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Beijing Auto Show 2016: Our exclusive interview with Laurens van den Acker

BSCB interviewed Laurens van den Acker at the Beijing Auto Show last April.

At the Beijing Auto Show 2016, I had the privilege of interviewing , Senior Vice President of Renault Corporate Design since 2009. Laurens is responsible for all the latest Renault designs, including the Kwid, Twingo, Clio, Captur, Megane, Scenic, Kadjar, Espace, Talisman, and most recently the all-new Koleos revealed in Beijing.

It is a very significant and exciting time for Renault in China, as the French carmaker has just become a local manufacturer with the launch of the China-made Kadjar in March (6.264 deliveries in 3 months). The perfect time to catch up with Laurens and ask him about his perspectives on the Chinese, Indian and other global markets. You will find below a transcript of the interview, originally conducted in French, and as it was the case last year with Dacia, I become the interviewee towards the end…

Laurens van den Acker 

Many thanks to Alexandra Legendre, Deputy Editor at , for making this interview happen. The following abbreviations have been used: LVDA = Laurens van den Acker, AM = L’Automobile Magazine, BSCB = BestSellingCarsBlog.

AM: You have now redesigned  the entire Renault range…

LVDA: With the Alaskan pickup coming up later in 2016, it is true than in just 6 years we have been able to redesign the entire Renault lineup. I was tasked with making beautiful cars with a recognisable identity and a sensual Latin, French style that differentiates itself from Dacia. I believe we are in the process of successfully completing this task indeed. It is very exciting.

Still no plans for Renault to launch the Duster in China. 

AM: We were just discussing this with Matt before, wouldn’t it have made sense to launch the Duster in China?

LVDA: One of the reasons we haven’t launched the Duster here is that we built a factory in Wuhan that is based on the CMF platform which isn’t the one the Duster is using. A Duster launch in China is not completely out of the question, but whereas in Europe we have an advantage with the Duster that has no competitors in its price segment, in China we would be competing with all the Chinese brands. It wouldn’t be standing out from the crowd, and we’d have to fend for ourselves against over 50 local brands.

BSCB: The Duster would be sold under the Renault brand in China?

LVDA: If we launch it in China it would be under Renault yes. The Chinese market is extremely interesting: a few years ago, Chinese brands didn’t seem to really exist, with poor quality and a relatively naive brand image, there were still in their development phase. I remember a few years ago you only saw foreign brands in Chinese cities, but it is now tipping the other way around, with Chinese brands now the main engine of growth here.

2016 Renault Koleos

BSCB: Chinese brands now hold 60% of the Chinese SUV market…

LVDA: Exactly, and the Kadjar and Koleos are for us a fresh opportunity to position the Renault marque a little more upmarket in China. It’s not a luxury we have everywhere, we traditionally are positioned lower in the market. In India for example we have a different strategy. If in China the C and D-segments are the core of the market, in India this type of vehicle is not very successful. To exist there you have to be successful in the smaller segments. In this context the Kwid has been…

The Renault Kwid has exceeded Renault’s expectations in India.

BSCB: …a tremendous success?

LVDA: It has been incredible. Our target was 5% market share in India by 2018 thanks to the Kwid and we believe we will hit that level this year already. But we have to continue being fast to market in India because Indian consumers are a little like Korean ones, they love you one minute and they ditch you the next. I give ourselves two years at most until market leader Maruti Suzuki replicates. We know they have already purchased five Kwid: they are dismantling and analysing them in the most minute detail as we speak, and they are a mighty force to be reckoned with thanks to their 2.000 showrooms vs. just 200 for us. The key for India isn’t to make one good car, but two, three or four. You need multiple pillars to rely on because the fashion effect is strong: the Duster was good for us for two years there but it’s slowing down now. The Kwid arrived just at the right time, but if we do nothing for two years, we’ll get back to square one again, so we have to act now.

Van den Acker says copycat strategies aren’t viable in the long term, nor internationally.

AM: Back to China: are you noticing the copycat phenomenon by Chinese carmakers fading slightly?

LVDA: To me this is still somewhat of a niche phenomenon, it affects everyone but it won’t prevent us from implanting ourselves in China. We are still so small here that we hope no one will bother copying us! In any case, it’s not a long-term strategy, what kind of company can build themselves on copycats? I know there’s a copy of the Range Rover Evoque here [BSCB: the Landwind X7], is that type of vehicle successful commercially?

BSCB: Very. Landwind sold over 10.000 units for the first time in the brand’s history last March mainly thanks to the X7…

LVDA: Still, I don’t see it as a viable long-term, nor international strategy.

Renault Alaskan

BSCB: What’s next for Renault after the Koleos?

LVDA: Our next new nameplate launch is the Alaskan pick-up truck: it will be manufactured in Mexico, Argentina and Spain, but not in China because of the license that was granted to us by the Chinese government which only allows us to manufacture SUVs here at this stage.

AM: Do you regret not coming into China earlier?

LVDA: Of course it’s better to be first in market, but Nissan has managed to get to almost 1 million annual units in China in less than 10 years, so it’s more about how well you use the time you have at your disposal. We will also benefit greatly from Nissan’s experience in the country, that already enabled us to build a factory in less than two years here.

BSCB: What models do you see the Koleos competing with in China?

LVDA: We have tested it and people immediately compared it with the Buick Envision, which I think is a good thing as it is quite successful here?

BSCB: Absolutely. The Envision is averaging roughly 20.000 monthly sales in China.

LVDA: That’s incredible. Any French car that hits that mark in Europe would make us very happy.

China-made Renault Kadjar

BSCB: The Kadjar started well in the Chinese sales charts. Does it compete with the Nissan Qashqai as it does in Europe?

LVDA: I think style-wise we are different, and I may be wrong but I have the feeling that people in China either buy Japanese or German/European but they don’t mix the two. We don’t see much cross-shopping in Europe for example, I am not 100% sure about the situation in China but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case also.

AM: Will you push the Kadjar’s “Frenchness” in China?

LVDA: It’s interesting you should ask that because in China people want the car to be made for them whereas in India it’s the contrary: if the car is made specifically for them they will assume it will be cheap and of poor quality. So in China we will focus on the fact that the car has been made for Chinese consumers.

BSCB: A typically Chinese habit: will you continue selling the previous generation Koleos alongside with the new one in China?

LVDA: It would be difficult for us to do so because the new locally-produced Koleos will be cheaper than the previous imported one. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome in China is our lack of visibility. We just don’t exist here yet.

Fan BingBing is Renault’s ambassador in China.

BSCB: What is your strategy to raise awareness in China?

LVDA: National advertising makes no sense in China because each slice of the market is of an enormous size so you have to segment the market in a lot more detail to reach your exact target audience. We have an ambassador in China, the actress Fan BingBing (X-Men, Iron Man 3) who is extremely famous here, so she will help us. We will also probably use our success in Formula 1 a lot and it’s one of the reasons we have remained in Formula 1: not necessarily for Europe but for emerging markets such as China and India.

BSCB: Are your Chinese dealerships only concentrated on the Eastern seaboard?

LVDA: No, our 128 dealerships are not just in the in the big cities on the coast, we are also targeting Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

BSCB: That’s important because the Chinese countryside are avid buyers of formats such as the Koleos: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson… And brand loyalty is still very low in China so you may have a good chance in these areas where the market is not as mature as on the coast.

[This is where Laurens becomes the interviewer]

LVDA: So do you guys work together?

AM: We collaborate on L’Automobile Magazine and Matt founded BestSellingCarsBlog…

LVDA: I know this site!

AM: …and he’s mad. You can ask him anything about any cars that sell where and he will know. He’s a human database.

BSCB: You’re too kind (big smile). I try to cover the Chinese market as closely as possible…

LVDA: So what is your advice for us in China Matt?

BSCB: To not make the mistake that many foreign manufacturers have made in the past two years in China, including Volkswagen and PSA Peugeot-Citroen.

LVDA: Which is?

