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Chery's J1, China's world car?

2009-08-19 10:37

Chery’s J1 outside the company’s Wuhu headquarters. Cute car, rampant company.

Lance Branquinho

Chery’s J1 is due for local release in October. We got a sneak peak at the new hatch on a visit to China.

In hindsight (always a comfortable perspective to judge from), the first wave of Chinese vehicle imports to South Africa was a mixed batch.

With their domestic market worth around a million vehicles a month – selling to customers with rather less purchasing experience and lowered expectations – it was hardly surprising to see a flood of dubiously-engineered Chinese vehicles sold locally.

Retailing realignment

Towards the end of last year the market corrected alarmingly, with many Chinese brands disengaging from the South African market. Importers and distributors were taught quite an expensive lesson…

One of the remaining brands, Chery, is very serious about shoring up its local market share, and as a fait accompli, its image too.

Although Chery was previously imported and distributed by McCarthy (a subsidiary of local industrial giant Bidvest), Imperial has chipped in with its specialist importing experience as the two companies formed a joint venture called Amalgamated Automobile Distributors (AAD) to manage Chery’s affairs locally.

Now significantly refocused, AAD will set about expanding Chery’s local offering appreciably, starting with the J1 in October.

Although we weren’t able to drive the J1 – foreign journalists aren’t allowed to drive on the Peoples' Republic’s roads – we did visit the manufacturing facility and toyed about as much as possible with two models parked in front of Chery’s Wuhu headquarters.

J1's styling is generic but fair. With Siemens, Continental, AVL and Magneti Marelli as Chery's technology partners it should be a proper drive too.

World Car?

Considering Chery’s production facilities are geared to machine 650 000 vehicles a year (they did 350 000 last year, nearly equal to South Africa’s entire domestic sales market) the company is hardly a converted backyard rickshaw operation.

As strong as Chinese domestic demand is, Chery is keen to establish a presence in Europe and North America, which are the world’s two largest auto markets.

Safety credentials and perceivable build quality needs to be commensurate to European and US standards for Chery to realise its global sales ambitions, and here the company’s latest generation A-series cars (designated J-series locally not to meddle with Audi) come into question.

Chery calls them global cars, signalling a new, internationalised design venture.

The first of these will be J1, an entry level hatch, gunning for Yaris market space.

J1’s styling is quite clean, with tall proportions (1.56m road to roofline) rendering a slightly MPV look.

Using the Yaris as a benchmark, J1 is slightly smaller, sporting a 2.39m wheelbase within the 3.7m bumper-to-bumper length.

J1 shifts through a five-speed 'box, and in all honesty, when last did you see such a radically offset indicating shift guide? We can confirm third and forth gears are actually within normal parameters...

Powering the 1 040kg J1 is a 1.3l, four-cylinder engine, machined in Chery’s Wuhu facility. Designed by renowned Austrian powertrain specialists AVL, the J1’s 1.3l mill produces 61kW at 6 000r/min and 114Nm of peak rotational force at 3 800r/min.

Considering this engine features double-overhead camshafts (driving 16-valves) and fuels via a multipoint, electronic injection system it’s hardly anarchic in design.

The rest of J1’s mechanics are par for the class. Suspension is independent at the front axle (regulation MacPherson struts with coil springs) and semi-independent at the rear, featuring trailing arms with a tube damper.

Brakes? Discs fore and drums aft (hardly an issue considering J1’s low kerb weight) assisted by ABS hydraulics boasting EBD assistance.

One of Chery’s chief technology partners is Italian automotive component specialist Magneti Marelli – so we estimate the ABS and EBD systems should be first rate.

Fascia materials and quality massively improved. Dark doortrim and seat colours have been requested for local conditions.

Inside the J1 is spacious and features decidedly Eurocentric ergonomics and design. Fascia materials and perceivable build quality is incomparable with previous Chinese products we’ve sampled.

Perhaps most impressive is the lack of pungent polymer toxicity, often the bane of many emerging market manufacturers – even some Korean cars still smell like a plastic acid trip when you get inside.

I can’t tell you what it drives like, yet J1, on first acquaintance, seems to be a Chinese offering of the second wave.

Chinese manufacturers, and especially their local partners, have realised South Africa is a unique market.

We might be classed as a developing country, yet automotive literacy and customer expectations are way ahead of China's domestic market.

Here, only quality products will do...

Chery's J3. Simple styling, packed with features - it might be retailed locally...

C-segment challenger?

Beyond the J1 – which will be launched locally in October – Chery showed us another unusually convincing vehicle from the J-series family, J3.

Configured in both four-door and hatchback bodystyles, J3 is a C-segment offering which, especially in hatchback form, is oddly appealing aesthetically – if lacking in design identity and originality.

At 4.35m bumper-to-bumper (2.55m between the axles) J3 is Corolla/Auris sized. Look beyond the Alfa-Romeo aping hidden rear door handles and there is an awful lot of specification on offer.

Firstly, J3 is independently suspended at all four wheel corners – something many Japanese C-segment cars (Corolla/Auris amongst them) are not. Disc brakes nestle behind each wheel too...

A full suite of safety systems are also present, with ABS modulated brakes benefitting from EBD agility, whilst traction control and vehicle stability control are onboard to keep things neat if emergency avoidance steering action is to be initiated.

J3's cabin is ergonomically sound, with neat touches and a distinct lack of missing buttons and unraveling trim...The Chinese appear to be learning and adapting production methods - alarmingly quickly.

The cabin layout is admittedly staid (with trim colours way too light in hue for family use) yet there are dual front and side airbags, augmented by front and second row curtain airbags.

Engines are naturally aspirated – with no compression ignition options for now.

Featuring AVL’s dual-overhead camshaft valve gearing (much the same as J1’s) outputs are class average, yet fuel consumption claims quite extraordinary...

Entry level power is from a 1.6 (87kW/147Nm) which Chery’s says will return 5.1l/100km if driven sedately, which is a mite hard to believe.

The J3 range is rounded off with 1.8l (97kW/170Nm) and 2.0l (102kW/182Nm) options – both still consuming less than 6l/100km if Chery is to be believed…

J3 hatch in the middle, with a four-door next to it. Ellipsoid dual exhausts, neat mags and Alfaesque hidden rear door handles help smooth over the styling package.

Drive is to the front-wheels (obviously) and transmissions are either five-speed manual or a sole auto for the 2l.

Despite the J3’s perceptibly slippery shape, class average mass (1 350kg) and neat power outputs, the top speed claims are curiously conservative.

Even the 2l J3, with 102kW to power it along, tops out at only 183km/h…

Conversely though, maximum achievable velocity is hardly part of the average C-segment buyer’s purchasing rationale.

Better second time around?

AAD understands Chery needs to shore up its local image – which is J1’s task when it comes to market in October.

If J1 sales volumes are sufficient and the brand’s local standing improves, the possibility of a C-segment car, like J3 (discounting price sensitivity) could prove a very welcome addition to the local motoring marketplace.

The second wave of Chinese cars are upon us.

To borrow an online analogy - I suspect the user experience improvement will be similar to the leap from late 1990s browsing to interactive Web 2.0...

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