Baojun 530 in Yinchuan, Ningxia province.
This article inaugurates a new series as part of our China focus at BSCB: test drives of Chinese or China-only cars in China. Now that I have my temporary Chinese driver licence on hand and I can drive anywhere I please with my rental VW Lavida (see Renting a car in China), I thought I’d try my luck at test driving a few cars directly out of local dealerships. Accessing press cars is really difficult in China. The traditional way is through a large press event at the launch of the vehicle where you get to drive the car in a controlled way (I got to do this with Lynk & Co, report to come shortly), but if you missed that then it’s almost impossible. So I figured I might have better luck going directly to dealerships armed with my Chinese license, as temporary as it is. Plus, Yinchuan in the Ningxia province being the largest city I would encounter in the next week, best to start right here. The first car on my wish-list is the Baojun 510, the best-selling new car ever introduced in the world with 416.883 sales in 12 months, beating the previous record held for the past 40 years by the Ford Fairmont with 405.780 units sold in the US in 1978.
SGM Wuling and Baojun store in central YinchuanThe 530 takes centre stage inside the Baojun store.
As is the tradition, the Baojun dealership in central Yinchuan also includes Wuling, the other SAIC-GM-Wuling (SGMW) brand, albeit in a separate space. The nature of the models parked in front of the store says a lot about the company’s current priorities: no Baojun 510 to be seen outside, no Wuling Hongguang S3 either but instead, a handful of dirt-cheap Wuling Sunshine Mini Trucks (see picture above) and a swarm of sparkling-new Baojun 530, the brand’s latest launch. It’s Sunday and the entire sales team is here (6 people) to witness what is probably the first foreigner they’ve ever seen asking for a test drive…
At the wheel…Mandatory selfie
After a few wide eyes and bemused looks, the team collectively apologises for not having a 510 available to test drive. I believe them and don’t think they are chickening out of it because I couldn’t see any outside either. However there is a 530 if I want. Absolutely! They make a copy of my license, make me sign the standard agreement for test drives (or so I assumed, because it was all in Mandarin…) and off we go on my very first test drive of a Chinese car in China… They soon let me behind the wheel, not without a message on the translation app of their phone cautiously asking “Please listen to this driving instruction first: please do not drive violently.” Cute. I’ll do my best I promise. The 530 I’m testing is the mid-range 1.5 Auto going for 98.800 yuan (US$ 15.600 or 13.000€), quite a bit above the entry-level priced at 75.800 yuan (US$ 11.960 or 9.970€) but still far off the top-of-the-range that will set you back 115.800 yuan (US$18.300 or 15.200€). In Chinese standards, reaching almost 100.000 yuan is a symbolic benchmark and already quite a lot of money so expectations will be relatively high for potential local customers.
Baojun 530 interior details
One of the many interests of testing a Chinese car “on the ground” is to evaluate which niceties displayed at the various Auto I’ve attended have survived in the car that actually goes on sale. As far as this 530 is concerned, reassuringly quite a lot of them. The doors are appropriately heavy and produce a full, “important” noise when closing, the pleasant buttons of the central console remain and the sound system is very respectable and can be easily adjusted on the touch screen, changing the focus from the front to the back of the vehicle and adjusting bass and treble. The Bluetooth connection with my mobile phone is instant, which is a lot better than most cars I have driven, including such respected brands as Toyota and Mercedes… One pet hate of mine is the driver’s seat is only manually adjustable, not electric like the Show cars. I guess I can’t expect too much for that price either.
It’s all already on WeChat! “Our French friend test drives the 530. I wish I listened more in English courses!”
Now onto the main reason for test driving Chinese cars: the dynamics. My expectations were very low for the 530, as I had been warned SGMW use obsolete engines. The carmaker use engines originally developed by Daewoo but that have been updated by General Motors since and a bit of research shows that the 150hp 1.5 engine that equips the 530 is also currently used on the Buick Excelle, Chevrolet Sail, Cavalier and Cruze sold in China as well as all the Wuling best-sellers: the Rongguang, Hongguang, Hongguang V, S and S1. Acceleration is slack, the automatic gearbox revs way too much before changing gears but braking is good. The acceleration pedal is too soft and needs full cranking to start reacting, but as frustrating as it is, I have come to realise this is a typical Chinese car characteristic. The 530 is definitely not a vehicle destined to sporty let alone “violent” driving, as mentioned by the Baojun sales reps before… It seems to me the vehicle is too heavy for this engine at 1.435kg, so I’d be curious to see how it performs under the hood of the 510. I made an appointment to test drive a 510 in a week’s time when I return to Yinchuan, so stay tuned…
Baojun 530 in Yinchuan, Ningxia province