BSCB: Not only have many foreigners failed to anticipate the sudden market shift towards SUV and crossovers,  they have also failed to act on it fast, contrary to Chinese carmakers which are gaining significant market share in the segment. With rare exceptions, the foreign carmakers seeing strong growth in China in 2016 are doing so because of new SUV offers in their lineup: Honda and Hyundai for example, whereas Volkswagen has not released anything in this segment since the previous generation Tiguan. With the Koleos and the Kadjar, your current China-made lineup taps right into this current trend which makes you ideally placed for now, but you’ll need to adapt fast if market conditions change.

LVDA: You were saying PSA Peugeot-Citroen don’t really have an SUV offer in China?

BSCB: They do, but it’s an ageing one and although they were once the only foreign manufacturer in China with Volkswagen, it looks like they don’t know this market despite 25 years of presence. Launching the DS 4S hatchback is a mistake: they should be launching one SUV after the next. The 4S sold 72 units in March in China vs. 2.750 for the Kadjar. That says it all.

LVDA: If I learnt something in China, it’s that hatchbacks are only really favoured in Europe…

BSCB: Correct! Also, Peugeot 2008 and 3008 sales are freefalling and the brand should be launching China-exclusive all-new 4008 and 5008 right now [incomprehensibly, the new 3008 was only revealed after the Beijing Auto Show]. On the flip-side, almost all Chinese carmakers present at the Show are launching at least one all-new SUV today, if not more. I believe I know the Chinese market pretty well, but each time I come to a Show I discover dozens of new Chinese models I didn’t even know were in development. Some local carmakers’s entire stands are filled with new models I had never seen before. SAIC-GM sold 42.000 copies of their Baojun 560 in March, 120.000 in 3 months! The Chinese market is evolving so fast, you really can’t afford to stand still.

LVDA: I better go and check them all out!

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (6/6)

Geely Boyue Pic2

Here we are! We have now come to the end of our ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at this year’s Beijing Auto Show. You can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) herePart 2 (#20 to #11) herePart 3 (#10 to #6) herePart 4 (#5 to #3) here and Part 5 (#2) here. And the winner is…

Geely stand at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 – notice the “Founded in 1957” logo to the left.

1. Geely (2,17)

After two consecutive years of Haval domination (see 2014 and 2015), in 2016 the most impressive Chinese carmaker in Beijing is Geely. Everything is clicking into place for the owner of Volvo, from its stand refinement, personnel, models exhibited, novelties, interiors and brochures. Last time I saw Geely in Beijing two years ago it ranked at a paltry 17th place as it was still giving off a confused brand image. Last year in Shanghai the brand shot up to 2nd place overall thanks to an extremely impressive GC9 flagship.

Geely stand at the 2016 Beijing Auto Show

This year, the Geely stand at the Beijing Auto Show definitely had premium notes, with black floor, shiny tiles to enhance its superstar GC9 sedan – now a sales blockbuster with a peak above 6.000 units last December – and show off its “Prime Research China Car of the Year 2016” trophy. Next to the Geely logo high up above the stand and on the main desk, a “Founded in 1957” with a separate logo picturing a man swimming could be found. The origin of this is still unclear as Geely was founded in 1986 as a refrigerator parts manufacturer with money borrowed from family, but the effect on the public is of one marque that has been established for a while. Also, and this is a big as one of my pet hates: Geely has removed all models with defunct brand logos on their grille (such as Gleagle or Shanghai Englon) with all models exhibited sporting a Geely logo – seems like it would go without saying, but not in China where brand strategies can be convoluted.

Geely hosts are actively promoting the Boyue SUV

A heart-warming element at the Geely stand and one that has played a large role in propelling the brand to #1 in our ranking is its intact hunger. Far from losing itself in its sophisticated aspirations, Geely made sure it hired high achievers as its hosts. One in particular, pictured above, went to extensive lengths to promote the new Boyue SUV, always finding an angle to attract by-passers into the conversation and never confining himself to just answering questions. Unprompted, Geely is bent on your experiencing its models to the fullest and this attitude is unique among Chinese carmakers. Two new models were presented at the Show:

Geely GS:

Derived from a concept presented here in Beijing two years ago, the GS has ok exterior design but impresses mostly with its interior quality and materials that are normally seen on cars costing at least two to three times more. The good news is Geely is already trickling down what it showcased in its ground-breaking GC9 through all its new launches.

Geely Boyue backGeely Boyue 3/4 back High-quality Geely Boyue interior

Geely Boyue: 

This is also true for the much-anticipated Boyue SUV. Although technically not a world premiere, Beijing is the first major Auto Show for the Boyue and Geely didn’t spare any efforts to get as many members of the press and public to come an experience inside and out what it hopes will be its new best-seller shortly. If its front design is somewhat bland, the back looks like a Range Rover Evoque – in a good way. And the interior is simply the best of any Chinese car after bar Geely GC9 in terms of material quality, refinement and design.

Geely Boyue Pic4Geely Boyue’s striking engine compartment

Geely Boyue brochure

The Geely’s engine compartment is striking in its layout, leaving the engine at the centre but filling the rest with compact plastic covers that can be opened to reach various tools, a very impressive display that definitely smells like a premium car.  All this for a price starting at an impossibly low 98.800 yuan (US$ 15.200). The Geely brochures are in line with this overall outstanding picture: their toned-down colours and velvety touch exude refinement. I’m sold.

Congratulations Geely! We’ll be back next year for the 2017 Shanghai Auto Show.

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (5/6)

Dongfeng Aeolus A9

Drumroll…. This is the 2nd most impressive Chinese carmaker at this year’s Beijing Auto Show. You can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) herePart 2 (#20 to #11) herePart 3 (#10 to #6) here and Part 4 (#5 to #3) here. All the justifications behind the ranking are below.

2. Dongfeng (11,5)

After dropping to 11th place in Shanghai last year, Dongfeng surges to 2nd place overall in our list of most impressive carmakers at the 2016 Beijing Auto Show. As is the case for the majority of manufacturers in the Top 10, Dongfeng has grown to a size at which it is able to display multiple facets. Firstly, two years after unveiling it as “Concept Number 1” in Beijing 2014, Dongfeng is finally launching a production version of its flagship sedan, calling it the Aeolus A9, and it’s every bit as impressive as it should be, propelling Dongfeng into the league of such Chinese treats as the Hongqi H7 or Roewe 950, despite a refined design still looking decidedly VW-inspired.

Dongfeng A9 Beijing 2016Dongfeng Aeolus A9
Dongfeng stand decorationDongfeng Joyear SX6

The Dongfeng stands themselves (one for DFSK, one for DFM) and their decoration mark a frank progress and now almost aligns with Haval or Geely. Playing right into the SUV tsunami that is engulfing the Chinese market, Dongfeng unveiled no less than four new entrants in this segment and one production-ready concept, the most of any Chinese or international manufacturers at the Show. Though it may lack a bit of personality, the Joyear SX6 is the most current-looking design-wise and is a crossover version of the Joyear S500 MPV.

Dongfeng Fengguang 580Dongfeng Fengguang 580 interior

The Fengguang 580 was the new launch Dongfeng shouted the loudest about in Beijing with its entire DFSK stand dedicated to it. The interior is lightyears beyond what Dongfeng had got us used to in the past. All the gadgets the Chinese consumer is now demanding are here including a massive touch screen in the central console, the closing door noise and glove box opening softness are on-par with foreign manufacturers and the characteristic plastic smell that still taints many Chinese cars is absent. Dongfeng just stepped into world-class.

Dongfeng Fengshen AX5

Building on the success of the Fengshen AX7, omnipresent in more remote areas as we’ll soon see in this year China Photo Report, Dongfeng unveiled the AX3 in Guangzhou and is adding a third member to the Fengshen SUV family in less than 18 months: the AX5. Bonus points for the logical nomenclature, despite common sense still a rarity in China, but the AX5’s interior was blacked out and the doors locked. Dongfeng also presented the Fengdu MX5, slotting below the recently launched MX6 – itself a rebadge of the previous generation Nissan X-Trail.

