1990s / 2000s / 2010s / Audi / Buick / BYD / Chevrolet / Chinese / Citroen / Fiat

汽车, part one

Those who were fortunate enough to travel to China in the 1980s came back absolutely amazed at how many bicycles were circulating throughout cities. Until the government democratized automobile ownership in the 1990s, cars were strictly reserved for members of the governments and diplomats and the bicycle (sometimes fitted with an electric motor) was the people’s mode of transportation.

Bicycles are still common throughout China and scooter sales have taken off in the last decade, but the biggest increase has been in automobile ownership. The car market in China has grown almost exponentially over the last ten years and the country has recently surpassed the United States as the largest car market in the world.

Most cars built in China are sold in China, very few of them are exported. This trend is starting to change as local manufacturers are increasingly looking to enter European and American markets. In the past, Chinese cars have been ridiculed and didn’t stand much of a chance on the international scene, but safer cars with less-polluting engines are making it more and more feasible for Chinese companies to sell cars outside of their home market.

A good example of this was shown last week, when the EuroNCAP tested the MG6 and the Geely Emgrand EC7. Both cars earned a four-star crash test rating; that’s on par with the new Fiat Panda, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Renault Fluence Z.E., and is a sign that these companies should start to be taken seriously by their competitors.

Unfortunately, we were in China for business, so we weren’t able to photograph as many cars as we would have liked to or visit dealers, but below is a selection of what we did come across, sorted by brand. In the interest of time and space, we will split up this series into two articles.

One small side note: government regulations dictate that in order for foreign companies to build and sell cars in China, they need to form a joint-venture with a local company. In the parentheses next to the brand name, you’ll find which joint-venture each automaker is part of and when it was founded.

Audi (First Automobile Works – Volkswagen, founded in 1990)

Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have all benefitted from Chinese consumers’ growing appetite for luxury cars. Audi is perhaps the best-seen brand out of the three as it has been around for the longest amount of time.

The first Chinese-built Audi was the 100, assembled under license by FAW. Often ordered in black, it became popular among high-placed party members and paved the way for the company’s success in the country. 100s are not a common sight anymore as most were replaced by A6s long ago:

It is worth noting that a rebadged version of the 100 called the Hongqi CA7200 was introduced in the middle of the 1990s.

Today Audi sells most of its American lineup in China but there are two cars in their Chinese catalog that are not sold elsewhere, the A4L and the A6L. As their names imply, both are long-wheelbase versions of the standard models.

The A4L has been stretched by almost nine inches compared to its western counterpart and costs about $43,000. The A6L’s transformation is less dramatic and its wheelbase has only been increased by about three inches. It has a base price of $55,000 and is one of the preferred transportation modes of government officials

We did not come across any A4Ls, but we saw several A6Ls:

Long-wheelbase versions of cars such as the A6, the E-Class and the 5-Series are niche models specifically built for the Chinese market. We spoke with a man in his twenties who explained the reason for that: having a nice car is neat, but you’ve really made it in life when you can pay someone to drive it for you.

Buick (Shanghai GM, founded in 1997)

China is one of Buick’s best markets and a big reason why the brand didn’t get the axe when GM shed half of its lineup several years ago.

For a long time, a Buick-badged version of the Corsa B was very popular in China. It was available as a four-door sedan, a five-door wagon, and a small van which was a rebadged version of the Opel Combo:

That model has since been phased out and the entry-level position in Buick’s lineup is occupied by the Excelle, a four-door sedan based on the Daewoo Lacetti and formerly sold as the Suzuki Forenza in the United States:

Two additional versions of the Excelle (called the Excelle XT and the Excelle GT respectively) joined the Buick lineup last year. Both are based on the Opel Astra and are more expensive than the traditional Excelle:

Buick minivans are popular among shuttle drivers. This is a first generation GL8, based on the Chevrolet Venture:

The LaCrosse is also present on the Chinese market. The first generation was different from its American counterpart, but the current model is essentially the same:

BYD

BYD Auto (Build Your Dreams) is part of a huge industrial group that also makes batteries and circuit boards for mobile phones.  They gained notoriety as one of the Chinese companies that has been the most criticized for copying other manufacturers’ designs. The copy claims are not entirely unfounded; below is a BYD F1:

And a BYD F3, one of the best-selling cars in China:

To Europeans, the F1 looks like a Toyota Aygo; to Americans the F3 looks like a last-generation Corolla. The resemblance is uncanny, but BYD has no agreement whatsoever with Toyota to build either car.

