On a recent visit to the UK, I had the chance to meet up with my two great uncles. My Great Uncles are twin brothers, they have never married, but have lived together all their lives, and they pride themselves on the fact that theyÃ¢â¬â¢ve never driven any Ã¢â¬Ëforeign muckÃ¢â¬â¢. As far back as I can remember, my two great uncles have driven everything from BMC (British Motor Company) vehicles to the latest Rovers, and everything else in between, just as long as it was a British brand, made in Britain, and came in some sort of mustard, brown, or beige color. Some might say, theyÃ¢â¬â¢ve spent their life driving class, notable automotive purchases by them would be include a TR7, a Montego Clubman, a Maestro, and a Rover 45. My maternal Grandfather has a Rover 75 Tourer. A long story short, the older members of my family love their Rovers. One of my uncles mentioned something about those Ã¢â¬ËChinese made RoversÃ¢â¬â¢ obviously he meant the MG range which was bought up NAC two years back, and the Roewe brand which NAC arch rivals SAIC started, and then took over MG anyway.
My uncles were actually quite worried Ã¢â¬â what British car would they buy next once their Rover 45 started to fade? There are no more mass produced Ã¢â¬ËBritish carsÃ¢â¬â¢, unless of course you include foreign brands that manufacture in Britain, or British brands that are owned by foreign companies. The last British owned car maker might actually be Caterham, but I donÃ¢â¬â¢t see my late 60Ã¢â¬â¢s uncles driving a Caterham on their way to their daily pensioners lunch.One car that they could be driving in the next few years could be the Roewe 550. The 550 sits on a shortened Rover 75 platform, it was designed by the SAIC design center in Leamington Spa, UK, but its made in China. In our book, the car is at least 90% British, sure it might have parts sourced in China, it may be assembled in China (for now, Longbridge production is looking likely) but its heart and soul are most definitely British. In a globalized world, does the nationality of a product even exist anymore, anyway?
China Car Times had the pleasure of test driving a cherry red Roewe 550 earlier today, we left with a massive grin on our faces too.
The Roewe 550 is based on the excellent Rover 75 platform, suspension included. The front end of the Roewe 550 has been criticized for looking a bit too much like a Gillette razor blade, the bonnet has two creases running down the center which gives the car quite an aggressive, sporty appearance. The design is such a breakaway from the classiness of the Roewe 750, weÃ¢â¬â¢re wondering if the 750 will get the Gillette style front grill in 2009. The car actually looks quite porky, very rotund, which is also a break from the cigar styled Roewe 750. The 550 measures 4624mm long, 1827mm wide, and 1480mm high, making it a low down car which gives it a sporty stance. Compare that to the Roewe 750 sizing which measures a stately 4865mm long, 1765mm wide, and 1422mm tall. So the 550 is wider, taller, but shorter than the 750, and when youÃ¢â¬â¢re driving the 550, it really does feel like youÃ¢â¬â¢re in control of a super-mini.
The interior on many of the Chinese made cars is what lets China down as a car making nation, the interiors of Geely, Brilliance (zhonghua), Chery, and a whole host of other manufacturers have (mostly) mastered the art of designing a car (i.e. let the Italians do it), the art of building a car (get your Japanese/German partners to help) but the interiors? Some of them are circa 1970Ã¢â¬â¢s Datsun. The Roewe 550 is possibly first Chinese car that actually bucks the interior trend, the leather seats come in two different colors (black, or tan) they support you well, they are comfortable as a seat should be. In addition, the seats can be eased into a million different positional combinations thanks to the series of knobs down the side of the seat, the little knobs and levers almost reminded us of the Ã¢â¬Ëthree sea shellsÃ¢â¬â¢ in the Demolition Man movie, we couldnÃ¢â¬â¢t get them into position properly either, but then I remembered that Roewe is pushing the Ã¢â¬Ëdigital generationÃ¢â¬â¢ theme on this car, anything that could be electrically controlled is electrically controlled. We hope the electrical demons that plagued British cars of past, donÃ¢â¬â¢t catch up with us in 2008. The dashboard sweeps elegantly from side to side, the dash styling looks like it may have been borrowed from SAICÃ¢â¬â¢s Ssangyong brand.