Dongfeng HUV Concept

In Beijing, Dongfeng also revealed a very playful HUV Concept looking like a big toy and a potential successor to the defunct Toyota FJ Cruiser in the hearts of 4WD fans? Its looks deserve a commercialisation as soon as possible.

Dongfeng Humvee in glorious golden robe

At every major Chinese Show, Dongfeng consistently exhibits its Humvee military vehicle as a link connecting its passenger car lineup with the heavy truck core capability that has made the brand famous in China. But far from lazily showing the same model over and over again, the marque makes sure to vary the pleasures and adds a different spin each time. This year, it was a shining gold example that was shown, and the model continues to bring a lot of attention from the press and the general public.

Dongfeng Military Truck

Dongfeng asserted even further its aspirations in the SUV segment by choosing to exhibit one of the largest vehicles in the entire show: its military truck pictured above. Adding another layer to the brand’s personality that connects it further with its heavy truck heritage, this armoured vehicle is begging for a private-use variant and looks surprisingly good – at least from the front.

Dongfeng E300Dongfeng E300

Finally, the recent kick-start of local production with its joint-venture partner Renault has already spawned the Dongfeng E300, in fact a Renault Fluence EV.

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (4/6)

Cowin X3

We are now getting into the five most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Beijing Auto Show 2016, in other words the creme de la creme. These ultimate spots are full of surprises with two all-new entrants and a new overall leader. But for now we’ll go from 5th to third place. You can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) herePart 2 (#20 to #11) here and Part 3 (#10 to #6) here. All the justifications behind the rankings are below.

5. Cowin (-,-)

Chery spun off the Cowin sub-brand into a standalone marque in August 2014, and premiered it at the Chengdu Auto Show in September of that year, yet didn’t dare to show it off at the 2015 Shanghai Auto Show. It therefore makes its very first appearance in our “most impressive” ranking. And what a start! Far from the Chery stand and proudly displaying its very own identity, Cowin lands directly in 5th place. The Cowin brand is positioned below Chery in price and aimed a younger buyers purchasing their first vehicle. This is where the progress of Chinese brands over the past decade is striking: such a positioning would have then resulted in drab offerings, but Cowin is anything but.

Cowin V3Cowin X5 Concept

Cowin wants to be the “connected” Chinese carmaker and isn’t shy about it on the stand: impossible to miss it. It follows through with an avalanche of new models. Alongside with the current C3 sedan and C3R hatch already in market, Cowin introduced the X3 SUV – designed by , a design agency established by former Pininfarina design director Lowie Vermeersch – and the 7-seat V3 SUV featuring a 10.1-inch screen in the center console. Plus the X5 SUV concept looking decidedly production-ready. Three new very current-looking SUVs for a brand that’s making its first appearance in a major Auto Show? Welcome to China.

Chery Tiggo 7Chery Tiggo 7

4. Chery (20,26)

Last year in Shanghai I liked Chery’s hungry attitude and agreed with the clear direction its two sub-brands were taking (Tiggo for SUVs and Arrizo for the rest). This year Chery confirmed they back in the game and could even be headed back to their glorious time of half-a-decade ago where the brand was among the top-sellers at home. Had I not attended last November’s Guangzhou Auto Show, it would have been the first time I saw the Kia lookalike (in a good way) Arrizo 5, and great progress has been made here already. But the even better news came from the Tiggo sub-brand…

All at once, Chery introduced two new Tiggo SUVs that, for the first time for the brand, get rid of any Toyota RAV4 inspiration. The new Tiggo 7 really impressed with its exterior design, playing right in the current trends and also the creation of , the design agency established by former Pininfarina design director Lowie Vermeersch. No one would be complaining if the new Toyota RAV4 looked like this, which is a massive statement in itself. Chery also unveiled the Tiggo 3X (why not 2 or 4?), with a more conventional design. A slight negative for the brand are its interiors, in clear progress compared to 2015 but not quite up there with the likes of Geely or even Zotye yet.

Chery EV standChery’s EV range

The EV models were neatly assembled in one corner of the Chery stand and all sported the same colour: the Tiggo 7 already present within this range alongside the Arrizo 5 and 7 and the eQ. Finally, Chery went all out with this year’s concept car: the FV2030. It’s nice to have you back Chery.

Chery FV2030 Concept

3. Borgward (-,-)

Some will argue this is a German brand, but its renaissance has nothing to do with Germany and everything to do with China’s Beiqi Foton, property of BAIC Group. Last September, I cringed at how much of a faux pas it was to relaunch the brand at the Frankfurt Auto Show, especially with a misleading “” positioning. I stand by it, it was a mistake. But if the only objective was to get press in China and make the brand look more premium here – like anything European it seems – then it may have been a good idea. In any case, I was expecting a tiny stand with the lone BX7 unveiled just 6 months ago. How far-off was I…

The Borgward stand was as big as most foreign carmakers that have been selling cars for decades, and along the BX7, the marque unveiled two new SUVs: the BX5 and the BX6 TS. The brand smartly played up the “Since 1919” slogan – even though Borgward hasn’t produced any cars since 1961 – as well as its Europan heritage and in a Chinese context the SUVs present on the stand look right on-trend. Why waste time with sedans when SUVs are what Chinese consumers want? Borgward understood it, and it understood it well.

Borgward Isabella Coupe

The iconic 1954 Borgward Isabella Coupe is actually the first car you see when entering the brand’s stand, and a video playing on a giant screen enumerates the brand’s achievements at the peak of its glory: “A direct competitor to Mercedes”, “One of Germany’s Top 4 Carmakers” (along with Volkswagen, Opel and Mercedes), “The most complete product lineup of the time” and “Cumulative sales of 1 million units”. Heritage is a big deal in China so Borgward is right on the mark here.

Borgward BX5

Finally, whereas the BAIC Group still has a lot to learn when it comes to handling brands – exhibiting Senova, Foton Gratour, Huansu and Changhe next to each other this year – it has done a magnificent job with Borgward, located in a separate area from BAIC and standing on its own like a truly established brand. Very impressive.

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (3/6)

FAW X4 Concept grille detail 

Our coverage of the 2016 Beijing Auto Show is back with Part 3 of our ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Show: #10 to #6. You can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) here and Part 2 (#20 to #11) here. All the justifications behind the rankings are below.

FAW Xenia R7

10. FAW (32,13)

After a very disappointing performance in Shanghai last year (#32 in our ranking), FAW is back in the groove in Beijing, showing a multi-faceted personality. The all-new Xenia R7 SUV is right-on trend and impressed with its interior quality, the X4 and X6 SUV concepts are extravagant enough to strike the imagination but close enough to production to announce future launches and show that FAW is not about to waste any time coming up with anything else but SUVs: a good decision. Finally, the armored police truck on show in the exterior stand adds a welcome touch of coolness to the picture. Well done.

FAW Police Truck

FAW X6 ConceptFAW X4 Concept interior
FAW Xiali R7 back

Venucia T90

9. Venucia (23,10)

Launched by Nissan as a low-cost brand to compete with the likes of Baojun, Venucia has pleased me along the years by progressively developing its own identity. Launched last year, the T70 has given the brand a new dimension in the sales charts. This year in Beijing, Venucia took a giant leap towards becoming an independent, full-blown brand perfectly completing Nissan’s offer in China. Last year in Shanghai I said the Vow concept car Venucia presented was “interesting-looking but so far away it is from the current lineup it probably won’t translate into anything tangible”. I am now swallowing my words, because Venucia just launched the production version of the Vow concept, the T90 SUV, in a stroke of genius. The car is simply awesome and boosts Venucia’s credibility by miles. The only reason the brand doesn’t rank high is the poor interior quality of the T70X.

Venucia T70X Venucia T70X interior: still extremely bland.

