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Driven: Geely's new Panda clone

2011-05-16 13:33

Lance Branquinho

CHINESE CITY GOLF?: Designed to look like a sheetmetal Panda face, allegedly, Geely’s LC is one of the better compact cars to come out of China…

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Geely
Model LC
Engine 1.3l four-cylinder
Power 63kW @ 6 000rpm
Torque 110Nm @ 5 200rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual
Fuel Tank 35-litres
Fuel Consumption 6.9l/100km
Weight 1 060kg
Tyres 165/50/14
China's largest independently listed automaker is under new representation locally and has celebrated with the launch of its latest compact hatchback, the LC.

One of a wave of Chinese imports that have assaulted the entry-level segment of the South African vehicle market since 2007, Geely has been restructured after some financial difficulties.

Local auto industry veteran John Jessop (a former BMW and Nissan South Africa board member) is now CEO and on the financial and distribution side the Hallmark Motor Group, a sister company of the JSE-listed transportation, supply chain and logistics service provider Cargo Carriers, and the family-owned Magic Group, are ensuring dealership continuity and growth.


What does this round of corporate musical chairs mean, though?

Well, Geely now has a proper parts warehouse (stocked neatly to the value of R10-million) and is keen to expand its dealer network. New CEO John Jessop is so confident of the brand’s restructured local representation's ability to service customers better that if any part is unavailable, he’s promised to have it air-freighted in directly from China at Geely’s expense.

Geely’s newest local offering is its LC compact hatchback, which would have been called the Panda locally if not for Fiat’s objection. The Panda naming was not a pure marketing tactic either. LC's keyfob set, front styling and even rear lights feature tractable design elements of China’s most famous mammal, or so Geely would like to have you believe.

Dimensionally LC is 3.59m bumper-to-bumper, 1.63 across and 1.46m from tarmac to roofline. Collate those numbers and you are looking at a compact hatchback Suzuki Alto/Citroen C1/Toyota Aygo in size.

Geely is marketing three LC models locally, distinguished by ascending badges in GS, GL and GT order. The entry-level GS features power-assisted steering and windows, air-conditioning, central locking, an auxiliary-input enabled radio and brakes boosted by ABS and EBD. Next up, the GL adds MP3/USB/CD functionality to its sound-system, dual front airbags for safety and has alloy rims for enhanced style.

The range-topping GT adds a park-distance control warning buzzer and side/curtain airbags in additional to the GL’s specification. 

Overall, the LC’s design aesthetic is unique, with its oversized ovoid lights and uncharacteristically low front grille, both features allegedly proportioned to trace the features of a Panda’s face. LC’s glass-to-sheet metal ratio is quite low for a hatchback, with the consequence of it having a myriad of blind-spots for a small city car – hardly ideal when called upon to navigate hectic urban traffic. Overall though, the design is not at copy-and-paste as we’ve come to expect from Chinese brands.

GOOD, NOT GREAT: The cabin could do with comfier seats and most definitely without the maddening 120km/h speed warning buzzer, which cannot be disabled. There’s a fire-extinguisher under the driver’s seat…

The LC’s cabin architecture and ergonomics are quite, well, different to the usual Asian (Japanese/Korean) and European city car fare. 

The plastics are hardly premium (considering its sub-R100 000 pricing, one can hardly expect more) and the odd bits of fake carbon-fibre trimming the door handles and fascia are an ode to eccentric automotive design perhaps a decade out of fashion, but it’s hardly an environment to repel potentials drivers or passengers.

Interior fit and finish are OK but, like Korean cars of little more than a decade ago, Geely still has to master how to  balance the chemical reactive properties of its polymers to sunlight. Plainly, the LC hatchback does have a faint chemical aroma when left standing in direct sunlight for an afternoon. It's not as overwhelming as with some other Chinese vehicles, but there remain traces of plastic pungency.

Geely's local representatives were at pains to showcase the robustness of the new compact hatchback and as such we embarked upon a meandering ride-'n-drive evaluation route looping outbound from Knysna through the logging dirt roads towards Uniondale, before rejoining the N2 back towards the Garden Route’s signature town.


Powered by a Toyota-benchmarked (and yes, read that as an euphemism) 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine producing 63kW and 110Nm, the Geely LC goes about its business with a keenness that belies its output figures.

On the tarmac sections of the evaluation drive I was impressed by the relativity low levels of wind and mechanical noise (road/tyre noise is quite perceptible though) and, with a conventional Macpherson independently suspended strut set-up front and torsion beam at the rear (balanced by coil-springs at all four wheel corners), the LC is predictable and stable.

As we stopped for a regroup on the Uniondale-bound dirt road section I noticed, interestingly, that Geely’s LC has rather peculiarly sized wheels: when last did you see 14-inch alloys on a road car?

The R399 between Knysna and Uniondale is a legendary linkage of gravel passes, well known to mountain bikers competing in the Karoo-to-Coast each year. As a driving road, especially post-rain, it can be indelicately surfaced thanks to erosion. After an hour of dirt road driving – including a few sump-scraping encounters with rocks exposed by the recent rains – the Geely LC GT was still in fine shape. No rattles. No disquieting thumps from suspension components.

It felt like a solid compact hatchback, with cheap touches no less, but entirely dependable.

Are there issues? Well, you sit on (instead of supported in) the seats, which are not really shaped in manner befitting long-distance travel. The steering wheel does not adjust high enough for drivers taller than 1.8m, whilst the side mirror doesn’t sway far enough to the right on the driver’s side either, yielding a rather limited field of view of the typical rear-three quarter blindspot.

The GL and GT models have a flip-cover slot for their infotainment systems that has such a deeply receded input port, one would have to tie a sting to the end of any USB device you wish to retrieve once it has been manoeuvred into position…

Dynamically it’s hardly perfect (the five-speed transmission has a terribly tall third gear, ill-suited for overtaking) but Geely’s LC is not a bad little car – which is something you would not have heard me saying about practically any Chinese compact hatchback offering more than a year ago.

If you seek affordable and robust tertiary education transport for your children (buoyed by the presence of protection items such as airbags and ABS), the three-car strong LC range is well worth considering, especially when specced-up with either the two-year/60 000km (R4150) or three-year/90 000km service plan options.


Geely LC GS - R79 999
Geely LC GL - R84 999
Geely LC GT - R89 999


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