2014 Beijing Auto Show Hits, Misses and Revelations

The Manufacturers
#VW, #MKX

BEIJING – More than twenty million people live in China’s capital, and about one-tenth of them somehow managed to score press credentials for media day Sunday. A couple of Lincoln Motor Company execs referred to this as the world’s biggest auto show. The Easter Day press day offered no contradictions. (Disclosure: I was one of a group of auto journalists Lincoln brought over for the show). It was tough to get through the maddening crowd, but it’s a reminder that contrary to so many predictions about the end of the automobile, there remains more than sufficient interest here in the Land of Pent-Up Demand. This is what I saw.

HIT – Volkswagen NMC Concept
About an inch shorter than the production Volkswagen Jetta, the NMC has good proportions and works better than the VW (Passat) CC or the Mercedes-Benz CLA-class. With a less-rakish roofline compared with the very popular Benz, the NMC looks like it has a fairly useful back seat, and if you’re going to compromise that back seat anyway, it makes sense to do it with the compact version of the MBQ platform rather than the slightly larger, European Passat platform. The interior quality and materials are better than in the Mercedes CLA, and I’ll predict VW will have a starting price of several thousand less, in the mid-$20s. On its Beijing stand, the NMC looked ready to go, probably within a year. If Volkswagen offers it with its 2.0-liter turbo four and a stick, it could put the new Audi A3 on the trailer.

QUALIFIED HIT – Volkswagen Golf R400
Who can argue with a 395-horsepower version of VW’s all-wheel-drive hot hatch? Not me, though I thought the yellow trim, subtle on the side, was a bit much extending through the front fascia, and the elaborate carbon-fiber-trimmed rear diffuser with the big dual chrome exhaust tips was too boy racer. VW, unpimp our ride.

MISS – 2015 Volkswagen Touareg
I walked right past this facelifted SUV when going from the NMC to the R400 and had to search carefully to find it again. The front clip appears new, and there are interior changes, but it’s not enough for this aging model. A big, expensive, capable off-roader with two rows of seats, the niche model confuses VW’s latest image in the U.S.

MISS – Lexus NX
Sorry, this one is far too easy. We skewered the LF-NX concept Lexus on which this is based at Frankfurt last year. Why should we be surprised that the production version of this over-designed piece of steel origami isn’t any better? This is what you get when you overreact to years of criticism for bland, copycat design. Lexus styling, its grilles especially, is giving the Acura brand’s platypus nose a run for its money.

REVELATION – The Chinese brands are blending into the background.
My last and only other Chinese auto show was Shanghai 2007, where it was easy to find naive local designs that looked like they were assembled in toy factories. At Beijing this year, most of the locals, many of which are struggling and even losing sales as the Chinese market continues to boom, look blandly competent with their copies of quotidian Japanese and Korean cars. Compact SUVs tend to resemble Hyundai Tucsons, and their compact sedans are reminiscent of previous-generation Toyota Corollas (which is to say, sort of like the new Corolla). The Zotye Auto Z500 looked so much like an amorphously multi-generation Honda Civic that it would make a Civic fanboy yearn for the old days.

MISS – Exceptions to the new local rule.
The massive JAC SC-9 concept features 2+2+2 seating, and, like the BMW Vision of Future Luxury concept, it has self-branded laser headlights, in this case called the JAC Laserlight. The Changan Grand Raeton and the Changan XT prove that a local company could build both a big front-wheel-drive stretch limo and a cute, pink compact hatchback, but neither one very well.

MISS – Honda Concept B and Spirior concept
(See Zoyte Auto Z500.) The Concept B, a hybrid compact, manages to combine the Acura platypus schnoz with the Honda Crosstour’s proboscis to create something even more hideous. The Spirior concept is just slightly better. Now I’m wondering whether the local Chinese brands worked to lull Honda and Toyota into thinking that this is what Chinese buyers like. What a crafty move.