Leopaard Q6

8. Leopaard (5,29)

Only two years after the brand launch, it now has a rich stand complete with a new SUV (the CS9) and a very cool-looking pimped-up Q6. Leopaard manages to mix its mountain DNA with the indispensable city relevance with a multi-faceted presence at the Show. Outstanding progress again.

Full commentary will follow shortly.

Leopaard CS9Leopaard CS9Leopaard CT7Leopaard CT7 Pickup

Leopaard Q6 interiorLeopaard Q6 back  

BAIC standBAW BJ20

7. BAIC (33,6)

Like SAIC in Shanghai, BAIC plays at home in Beijing and is expected to pull all stops in a chest-beating exercise. Still, I feel like the group went beyond this year with a multitude of concept cars, some very impressive progress in the interior quality of its new Senova X35 SUV, a new brand dedicated to electric cars (Arcfox), an extensive display of SUVs including a few BAW-branded matte-coloured examples, and an enormous police truck on the outside stand. On the negative side, BAIC’s brands are a complete mess: Senova, Foton Gratour, Huasong and Changhe models are all grouped together with no separation or explanation.

Full commentary will follow shortly.

BAIC Senova OffSpace Concept

BAIC Senova X35BAW BJ80 BAIC Senova X55BAIC Arcfox Concepts
Three BAIC brands in one go (from left to right: Gratour, Huansu and Senova…)

Hongqi H7 PHEV 

6. Hongqi (4,2)

Another very impressive performance by Hongqi even though it is struggling to keep pace with its direct competitors in the “most impressive” ranking, resulting in another two spot-drop to 6th place. Hongqi exhibited two very sharp-looking concepts: the S Concept SUV and the B Concept sedan, both featuring futuristically appealing interiors. The H7 got a facelift that takes it away slightly from its previous generation Skoda Superb look and the retro-cool L5 was present again even though it is still not on sale and probably never will be.

Hongqi L5 Concept

Last year Hongqi surprised with a seemingly-production ready LS5 SUV, a Chinese-luxury version of a Range Rover, and this year it is still here as a concept, disappointingly. I had to beg for about half-an-hour, look dejected, give up, come back one hour later and do the same thing again to finally be allowed in the LS5 cockpit. Although refined, I understand the brand’s reticence to let me in as the quality is no match for the most recent and sophisticated offerings by Geely, Haval, GAC Trumpchi, Soueast or even Zotye.

Hongqi S Concept:

Hongqi B Concept:

Hongqi B ConceptHongqi B Concept interior

Hongqi LS5 interior: 

Geely, Haval, GAC Trumpchi, Soueast or even Zotye are now coming up with better-finished, more refined interiors.

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (2/6)

A surprise lurks at #11…

This is Part 2 of my ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Beijing Auto Show 2016, you can see Part 1 (#30 to #21) here. We are progressively climbing up the ladder, now covering positions #20 to #11. Given how fast Chinese carmakers are improving, ranking within these positions now means you are doing very well indeed, and sometimes are among the best in terms of quality. But it’s the whole package we are looking for. A big surprise awaits at #11… All the justifications behind the rankings are below.

Changhe Q35 

20. Changhe (34,-)

BAIC has decided the Changhe brand can play a differentiated role in its large stable as youthful and accessible, and is therefore suddenly reviving it at breakneck speed. Only one month after the Q25 went on sale in China, Changhe presents a bright orange Q35 looking better than its inspiration, the BAIC Senova X35 (more on this one later) along with a crossovered-up Q25 next to it, and accompanies the whole thing with an aggressive advertising campaign in the subway stop of the Exhibition Hall. The new naming code is consistent so far, the exterior design and interior quality are miles ahead of what Changhe got us used to and it’s all heartwarming to see. Last year we thought the Changhe brand was almost dead – it’s definitely not, and we should expect a lot more fun-looking rebadges in the near future.

Changhe advertising outside the Exhibition Hall 

Changhe Q25

Soueast DX Concept – with Mitsubishi footage

19. Soueast (8,18)

Logically, the DX7 SUV – unveiled last year in Shanghai – now accounts for the large majority of Soueast sales. Its interior quality was extremely impressive last year and it still is this year, especially in the sporty version exhibited. Soueast had announced an all-new DX3 for Beijing, which would have kept the brand inside the Top 10, instead we got a striking but decidedly concept-looking DX. It’s a pity, and Soueast should be careful not to become a one-hit-wonder. Also, its ties with joint-venture partner Mitsubishi seem inextricable, which prevents the brand from blossoming fully.

Soueast DX7 interior

Baojun 310

18. Baojun (9,12)

Baojun is the sales success story of the past two years: it has gone from nothing to half a million sales in 2015 and is headed towards over 800.000 this year. All this thanks to only two nameplates: the 730 MPV unveiled two years ago in Beijing and the 560 SUV launched in Shanghai exactly a year ago. So when I stepped onto the Baojun stand I was bracing for another stroke of genius such as another SUV or a new format about to revolutionise the Chinese market: a cross between an SUV and an MPV, a 9-seat SUV – who knows. Yes, this is the type of expectations Chinese carmakers have got us used to!

Baojun standBaojun stand

Alas, Baojun did launch a new nameplate this year but it was the 310, a small hatchback seemingly out-of-touch with the consumer tastes of today, but if Baojun says so, I tend to want to follow. Perhaps this is the next big thing in China. As it is the case for all Baojun-branded nameplates, the interior quality is a lot better than what you’d expect for the price, estimated to start at 45.000 yuan (US$7.000). The Baojun stand gets bigger and bigger as the Shows come along, now looking clean and fresh with a green and while colour scheme. We are fans.

Baojun 310 interior

Lifan stand at the Beijing Auto Show 2016

17. Lifan (15,21)

Lifan is in dire straits, with sales plummeting down 77% year-on-year so far in 2016. The X70 and X40 the brand unveiled in Shanghai last year were all bluff: they never saw the light of day. In this context I was half-expecting not to see Lifan at all this year in Beijing. Not so. Rising from the ashes like the phoenix, Lifan showed us they won’t go without a fight, with a new 650 sedan but most importantly a new 7-seat SUV: the Maiwei. Front and center on the Lifan stand – and rightly so – the Maiwai is conforming to the current design trends outside, but it’s inside that the brand’s progress is the most blatant…

Lifan Maiwei 

Lifan Maiwei interior

Lifan had used us to completely outdated interiors made of shiny plastic and looking positively cheap. In this domain, the Maiwei is light-years ahead of anything Lifan has produced so far. Still not reaching the top of the crop of Chinese carmakers – that would be a miracle – it is now in the same field as Baojun which is a good thing because the two brands compete on price. A very enthusiastic staff (“This car is called the Maiwei: It’s My Way! giggles-giggles) and the guts to step away from its numerical naming round up a very good performance of the brand in Beijing. In other words, Lifan is finally where it belongs on the Chinese scale. Now it needs the sales to cement this progress.

Maxus D90 Concept 

16. Maxus (13,15)

At each Auto Show, LCV specialist and SAIC-owned Maxus comes up with its own little lot of surprises, but this year is the best so far, so don’t be fooled by the brand’s slightly lower ranking, it just means everyone is improving fast(er). Taking me completely by surprise and cleverly adapting the local SUV craze to its own strength – large,  functional and increasingly sleek MPVs – Maxus revealed a D90 Concept that looks very enticing indeed. Some might say it even takes cues from the new Jaguar F-Pace, which would be one heck of a compliment. Granted, it’s only a concept, but damn it looks good and knowing the Chinese, they wouldn’t display such a demonstration of style and force if there weren’t any production plans behind it. Please Maxus, give us the D90. Now.

…also looking sexy from the back.

Changan stand at Beijing Auto Show 2016

15. Changan/Chana (7,8)

The performance of Changan at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 is one of constant progress – as its ranking does not indicate. The marque has grown to be the third largest best-selling in China below just Volkswagen and Wuling and above all the Japanese and Korean offers, which is an astounding exploit in itself. The CS75 and CS35 SUVs have continued to post staggering sales figures month after month and the recently launched CS15 looks like it’s headed the same way. The Changan stand was enormous and introduced the new CS95, sporting a Geely-inspired grille making it look more aggressive than its overall silhouette.

