A day spent at a test track near Beijing driving 10 vehicles from local brands convinced me that European and American volume automakers should be aware of some cars and compact crossovers that could be coming soon from China's automakers.
Models such as the Geely Yuanjing X1 small car, the Luxgen U5 and Soueast DX3 compact crossovers and the Changan Eado midsize sedan are on a par with products from European volume brands in terms of design, handling, performance, fit and finish and overall quality.
One key weak point of the Chinese brands continues to be their transmissions. Four-speed automatics won't satisfy customers in Europe and the U.S. in segments where six-speed transmissions are common, such as compacts. In the midsize segment, eight- or even nine-speed transmissions are expected in Europe, and many of those come as dual-clutch systems. None of the Chinese models I tested came close to meeting those expectations. The models I saw also had a bit too much chrome for European tastes.
But what should really worry volume automakers in Europe and North America is how affordable the Chinese models are. If those models entered Europe at prices that low, only Dacia would be able to mount a challenge at the budget end of the market.
The Geely X1 is slightly shorter than a Ford Ka+ small car, which is 154.7 inches long. But the top-of-the-line model that I drove retails for roughly the equivalent of $9,000 in China, and the base version starts at about $6,000. Meanwhile, the Ka+ starts at the equivalent of $11,645 in Germany.
It's unfair to call the Luxgen U5 a true rival to the Toyota C-HR that it closely mimics, but the fully loaded variant with a decent continuously variable transmission costs less than $16,000. In Germany, a C-HR with roughly the same power — a 116-hp, 1.2-liter gasoline engine mated to a six-speed manual — starts at about $25,630.
What was absolutely astonishing about the Luxgen was the size of its touch screen. At 12 inches, it is bigger than the 9-inch touch screen found in Volvo's 90-series models and not that much smaller than the 17-inch display in the Tesla Model S.