of his S8 is simply awful. There is a second hand one for sale in Yangzhou (650km from me) for only 16,000RMB which is not bad value considering that the car was likely 200k RMB brand new just a few years ago, talk about depreciation.
The Chinese market just wasn’t ready to spend 200,000RMB on an underpowered 2.0L solid top car, the S8 disappeared from the BYD line up as quickly as it arrived, BYD likely hope that the S8 is totally forgotten but that can’t happen on China Car Times. Other manufacturers like Chery have played around with making a coupe in the form of the M14 which had a hard top and convertible options, but even Chery could learn from its regional rivals and shied away from putting just two seats into a car.
Are there any other contenders for Chinese cars that came before their time? Let us know via the comment box.