Changan CS95 grille

The disappointing element of my Changan review last year in Shanghai was the uneven interior quality of its lineup: apart from the very strong CS75 the rest was falling apart. This is now sorted, with CS35 and CS15 interior quality on par with the CS75 – a major achievement in itself. Annoyingly though, the brand persists in its schizophrenic ways, once again splitting between Changan and Chana – supposedly its commercial vehicle division but now selling passenger cars as well. Chana had a large stand outside all exhibition halls across the West entrance, meaning you must go through it if you enter the Show this way but chances are you will never see it if you come in and out through the media entrance. The Oushang and CX70 were promoted on the Chana stand with both models featuring the specific Chana logo. Argh, one of my pet hate: two logos for one brand.

Changan CS15 interior Chana Stand Chana stand and Chana CX70

The Chana hostesses were as welcoming as last year in Beijing, giving away goodie bags to every passing visitor. It all sounds reasonably good an better than last year, so why does Changan not rank higher in 2016? There was just no real excitement, energy and pride on the stands, it felt like business-as-usual everywhere, there were no race car to spice up the Changan stand, no frank smiles on the hosts. It all was very professional, which is a good thing, but lacked that little bit of p’zaz to sparkle. Changan is a big player now, but is in the process of losing its soul.

GAC Trumpchi GS8: the most American-looking Chinese SUV?

14. GAC (12,3)

Since Shanghai last year and therefore in less than 12 months, the GAC Trumpchi brand has gone from tiny player to mainstream Chinese car manufacturer – no less – thanks to the tremendous success of the GS4. Its interior design as well as that of the GA8 flagship sedan are simply irreproachable. There is flair, a unique style and robust yet smooth quality inside, something only a handful of Chinese carmakers are offering at the moment. After sponsoring the Transformers Hollywood movie in 2014, GAC Trumpchi has made no secrets about wanting to enter the U.S. market. A date has even been set: 2017.

GAC Trumpchi GA8GAC Trumpchi GA8

If next year may sound a tad enthusiastic, to GAC’s credit its lineup is starting to look like something the Yankees could spend their hard-earned cash on. Topping up the sleek looking lineup along the GS4 and GA8, the all-new GS8 takes the brand’s SUV offer a step further, right into American territory with its angular looks, disproportionately large grille and square-crossed headlights. If the interior quality matches that of its predecessors (it was closed to the press), we have a serious competitor to the Toyota Highlander here.

GAC Trumpchi GS4 interior

As it is the case for most Chinese manufacturers having succeeded in the SUV segment, this size is a test as it has traditionally been reserved to foreign manufacturers. The Haval H8 and H9 are flops so it will be interesting to see if GAC can pull another miracle off with the GS4.

Roewe RX5

13. Roewe (14,19)

In Shanghai, SAIC’s Roewe drowned a near-absence of novelties with an outlandishly large stand and a pompous attitude. Beijing not being the manufacturer’s home territory, I wasn’t expecting much from Roewe this year. I was wrong. It has been a long time coming but Roewe finally has an SUV with the potential to take its sales to the next level and above: the RX5 looks sleek, expensive and trendy but it’s inside that the real innovations are. Dubbed by the brand as “the world’s first mass-produced super internet SUV”, the RX5 is the first model equipped with the Yun OS software jointly developed with Chinese tech Alibaba (the equivalent of Amazon in the U.S.). The RX5 is taking the brand younger – targetting the 26-35 year-old age group – and comes complete with plug-in hybrid and battery electric versions, also exhibited at the Show. An impressive move from Roewe.

Zotye T300 Concept

12. Zotye (17,7)

The first striking element when entering the Zotye stand in Beijing is the fact that it is the only one of all Chinese manufacturers that actually looks… Chinese! Kudos on Zotye for pulling this pretty obvious trick and not falling into the trap of hiding its origins – something most Chinese carmakers seem bent on doing. I came to the Zotye stand with a snark on my face as the recently-launched SR7 has pulled Zotye further down into the murky waters of copycat. Smartly, the brand did not overly feature this nameplate on their stand – unlike Landwind the X7 in Shanghai – preferring to focus on other news. And they won me over again.

Zotye stand

The T300, although technically a concept, looks very close to production and has some very pleasing details such as its criss-crossed gaping grille and Zotye-branded brightly coloured brake pads (see pics below). The best-seller T600 came in a new Sport variant with a more aggressive snout and some pret-ty cool technology inside. I must admit I gasped at the rising rotary shifter (see below) and the cordless phone charger. Now keep in mind the maximum you will ever pay for a new Zotye T600 is US$18.500. A very strong performance from Zotye this year, lightyears ahead of its candid appearance at Beijing in 2014.

Zotye T600 Sport interior including rising rotary shifter and phone cordless charger under the armrest.

Zotye T300 Concept

Zotye T300 Concept details

Haval H7

11. Haval (1,1)

I can hear the gasps coming from all across the BSCB readership: yes the leader of the past two years doesn’t even rank inside the Top 10 this year. Let’s be clear: Haval has not lowered its standards and is still one of the Top 5 Chinese brands that could enter mature markets such as Europe or the U.S.A. immediately and succeed at it. However I felt like Haval was at a standstill compared to last year. The stand was more or less the same, there was no new nameplate presented as the H7 is only going on sale now whereas it was unveiled a year ago in Shanghai, the layout of the stand put most models in the shadows, the two concepts looked suspiciously similar to last year’s, there was no spectacular Haval Dakar 4WD to brighten up the mood and everything was grey and sharp yet professional but a rather static.

Haval H7 interior

A facelifted H2 was shown on the side of the stand on the first press day but had disappeared by day 2. The hostesses are still running to open the door when there’s a sign you might be interested in stepping in a vehicle but it’s all a little mute with no vigour or cantor. This year, Haval sales are only up thanks to heavy price cuts on the H6, with the H1 and H2 in decline, the ageing H5 in freefall and the H8 and H9 never having taken off. The H7 will be a true test for Haval: will customers follow the brand up and transfer sales from the H6 to the H7 or is the price point (148.800-168.800 yuan or US$23.100-26.200) too high? Once again, two concepts, one late launch and one half-baked facelift are what most foreign carmakers gave us in Beijing this year, but in a Chinese context it’s just not cutting it.

Haval H7 interior

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The most impressive Chinese carmakers (1/6)

Gotta like orange… Foton Gratour ix7 

The wait is over. As is now the tradition at BSCB, I give you the ranking of the Chinese carmakers that impressed me the most at this year’s Auto China 2016 in Beijing. Now in its third iteration, this ranking is getting tuned each year as my expectations of each brand vary based on what I saw in the past three Chinese Auto (Guangzhou 2015 was too small to warrant a full ranking). The Beijing Auto Show is smaller than Shanghai, so this year truck specialists are not included and only brands that could make it into the Top 30 are featured: the competition is getting tough!

Everything comes into consideration in the building of this ranking: from the interior/exterior quality and design of the models exhibited, the number/validity of new cars, concept cars, staff availability, savviness and friendliness as well as whether or not they improved since last year, met/exceeeded my expectations or plain disappointed. As always we are going up the ladder from last to first in pure, old-fashioned hit parade tradition. In brackets is first the brand’s ranking last year at the Shanghai Auto Show, second its ranking in Beijing two years ago. We start with brands ranked #30 to #21.

Not ranked: Wuling (-, 11), Landwind (28, -), Weichai Enranger (-,-), Denza (35,27), MG (22,20), Brilliance/Huasong/Jinbei (25,24/18,-/24,16)

These brands do not make it into the Top 30, either because they did not have a stand at the Show or because their performance was too discreet. In the case of Wuling, it is now the second time SAIC-GM decides to pass on dedicating a stand for the best-selling local brand (over 1.5 million sales in 2015) and #2 brand in China overall below Volkswagen. A decision that keeps surprising me Show after Show, especially given the company is spitting out updated versions of its best-seller the Hongguang faster that it takes to write these lines. An aggressive-looking S1 (picture above) was hiding in the corner of one Baojun lineup brochure, and the Hongguang S featured in the Baojun highlight video screen, but that is all.

