If you ask anyone today “how old is the Chinese automobile industry? most of the answers you’ll get won’t exceed 10 to 12 years, with an average guess of seven years. The right answer is that it’s almost 50 years old. Believe it or not, the Chinese began to build cars before the Koreans. But how do you expect the average guy on the street to know that when Chinese cars only hit Egyptian asphalt less than five years ago?
The very first Chinese-designed and manufactured automobiles were more like wheeled boxes made of light steel, with a primitive petrol engine under the bonnet and with no concern whatever for comfort, security or style. They were hideous, very bad copies of what European, American and Japanese manufacturers produce.
The recipe of a Chinese car since the early 2000s was quite simple: copy the front of a nice-looking western car, the back of another, the dashboard of a third. and voila! The fronts, backs, lights, dashboards, interiors, and gizmos of European and American cars are almost all present in Chinese cars, only in different combinations. For example, the BYD (a Chinese automaker) F8 (the model’s name) is a mash-up between a Mercedes CLK and a Renault Megane CC, with a steel electric roof, keyless entry system and, of course, an unbeatable price.
Consider also Speranzas, which had Chevrolet Optra’s headlights, Volvo S60’s tail lights, and the silhouette of an old Mercedes E class. The final result was an assault to anything related to good taste. To my great surprise, they sold thousands in Egypt, no doubt thanks to their price.
Any family man with a budget of around LE 80,000 had to choose between a tiny compact European car, a small Korean sedan, or this spacious car with lots of room for both passengers and luggage, a 2000cc engine and with two DVD screens for the back passengers to boot.
This client doesn’t seek the prestige, the pleasure of driving, or the style. He only wants the best bang for bucks value possible, but what he gives up is really capital. It is what Chinese cars are most criticized for, and is also the reason why there are so few of them sold in Europe and the US: Safety.
Until 2006, no Chinese car could obtain more than two stars in the Euro NCAP security test. Just to give you an idea, the Renault Clio model 2000 has four stars, just like the Hyundai Getz, the tiny smart ForTwo, or the Citroen C1 and C2, while the latest compact European cars (the 207, the new Clio, the Corsa, the Punto) all managed to rake five stars. Chinese cars were so unsafe they were often said to be made out of Kleenex.
Fortunately, this is changing, and the real turning point is the entry of China into the World Trade Organization and the global competitive arena.
It’s certainly on the right track in catching up with the heavy-weights. These last years witnessed the booming of Chinese cars, with a double digits growth rate, and with significant improvement in quality and performance. It is true that the first passenger cars seemed primitive and rudimentary compared to Western models, but now Chinese automakers are moving up to the next level.
They produce their own designs, introduce interesting concept cars in international motorshows, collaborate with respected names in the industry (Pinninfarina, Karmann, etc.), spend much on research and development in future technologies (hydrogen, electric cars, hybrids) and even take over prestigious brands like the British MG Rover.
Last year, China produced almost 8.9 million cars; that’s three times the French production, twice the Korean, and more than the 6.2 million German cars produced in the same year. Only Japan and the US do better.
There is no doubt that the dragon is aiming, not only to take his share of the cake, but to deserve it as well. So look out for some slick-looking, safe and high-performance cars in the next few years.