BYD does have a joint-venture with Daimler to build electric cars in China.  Their first production car is expected to bow in 2012.

Chevrolet (Shanghai GM, founded in 1997)

One of the first Chevrolets sold in China was the Sail, which is one of the countless variations of the mk2 Opel/Vauxhall Corsa:

Like other versions of the Corsa such as the Chevy sold in Latin America, the Sail was infamously unsafe. It was phased out not long ago and was replaced by another car that is also dubbed the Sail. The new Sail is similar in size to the model it replaces but it was designed entirely in China and has no Opel ties:

A good chunk of Chevy sales in China come from a contract the brand won to provide the government with police cars. The car in question is the Epica sedan, which was briefly sold as the Suzuki Verona in the United States. This big sedan is about as inspiring as a Mercury Sable but it is well-suited for police duty.

The Cruze, the Aveo, the Spark, the Camaro and the Captiva are also sold in China. The American automaker recently announced that it would sell the Volt there, too, but potential buyers were undoubtedly put off when they found out that it would carry an absurdly high base price of about $78,000, or more expensive than a Camaro.

Citroën (Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën Automobile, founded in 1992)

Citroën’s presence in China is an interesting one.  The automaker’s history there goes back to 1931, when a group of explorers embarked on what they called the yellow crusade in a C4 Autochenille.

The French automaker took its first steps towards the mass production of cars in China in 1992 when it formed a joint-venture with Dongfeng. The two built several versions of the ZX: a standard ZX hatch, a ZX four-door sedan, a long-wheelbase ZX hatch called the 988 and a ZX-based van similar to a Citroën C15.  The last two were produced only for a short period of time and are fairly rare, but the first two are still common and are among the oldest cars one can commonly spot in China:

The red ZX above is a taxi and is a very early model. Citroën no longer builds the ZX hatch but the four-door sedan version of it is still in production.  It was redesigned in the early 2000s and christened the Elysée:

Not long ago it underwent another redesign and is now called the C-Elysée. With this last redesign, it has lost most aesthetic similarities with the ZX sold throughout Europe, but under the skin it is still the same.  We saw a few but didn’t manage to photograph any, so press photos will have to do:

Citroën also sells other China-specific models, including the C2.  Unlike the C2 that was sold on the European market, this is little more than a Peugeot 206 with Citroën badges.  It is only available as a five-door hatch and costs about the same as a 207:

The last-generation C4 is available in China as a five-door hatch and there are two four-door sedans that have spun off it.  The first is the C-Triomphe, also sold in Spain:

And the smaller, more recent C-Quatre:

Fiat (Guangqi Fiat, founded in 2011)

Fiat has a very limited presence on the Chinese market. It doesn’t have a good or a bad image, most folks just seem to plainly ignore the fact that it exists. Unos are surprisingly common, though it’s unclear how they got to China as there is no evidence that they were ever built there:

From 1999 to 2007, Fiat had a joint-venture set up with Nanjing Automobile, the current owners of the MG brand. The venture built Fiat’s usual Palio-based bouquet of cars designed for emerging markets. The first Chinese-built Fiat was the Palio hatch:

Next was the four-door version of the Palio, called the Siena:

The Italian automaker also offered the Perla, an aesthetically modified version of the Siena:

This is perhaps where Fiat went wrong: China’s car market cannot be considered an emerging market, a lot of consumers there have very western tastes. If they want a cheap, throwaway hatchback, there are plenty of Chinese cars that fit the bill. The Italian automaker seems to have learned its lesson and it currently sells the Bravo, the 500, the Linea and the Grande Punto, though all of them are rare sights. Truth be told, we didn’t run across a single one to photograph.

To increase its presence in China, Fiat recently formed a joint-venture with Guangzhou Automobile Group, the country’s sixth-largest auto manufacturer. The venture is called Guangqi Fiat and it is slated to start production of its first car in the summer of 2012, though it is unclear which car that will be.

The joint-venture will not be limited to Fiats. A spokesman for Guangqi Fiat said that “after talks between the two shareholders, we will introduce the Alfa Romeo brand to the venture company”. Alfas are currently sold in Hong Kong but have never been distributed in the People’s Republic of China.