Beijing 2012: Hometown Heroes -- Some of The Most Interesting Chinese-Made Cars

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Although I've long heard about the growing strength of the Chinese car industry, I found that the streets of Beijing actually have relatively few domestic cars. European and Asian cars are very popular, with Volkswagen and Audi models by far the most common, and I didn't really see that many local models. So I spent some time on the second press day of the Beijing Motor Show checking out the new offerings from Chinese automakers. Here are the Chinese-made cars that most piqued my interest.

Hawtai Shungdafey and B11

This SUV, which looks suspiciously like an old Hyundai Santa Fe, doesn't actually have a name in Roman characters. However, a helpful Hawtai representative said the name is pronounced Shungdafey. It is built in China's Shan Dong province and costs 83,700 RMB (about $13,300). Under the hood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine with 148 hp and a four-speed automatic transmission, enabling a top speed of 148 mph. We liked this model because it has a simple, straightforward design both inside and out. It was by far the most attractive car on display at the Hawtai stand.

Nearby was the B11, a midsize sedan that seems a fairly respectable model. What made it stand out, however, was the bold airbrushing of blue petals all over the exterior. The interior also gets odd blue designs all over the seats, door panels, steering wheel, and dashboard.

Chery Fulwin 2 and Riich M1 EV

Though fairly bland and anonymous, the Chery Fulwin 2 looks like a very smart hatchback. It's somewhat unusually because most Chinese customers prefer either sedan or SUV models. As with many of these Chinese cars, the interior smells strongly of chemicals and resins. Under the hood is a 1.5-liter inline-four engine with 107 hp. The unusual automatic transmission shifter is designed to recall a true semi-automatic gearbox.

Chery also showed off the Riich M1 EV, an electric hatchback that is on sale now for 168,800 RMB ($26,800). The battery and motor were designed and built by Chery, and the car can go a claimed 99 miles on a full charge. Acceleration is leisurely; the quoted statistic is a 0-to-31-mph time of seven seconds.

Geely: Gleagle GX5 and Emgrand EC7

A few years ago, Geely split up into three brands: Gleage, Emgrand, and Elgrand. The idea was to cast off any reputation that Geely made cheap, low-quality products -- although the Geely logo still proudly adorns the company's sprawling auto show display. The Gleagle GX5 is a pint-sized SUV that looks very fun, what with its broad fenders, prominent skid plates, and utilitarian design. It is described as a YUV, for Young SUV, because the press materials say the GX5 is, "A gift from Geely to young people!" It has four-wheel drive. It's a concept and could go on sale in the next two to three years.

Nearby is the Emgrand EC7 sedan, which a company representative claimed is the safest Chinese-made car. It received a four-star rating in the European NCAP crash tests, which is the best rating ever achieved by a Chinese car. Indeed, the entire car was designed to European specifications, so the smiling representative says the Emgrand EC7 could be exported to Europe by 2013. Prices range from 80,000-100,000 RMB ($12,600 to $15,800).

Changan Eado

Having seen many old, beat-up Changan hatchbacks around Beijing, I was eager to see what new cars the company is selling. The latest offering from Changan is the Eado, a compact sedan that debuted at the Beijing show and actually seems very good. The styling isn't as boring as that of many other models, and the quality level and fit-and-finish seemed very good. Changan touts the Eado's efficiency with a "BlueCore" badge. It has a low drag coefficient of 0.29 and a 1.6-liter inline-four engine with 123 hp, and is said to return the equivalent of 32-37 mpg. One of the display models had an elaborate center stack entertainment system featuring DVD playback and GPS navigation.

BYD F3

Since its launch in 2005, the F3 sedan has been the best-selling model for BYD, the Chinese company which draws its name from the phrase, "Build Your Dreams." The compact sedan comes as standard with a raft of technologies including six airbags, stability control, a direct-injection turbocharged 1.5-liter engine, and independent suspension. With the optional dual-clutch transmission, the BYD F3 can reach 62 mph in 8.9 seconds. The car is quite stylish and seems to be very well put together.

The big announcement in Beijing, however, was the plan for a new TI+Remote Driving feature for the F3 Plus. Drivers will be able to use a special remote to drive the F3, for instance from a parking spot to a restaurant door on a rainy night. Think James Bond driving his BMW 7 Series by smartphone in Tomorrow Never Dies. A representative explained that, for safety reasons, the system only works if the remote is within 65 feet of the car, and the car can only move at 2 km/h -- a glacial 1.24 mph. The remote-driving feature will apparently launch later this year.

Roewe 950

Shown alongside the stand for MG models, the Roewe 950 is a very smart sedan. The name, incidentally, apparently stems from the Chinese pronunciation of "Rover." The 196.7-inch long 950 is about the same size as a Toyota Avalon , but a fair bit glitzier thanks to an abundance of chrome and neat detailing. The roomy interior has a cool curved surface connecting the center console with the center stack, and many soft-touch materials. All the wood-like trim, however, is disappointing plastic. Engine choices comprise a 145-hp, 2.0-liter inline-four; a 184-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four; and a 3.0-liter V-6 with 255 hp.

Roewe is part of SAIC Motor, which has operated a joint-venture with General Motors for several years. That explains why much of the switchgear looks like it was stolen from the Chevrolet parts bin.

Dongfeng HUV

This boxy, bright-yellow SUV looks almost exactly like a Hummer, and the unique center console design makes the inside look just like a Hummer. But when I mention the resemblance, a friendly company representative says, "No no no, it's a new design. Maybe the yellow color makes you think of Hummer."

The Dongfeng HUV is actually just a concept, but it could go into production in about two years. It uses a diesel engine and is designed to be a civilian version of rugged military vehicles. Among its impressive specifications are approach and departure angles of 31 degrees, and the ability to ford 29.5 inches of water.

BAW Knight S12

The Knight S12 immediately caught my eye because it looks almost identical to the old Jeep Cherokee. From the proportions to the bodyside creases, and from the vertical spare tire to the old-fashioned dashboard design, the BAW is the spitting image of a Jeep. Unfortunately, the company representatives on hand didn't speak English, so I was unable to learn much more about the Knight S12. It's possible the model is a carbon-copy of the Jeep, but it's equally possible that BAW simply bought old tooling and licensed the model from Jeep. A sparse spec sheet reveals that both rear- and four-wheel-drive versions are available, with a 2.0-liter inline-four engine producing either 121 or 140 hp.

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