As for Landwind, after exhibiting its Evoque-clone, the X7, last year in Shanghai in a rather impressive stand, the manufacturer is absent in Beijing as it was already the case two years ago. Newcomer Weichai Enranger was relegated to an outside stand almost impossible to find, Denza had nothing new to show us for the 2nd consecutive years as did MG whose stand only featured a sponsorship with the Liverpool soccer club – a partnership that is already in the open as it is included in all MG China advertising. Brilliance is faithful to a very clear separation of its three brands (along with Jinbei and Huasong) but an absence of novelties keeps them away from the ranking despite the very welcome distribution of water bottles on the stand – surprisingly the only manufacturer doing so in the entire Show…


30. Qoros (6,25)

Last year in Shanghai I was impressed by the ambience and attitude of the Qoros brand sticking to its positioning of European sophistication. This time it all fell flat. The Qoros stand was a pale copy of the one from Shanghai and was almost completely deserted by the press whereas in 2015 it was the place to be. Yes the 5 SUV is a step in the right direction for the brand and the interior quality is good but if two-three years ago the Qoros interiors were among the very best for a Chinese brand, they have now fallen behind – a testimony to the speed at which all Chinese manufacturers are improving.

A Qoros stand looking decidedly empty

Haima V70

29. Haima (26,4)

Two years ago in Beijing, Haima ranked 4th in my Most Impressive list due to a very playful and confident launch of the S5 SUV. This time the only new nameplate on offer is an already dated V70 MPV – losing me in passing with their naming codes. On the side, credit to Haima for flying solo and shedding all tying links with its joint-venture partner Mazda. The ambience of the stand is pleasing mix of black, blue and white (the cars) giving a sophisticated touch, unfortunately not matched by the interior still made of way to much shiny plastic. In two years Haima’s S5 has imposed itself as one of the best-selling SUVs in the country, especially in more remote areas. The least we would have expected is for Haima to launch at least one, better: two new SUVs, such as a S1 and S3 for example. Next year in Shanghai?

Haima S5Haima S5

BYD Yuan 

28. BYD (3,14)

In Shanghai last year I was stunned by BYD’s revival, dynamism and clarity on their “Dynasty series” SUV launches. Unfortunately there is nothing new on the the brand’s stand this year apart from a Qin 100 EV sedan, meaning 100 miles range. BYD looks like it’s still trying to find itself, with SUVs and crossovers taking centre stage (and rightly so) but an hesitation in positioning: is it all about eco-friendly transportation (the brand’s big shout last year) or a more youthful, playful and pragmatic angle as illustrated by the hosts dressed in overalls and tee-shirts? The latter positioning would suck in a lot more sales if you ask me.

Nice try, but the canary colour won’t hide a rather bland design for the JMC S330.

27. JMC (16,22)

A year ago JMC entertained with outlandish SUV concepts, looking very exciting indeed. In 2016 it’s back to work for JMC and the first new nameplate in a long while, the Yusheng S330, albeit completely on-trend, on-format, on-design, is very bland compared to what we saw in concept. In fact, the S300 could have been released three years ago that we wouldn’t have noticed. At the speed at which Chinese carmakers are improving, this is clearly not a good sign for JMC. On the side, the bright colours that hurt the eyes last year (in a good way) are back, with two examples of the S330 in canary yellow and night blue present on the stand, but in a way they stress the bland design a little further. Please bring back the spark in Shanghai next year JMC!

JAC SC5 concept

26. JAC (19,9)

With the Refine S3 and S2, JAC has been one of the main beneficiaries of the sales rush towards small Chinese crossovers over the past couple of years, so they are forgiven for not having much energy left for its local Auto. Profit über alles, and there is nothing wrong with that. Based solely on their presence at the Show though, JAC is sliding down the ranking each year. What saves it from a worse ranking is an appetising-looking SC5 concept, which would be welcome as the next generation Refine JS5 SUV. On the negative side, JAC still hasn’t chosen between two logos, with its models featuring both once again in Beijing: the JAC letter on a blue oval, or the Mercedes-inspired star. Which is for what, we (they) will never know…

Hawtai is headed in the right direction

25. Hawtai (31,30)

Originally limited to assembling clones of outdated Hyundai SUVs under license, Hawtai has been stuck at the bottom of my Most Impressive rankings both in 2014 and 2015, mainly due to low quality interiors. The brand is stepping up this year, with two novelties on its stand: the xEV260 all-electric SUV based on the Shengdafei and an all-new imposing “Plus” large SUV disrceetly exhibited. Though still not among the best in China, the materials are in progress and it looks like Hawtai is slowly but surely finding its groove and stepping away from its Hyundai heritage. The fact that it is taking a lot longer to improve than most Chinese brands isn’t necessarily a bad sign, it also shows they are careful to avoid a burnout. This makes me look forward to what Hawtai will have in store in 2017 in Shanghai.

LeSEE Super Car Concept

24. LeSEE (-,-) 

Boldly self-annointed as the Chinese Tesla, LeEco is the equivalent of Netflix in China and is led by charismatic CEO Jia Yueting. Unveiled before the Show on April 20, the LeSEE Super Car stole the headlines in the local press. It is symbolic of Chinese tech companies invading the auto industry the same way Google and Apple are doing in the U.S. The concept is a premium D-Class internet autonomous EV with a max speed of 130 km/h – hardly enough to compete with the Tesla Model S. One of the innovations coming from LeEco is the fact that this car could be free to own based on a content subscription to LeEco, in the same manner as Apple is subsidising the iPhone with long-term data plans. Although very alluring, it definitely looked like a concept in Beijing, preventing it from climbing up higher in the ranking. We’ll have to wait and SEE.

LeSEE interior

Qiantu K50

23. Qiantu (-,-)

Another Chinese EV supercar present in Beijing is this Qiantu K50, looking very impressive indeed. It debuted at the Shanghai Auto Show last year but it somehow fell through the cracks. This time, impossible to miss the Qiantu stand, as big as Lexus across the aisle and spectacularly focused on just one example of the K50. The clever use of space has an effect not dissimilar to what Lamborghini achieves on relatively small stands. The VIP area looks very exclusive indeed, the brochure has its place among the most luxurious brands in the world and makes it look like the K50 is already on sale. Almost: the company reportedly started building its plant in Suzhou, with an on sale date set for 2017. Here too, given the myriad of super car brands that promise outstanding performances and never deliver, we’ll believe it when we see it, but given it seems a lot closer to production than the LeSEE, Qiantu ranks higher.

Foton Gratour ix7

22. Foton “Gratour” (10,25)

After a very impressive show of strength last year in Shanghai, surprisingly there was no Foton stand in the inside halls in Beijing. Only an outdoors stand dedicated to heavy truck – Foton’s first love – and… the Gratour ix7. Futon’s owner, BAIC, is a champion at confusing us with sub-brands that behave like brands but are in fact rebadges, and does it again with the all-new Gratour label. One ix7 was exhibited in the BAIC Group stand next to a Huansu S6 and Senova X55 (more on this later) and two of them were front-stage in the outdoors Foton stand. also features the ix5 – which we’re going to assume has five seats instead of seven for the ix7. Both look the same and really like a smaller Mercedes van. Foton remains faithful to the “Loud” positioning we enjoyed with a ix7 Boom Box complete with giant bass speakers. Bonus points for the effort but this is still all very confusing to me.

And one new logo under the BAIC umbrella, one! 