Some might consider the digital center console to be a nod towards the talking dashboards of previous Austin cars, cars that share common heritage and DNA with the modern 550. When you push the massive Ã¢â¬Ëwise keyÃ¢â¬â¢ into the equally massive slot, the dashboard lights up, then you can use the Ã¢â¬Ëthree sea shellsÃ¢â¬â¢ to move your seat into a suitable driving position. Even Captain Kirk, aboard his Starship did not get so many options on how to sit, or fly his vessel. The counters light up in a racy red color, the in dash screen also lights up in red, giving you the options of playing a DVD, listening to music via CD or SDcard (there is a discreet SDcard slot in the dashboard), loading up the GPS Navigation, utilizing the ultra clear reversing camera or just sitting and looking pretty until you need it. The center arm rest opens up to reveal a twin-can drinks cooler, its actually air conditioned, with a small opening at the bottom that can be opened or closed as needed. Next to the arm rest-come-cooler is an ingenious pop drinks holder Ã¢â¬â weÃ¢â¬â¢ve seen pop out cup holders, but never pop up. The hand brake is also a minor work of art, when on, the handbrake is raised out of the center divider, but when down, it disappears like a chameleon into the splendid wood finish of the dash and center. The boot is reasonably big, and the rear seats fold down to allow a greater storage area, although the seat do not fold entirely flat as they would on an SUV or estate, it allows for a much greater cargo area.
Now onto the important bit. The gearbox on the one we tested was a 5speed autobox, with a sports mode, and the usual automatic P,R,N, and D. As well as a gearstick, the Roewe 550 has F1 style paddle shifters either side of the steering wheel, up a gear on the right, and down a gear on the left. As previously mentioned, you push the massive key into the on dash keyslot, push it in once to start the electrics, then push it in deeper to start the car. The car starts with an impressive growl, to stop the engine, you have to push it in again, and it pops out. The key strikes us a useless novelty, but as a Ã¢â¬Ëdigital generationÃ¢â¬â¢ car, perhaps it will sell more. The key is rather large, and we wouldnÃ¢â¬â¢t to walk around with it in our pockets, lest people start wondering if im packing heat, perhaps shoving it in the wasteline of my jeans would make me look gangsta?
As I set off, I was impressed by the quietness of the car, granted we were rolling slowly towards a junction but I had to look down at the RPM counter just to make sure the engine was ticking over, because you just couldnÃ¢â¬â¢t hear it at all from the cabin! We rolled out towards the junction, to a traffic light, then onto the highway. Setting off from the traffic light I left it in drive, but soon moved it into sports mode to gain control of the F1 flippers either side of the wheel. The gear changes in Drive were not totally smooth, and suffered from minor gear shock when changing up, quite a difference from the silky smooth CVT transmissions Im used to on my Nissans. The paddle shifters work very well, and the all important turbo kicked in as soon as we hit around 40kph, giving the car a noticeable boost. One minor niggle I found were the tiny wing mirrors, they may look sporty, but they arenÃ¢â¬â¢t very practical, and make changing lanes a dicey affair. The 550 takes corners with ease at low speeds, and higher speeds, with no noticeable body speeds, the sound of the engine once over 60kph is quite a nice growl for a smaller 1.8 turbo engine, the same engine that graced the Rover 75, Roewe 750, and MG7 1.8T, the 160BHP that the engine produces are not slack when it comes to strutting their stuff. The brakes on the model that I tested were a little spongy, although perhaps that is to be expected of a car that only done 300km in its short life as a test model. The handling of the 550 is quite impressive, once youÃ¢â¬â¢re on the open road the car is easy to open up, and will effortlessly hit high speeds, the small steering wheel is amazingly responsive, giving you the feeling that youÃ¢â¬â¢re actually driving a super mini and not a 4.5m long car.
In previous articles on China Car Times, the Roewe 550 has been talked up a lot, and truth be told, itÃ¢â¬â¢s a car that lives upto those promises. Its luxurios on the inside with its funky technological dashboard, imported German leather seats, excellent woodwork (better than the MG7Ã¢â¬â¢s!) and great quality plastics. It drives like any of its MG predasseors did, if not better, and the best thing of all? Its cheap. The model we test drove was on the market for 180,680rmb, this model with its refinements and quality puts a serious thorn in the side of its international competitors in China, chiefly those in similar price ranges and body styles, such as the Ford Focus, VW Sagitar (Jetta in Europe), VW Magotan etc. If there were a car that would push China forward as a mass car producing nation, it would be the Roewe 550. The 550, with the help of SAICÃ¢â¬â¢s international design teams, has side stepped those Ã¢â¬Ëawkward generationsÃ¢â¬â¢ that Japanese and Korean car companies found themselves in when it came to making cars. The 550 is a car that will prove to European customers that when China utilizes its greatest assets, it can produce a car that can win over the competition, and more importantly willing buyers. But would my aging uncles buy such a car? Probably not, the amount of technology in the car is quite frankly baffling, gone are the retro designs of the late 90Ã¢â¬â¢s and early 2000Ã¢â¬â¢s, ex-Rover designers are certainly strutting their stuff for SAIC in Lemington-Spa, and we cant wait to see what they bring out next. If anyone in Europe wanted a car to replace their Rover 45, or even MG ZS, then the Roewe 550 will be that car, albeit possibly as an MG5.