HIT – Geely Cross PHEV concept
A clean, unified four-door hatchback that shows homegrown Chinese companies can break out of their design molds. “Copy may be an honor on the Eastern side, but it’s criminal on my side,” says Peter Horbury, Geely Group’s senior design vice president. We can expect more from this company in the future.

MISS – Nissan Lannia concept
Everything the VW NMC concept is not, and then some, the Lannia is a sporty compact sedan with the new prominent Nissan front fender flares and the “floating” C-pillar from the new Murano and Sport Sedan (Maxima) concept. Which means it’s a bit of a mess. Get used to it.

HIT – Lincoln MKX concept
It is a handsome design, with its long hood, short front overhang, and expressive, though not overdone, side surfacing. With that long hood and the cabin placement, the MKX will remind you far more of an Audi Q5 or BMW X3 than a Lexus RX. It is much more impressive in person than photos released ahead of its debut indicate. Details include polished chrome outer window trim with brushed chrome inner trim, a mid-century-style horizontal nameplate chrome panel along the lower part of the doors, an unusually shaped moonroof with a built-in antenna, and a rear air scoop with built-in CHMSL. The production version of this concept (just add door handles and real sideview mirrors) shows that Lincoln, which is about to make its debut in China with the MKZ and the MKC, has diligently studied the local market these past few years. Turns out that Chinese customers like premium and luxury compact and mid-size crossovers as much as we do. The new MKX goes on sale in the United States and China next year.

MISS – BMW Vision of Future Luxury
It’s brutally handsome, in a Shanghai-by-night sort of way. And, had I been able to get close to the car, which seemed to have 1 percent of Beijing’s population crowded around it at all times, I might have appreciated the feng shui of the carbon fiber, limewood, and leather; the wraparound cluster of the three dash displays; and the “two large, deeply contoured rear seats” that sales and marketing chief Ian Robertson described. But this alterna-Rolls seems another Bimmer too far. OK, BMW can go upmarket and downmarket. We get it. BMW is not the 2002/3-series company of yore, and China might just go for a 9-series for rich young people who want to drive their own Rolls-Royce Phantoms. But to me, the Vision of Future Luxury plays Buick Electra 225 Limited to the Roller’s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham.

REVELATION – Has Buick squandered its brand equity in China?
Helen Xing, executive editor of The Robb Report China, spoke about the vagaries of the country’s luxury market at a seminar Lincoln presented, and I asked her whether Buick was still considered a “premium” brand. “No,” she replied. “It’s a commodity brand.” Has Buick, still wildly successful in China, squandered its brand equity with too many cars like the subcompact Sail (later badged as a Chevy here)? As General Motors sells more Chevrolets in China, can Buick gain any of it back?

HIT & MISS – Chevrolet Cruze facelift
It’s One Ford, not One Chevy, and so the Chinese market gets a different facelift for its Cruze than what we get in the U.S., on the way to an all-new model in a couple of years. It would look better with the tail of the Chinese car and the nose of the North American car.

REVELATION – Can you overstudy the Chinese market?
Marin Barela, president of Changan Ford Automobile Corporation, failed to give a straight answer when I asked whether the (Chinese-only) new Ford Escort would be positioned above or below the local bestselling Focus. The Escort is a businessperson’s car, or a car with a bigger back seat and trunk than the Focus, for families in the smaller Tier II or III cities (4- to 5-million population), he said. So it’s positioned below the Focus.

MISS – Mercedes-Benz Concept Coupe
Further proof that Stuttgart, Munich, and Ingolstadt can’t avoid copying each other on everything. The BMW X6 is a crossover with SUV dynamics and coupelike interior space. What a combo. Soon, Mercedes will have one, but with a bigger, more manly grille.

REVELATION – Dongfeng is Chinese for “Hummer.”
Remember when the Chinese government, attempting to pare down its own domestic car industry, blocked GM from selling Hummer to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company?

REVELATION – A new market for conversion vans.
There are at least four stands displaying rolling living rooms based on the big Ford and GMC vans and the Mercedes Sprinter.

REVELATION – The best name for a Chinese company, ever.
G. Patton apparently turns Ford trucks into something even more butch.

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