Yet the Gratour models are exhibited under a big Foton logo on the outdoors stand…

Foton Gratour ix7 Boom Box detail 

Changjiang e.Cool

21. Changjiang / Long River (-,-)

We are not in an Chinese Auto Show without a surprise brand popping up on the scene before my rounded out eyes. In 2014 it was Leopaard, in 2015 Huasong and in 2016 it’s Changjiang – translated into “Long River” on the logo. Strategically positioned in the SAIC exhibition hall, Changjiang is one of the first manufacturers you will see when you enter through the media entrance. Very clever, and enormous kudos for booking a full sized stand at the Show, exhibiting a range 100% electric whose e.Cool (pictured) has the highest sales potential. Originally a bus manufacturer, Changjiang also has a couple of them on its stand, making it look like the brand has been eating these Shows for breakfast. Behave like an adult and you will get taken seriously. Sure, the models aren’t the sexiest but a very impressive effort nonetheless.

Stay tuned for the next batch of brands, going from #20 to #11…

Changjiang e.Cool

Changjiang stand

Changjiang e.Cool

Beijing Auto Show 2016: The Ten Highlights

Dongfeng A9 at the Beijing Auto Show 2016

It’s finally here! Auto China 2016, the largest Auto Show in the world, alternates between Shanghai and Beijing and this year it’s the turn of the “Capital of the North” – as its name literally means in Mandarin – to host this gigantic event. As you all know, at BSCB we attach particular importance to the Chinese market due to its size, fast evolution and critical place on the world scene. A “China” section was even created in our new navigation tab earlier this year to put our entire Chinese coverage at your finger tips, and multiple monthly updates are published to keep you abreast of the latest developments in this fascinating market.

Announced at 220.000 square meters of exhibition space, Beijing 2016 is indeed the largest Auto Show in the world this year, but pales in comparison with Shanghai which still felt at least twice as big if not more. This year, as it has been the case for our Beijing 2014 and Shanghai 2015 coverages, we will start with the Highlights of the Show. We will then publish our much anticipated ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers will be unveiled, and I can already reveal that a lot of feathers have been ruffled atop the charts! You can refresh your memory before the big unveiling and check out our “Most Impressive” rankings at Beijing 2014 and Shanghai 2015. Finally I’ll pop in an exclusive interview with Laurens Van Den Acker, Senior Vice President of Corporate Design at Renault, a new player in the China-made scene.

These are the  Ten Highlights of the Beijing Auto Show 2016. If you only read one article about the Show, make it this one.

Chinese carmaker Chery impressed with the Tiggo 7.

1. No one can keep up with Chinese carmakers

After two years of frantic launches in all segments and prices, with hundreds of new nameplates hitting the local market, I came into Beijing with reserved expectations about Chinese carmakers. Surely they couldn’t keep up with the rhythm they have accustomed us to so far. This was underestimating them again… Out of the 50-odd world premieres the Show had to offer 35 were from Chinese carmakers, and 25 of them in the SUV segment. If most foreign manufacturers are starting to pant at the lightning speed at which the Chinese market is evolving, local players are nonsed and continue to align relevant model after relevant model, adhering more closely each year to the very specific – and changing – needs of the Chinese customer.

Roewe revealed the RX5 SUV…

The speed at which most Chinese brands are releasing new models is unprecedented in the history of automobile and their unabated focus on the SUV segment is another proof – if we needed one – that they are not ready to waste time and energy in segments that are losing momentum, such as sedans. Where foreigners persist in launching hatchbacks and 4-doors, hoping for a larger share of a shrinking pie, Chinese carmakers have their eyes on the prize and will bolster the SUV growth even further over the coming years with an ever-expanding list of offerings that are getting dangerously close to their Western competitors’ quality for an unbeatable price.

…and GAC the Trumpchi GS8

Brands that we thought had lost their shine of late came back with a vengeance (Chery, Roewe, Dongfeng, FAW, BAIC), others are building on astonishing SUV successes (GAC, Baojun, Changan, Leopaard, Zotye). Some came from literally nowhere (Borgward, Cowin, LeSee), others are going from low-cost to mass at lightning speed (Geely, Venucia) while seemingly condemned ones won’t go without a fight (Lifan). There were some naughty pupils such as Brilliance, BYD and – to a lesser extent – Haval and but all-in-all it is almost impossible to fault any Chinese brand this year for not trying hard enough.

FAW Hongqi Sedan Concept

The Chinese car scene is evolving at a speed we have never witnessed before, and all cards seem to be redistributed at the start of each year, or each Auto Show. Where foreign manufacturers would ask for a break, Chinese ones hold their breath and fight even harder. As always, it is utterly exciting to see all this change happening so fast before our eyes and one of the reasons why we extend our coverage of Chinese manufacturers each year. Stay tuned for our Most Impressive ranking coming up soon…


2. Chinese Internet companies steal the Show

Aside from the mainstream Chinese brands we have grown familiar to and in line with the U.S. players that are disrupting their local industry such as Tesla, Apple and Google, the big novelty this year in Beijing was the thunderous unloading of large Internet players onto the Chinese automobile scene. LeEco, the Chinese Netflix, unveiled the concept for its self-anointed “Tesla beater”, the LeSEE, looking very impressive indeed but still very far from a production model.

Faraday FutureFaraday Future FF Zero1 

Also backed by LeEco, Faraday Future showed its outlandish FF Zero1 – a sort of futuristic one-seater Batmobile – that had its World Premiere earlier this year in Las Vegas. Jia Yueting, founder of LeEco, says that the car of tomorrow will be connected, electric, self-driving and… free! He considers the car as just a larger smartphone or tablet on wheels, another channel to sell content to his customers. Subsidising the car for a recurring content subscription the way Apple does with the iPhone starts to make total sense from this angle. LeEco isn’t the only Chinese tech to have invaded the auto world this year: Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are all making their way into it, with Alibaba recently partnering with giant SAIC. The Chinese car industry is not only evolving at breakneck speed, its borders with other tech industries are also blurring fast.

2017 Ford F-150 Raptor

3. Ford finally officially launches its iconic F-150 Raptor in China

We at BSCB always try and approach the Auto we visit with a specific sales angle. Gone very much under the radar in Beijing, the decision by Ford to officially launch the 2017 F-150 Raptor in China later this year is in fact a very symbolic one that warrants big headlines. If you have been following our Chinese Photo of the past couple of years (see China 2014 Photo and China 2015 Photo), you will be familiar with the recurring theme of “One Ford F-150 Raptor and one Toyota Tundra in each city”. Indeed, in absolutely every Chinese city I have ever visited – big or small – I would without fault always spot at least one of each nameplate.

It would be mundane were it for the fact that neither is currently officially sold in China, they are privately imported from the U.S. and sold locally at an extortionate price. Yet the Chinese can’t seem to get enough of them, indicating a significant pent-up demand for this type of vehicles. It would appear Ford U.S. has been reading BSCB as they will start officially selling the 2017 Raptor here later this year, the fact that the Chinese government is in the process of cancelling laws preventing pickups from entering big cities probably also helping. This shows that Americans manufacturers are starting to get China very right indeed. GM had a new Buick LaCrosse in Beijing after unveiling the new Excelle GT and Verano in Guangzhou last November, Jeep introduced its China-made Renegade and distributed very sleek brochures celebrating its 75th anniversary and Lincoln also did extremely well as we’ll see further down. It’s not by chance that GM outsold VW in China for the first time in a decade in 2015. Also, where was the Toyota Tundra TRD on Toyota’s stand? Nowhere, you guessed it.

Renault unveiled the All-new Koleos in Beijing

4. Renault makes a splash

Just one month after the Kadjar made its first appearance in the China-made sales charts, French manufacturer Renault went all guns blazing in Beijing with the World Premiere of the all-new Koleos. Renault kick-started its very first Chinese assembly plant in Wuhan earlier this year and is determined to not make the same mistakes its compatriot PSA Peugeot-Citroen made in this country, namely missing out big time on the SUV wave despite being installed in China for almost 25 years. The marketing budget Renault has unlocked for the Beijing Auto Show is impressive, with large Kadjar banners facing the subway exit into the Show and a gigantic digital screen spanning 200 meters across a large building in construction one block away from the Exhibition Center (see pictures below).

Renault Kadjar at Beijing Auto Show 2016

Renault has carefully laid out its stand to ensure the connection with its Formula 1 success isn’t missed by any visitor. This connection has done wonders to position the French manufacturer upmarket in India, and Renault wants to replicate this situation for the Chinese market.

Fan BingBing is Renault’s ambassador in China.

The choice of ambassador for the Renault Kadjar in China is also telling: where another French carmaker, DS, selfishly selected Gallic actress Sophie Marceau – unknown in China – Renault opted for Fan BingBing (X-Men, Iron Man 3), a huge superstar in her home country and able to bring the brand a lot closer to its Chinese audience.

Renault Kadjar banners featuring Fan Bingbing and giant digital advertising across the Show.

Citroen unveiled the All-new C6

Renault is spending big bucks to impose itself in the ultra-competitive Chinese market, and with 3 SUVs in its lineup (Koleos, Kadjar and Captur) it is playing its cards right to succeed at doing so. It better be, because the long-term annual sales target of 800.000 set by Carlos Ghosn in 2014 is an extremely ambitious one. In comparison, Peugeot, Citroen and DS completely missed the mark in Beijing this year. If in 2015 I was awestruck by the Peugeot CEO Maxime Picat delivering his entire speech in Mandarin, this year it seemed the speech was more or less the same and the accent was definitely French. The only ‘novelty’ Peugeot had to offer was a thinly facelifted 3008 while DS had nothing (the 4S hatch was launched in Guangzhou) and Citroen a C6 “Luxury sedan” that looks positively cheap from the outside.

The Lincoln Stand at the Beijing Auto Show 2016

5. Lincoln the most impressive stand

Another proof that Americans are getting China very right, Lincoln’s presence at the Show was by far the most sophisticated, aspiring and in touch with the Chinese customer. The layout of the stand, the innovative welcome desk (see above), the hostesses, the lineup (compact SUVs and large sedans), the personal hosts guiding potential customers through the models and the stand, the waterfall, the ‘hidden’ VIP section featuring all the materials used in the cars as well as a new Continental more accessible to explore, the mix of modernity and heritage with a vintage Continental exhibited… Everything, everyone and everywhere is on-brand, on-point, on-target. “Impeccable Craftsmanship” it was. Bravo.

Lincoln heritage and waterfall

Acura CDX and NSX

6. Acura the latest local producer

After Renault with the Kadjar in March and Jaguar with the XFL in April, Acura is the third worldwide OEM to enter the China-made arena in 2016 with the very China-adequate CDX compact SUV. The stand smartly connected it with the brand’s flagship, the NSX, and although not particularly striking, it falls right into the bullseye of luxury SUVs with its sights firmly set on the Lexus NX and the upcoming Infiniti QX30. Infiniti manufactures the Q50L sedan and the QX60 SUV locally since 2015, so among Japanese luxury brands it leaves just Lexus as pure importer in China. Toyota has no plans to start assembling Lexus locally in the near future though.

Hyundai unveiled the new generation Verna at the Show

7. The Koreans still as hungry as ever

Just as the Elantra Lingdong launched in market in March, Hyundai hasn’t wasted any time renewing another best-seller, the Verna (aka Accent) with a new generation unveiled at the Show as a World Premiere – a clear sign of how critical the Chinese market is for the Korean manufacturer. The Hyundai stand had a separate area for new luxury brand Genesis with the G90 and G80 exhibited and a smooth, silky ambience in the refined corner and hostesses were eagerly distributing the Hyundai Premium D magazine. Kia had a refreshed K3 and a facelifted K4 among other novelties: it appears Korean manufacturers are the only ones able to keep up with the frenetic launch rhythm set by Chinese carmakers at home…

Kia K3 A facelifted Vios is pretty much all the new material Toyota had to offer at the Show

8. …while Toyota is asleep at the wheel…

If Ford smartly launched the F-150 Raptor (in the absence of any other novelties), the Tundra TRD was nowhere to be seen on the Toyota stand. Last year in Shanghai, the focus of Toyota was on its new Corolla and Levin Hybrid. This year in Beijing, the focus of Toyota is on… its Corolla and Levin Hybrid. Passable in a European or American Show but unacceptable in China. In a market flooded with dozens of new SUVs each year (month), Toyota did not even exhibit the new CH-R it unveiled in Geneva last March. It will sell like hot dumplings in China and would propel the Toyota brand to the top of the shopping list of many local consumers, yet this seemed to have escaped Toyota’s management. And the feebly facelifted Vios and Yaris L shown will not do.

9. …and Volkswagen wants to go premium

Embattled in its emissions scandal, Volkswagen has made one thing clear: its necessary budget cuts will not affect China in the least. Its stand at Beijing smelled very premium indeed, with only the upmaket variants of each nameplate exhibited, a lot of space made for the all-new Phideon (unveiled in Geneva) and yet another large SUV concept (the T-Prime) when what the brand needs since 2010 is one or four compact SUVs. A facelifted Bora also pointed its bonnet, but this is not a World Premiere as I have already spotted one on the steers of Beijing.

If Volkswagen definitely did not behave like the market leader it is in Beijing, premium Germans also showed a definitive step back compared to their performance a year ago in Shanghai. BMW had a new long-wheeled X1 to show and Mercedes the new E-Class L but Audi had nothing really new. We have time for Mercedes who has been on a launching frenzy in the past two years, especially in the SUV segment the Chinese consumers can’t get enough of, but the other two carmakers have certainly not made the most of the opportunities that the Beijing Auto Show had to offer this year.

Cowin X5 and X3 Concept

10. Borgward, Cowin and Changhe among Chinese surprises

A Chinese Auto Show wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any big, very big surprises such as completely new brands coming out of nowhere or carmakers resuscitated from the dead. And Beijing didn’t disappoint in this area.  Literally just a logo a year ago, Borgward relaunched in Frankfurt last September (bad idea) but now that it is back on its backer’s territory (Foton/BAIC), it suddenly came up with a full stand complete with a 3-model lineup!

Borgward BX5

Cowin, a “young and connected” spinoff brand from Chery, had nothing to be ashamed of against most other Chinese established brands, SAIC launched a new all-electric brand/lineup and Changhe came back from the dead with two very satisfying offers. But there was more, much more, and we will cover every single Chinese carmaker present at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 is our “Most Impressive” ranking, coming up shortly. Stay tuned!

Beijing Auto Show 2016: BSCB interviewed by Le Parisien / Aujourd’hui-en-France

My interview in French newspaper Le Parisien / Aujourd’hui-en-France

This week I am in Beijing for the much anticipated Beijing Auto Show 2016. As it was the case for Shanghai last year and Beijing two years ago, I will publish a complete coverage of the Show including BSCB’s now traditional ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers. I will also pop in an exclusive interview with Renault’s Head of Design Laurens Van den Acker.  But first things first: thanks to Alexandra Legendre from L’Automobile Magazine who kindly recommended me, on the first media day I was interviewed by French newspaper Le Parisien / Aujourd’hui-en-France on the perspectives in China of Renault in particular and French carmakers in general. Three questions taken from this interview – in French – are above.

Unfortunately a few mistakes were made in transcribing my views – the joys of being mis-quoted! So for you French-speaking readers: foreign manufacturers must engage in a joint-venture with Chinese carmakers to produce locally or realistically hope at selling large volumes in China, it’s not a pre-requisite to point-blank sell in China as the article seems to indicate. Secondly, the all-new Koleos isn’t the only new model Renault is launching, there is also the Kadjar, covered in our latest “Focus on the All-new models” section. Finally, the Chinese government does not have a strategy of waiting for their local carmakers to reach 60% of the Chinese market to launch in Europe – this is a mixup with me mentioning Chinese brands have reached 60% of the local SUV market.

Stay tuned for the full Beijing Auto Show 2016 coverage!