There's a new crossover in town and it wants a piece of the lucrative subcompact crossover segment. It's not made in Japan, nor manufactured in Thailand. Instead, this crossover comes from China and it wants to change the long-running stigma against Chinese-made cars.
A few years ago, cars from China were seen as cheap, lacked flair, and to a certain extent, were poorly made. But compared to cars that were released nearly a decade ago, a new breed of China cars have been arriving at our shores and they are proving to be more stylish, better equipped and have improved build quality.
One such example is the BAIC BJ20. Aimed sqaurely against the likes of the Ford EcoSport, Nissan Juke, Suzuki Vitara, Hyundai Kona and Toyota Rush, it's their stab at the highly popular subcompact crossover market. Packed with a turbocharged engine, along with plenty of features, the BJ20 is poised to a contender in the local market. But does the newcomer got what it takes to sway buyers that usually buy Japanese or American?
One look at the BJ20 and immediately, I was impressed by its unconventional looks. Instead of conforming to the usual designs in the subcompact crossover segment, BAIC decided to be different and daring. The boxy exterior is a throwback to SUVs of old and is paired with a sloping roofline akin to modern crossovers today.
Then there’s the BJ20’s unmistakable mug which you’ll either love or hate. Personally, I wasn’t too bothered by it as I grew to like its distinct face. Taking a page from the Hyundai Kona and Nissan Juke, the BJ20’s HID headlights are positioned low just above the front bumper. Meanwhile, the LED daytime running lights are placed up high, giving the crossover a mean, yet assertive look.
Further giving the BJ20 its rugged charm are the huge 18-inch alloy wheels, flared wheel arches, the stylish five-slot front grill, and the aggressively-styled front and rear bumpers. Sure some might say it's far too eccentric, but for me, its maverick design is a refreshing change from the usual shapes one can find in the subcompact crossover market.
However, as good looking the BJ20 is, I cannot help but think that BAIC’s newest crossover somehow resembles that of a certain Cruiser from Toyota, but I digress.
Step inside the BJ20 and you do feel like you are in a much bigger SUV. It has a commanding driving position and a cabin that combines rugged looks with a hint of sportiness. It has neat touches of faux carbon fiber and metal trim, along with gloss black plastic which lifts cabin ambiance. The black fabric seats come with red contrast stitching which give the cabin a sportier look and feel amidst the pre-dominantly black and gray interior. Then there are the aircon vents which are also painted red and give off a youthful vibe.
Since this is the entry-level Standard variant, it loses some key features that can only be found on the more expensive 'Luxury'. For starters, it gets a standard steering wheel with no multimedia buttons or cruise control buttons, the automatic climate control is replaced with manual air-conditioning, it has no leather upholstery and only comes with manual-adjustable front seats, and there is no center armrest for the rear passengers.
While it does have less equipment, these extra features are ones that you can live without. Besides, having less means there are lesser things to go wrong should something break of malfunction.
Providing in-car entertainment is surprise, a touchscreen-based system. Based on the spec sheet, the 1.5T Standard originally comes with a traditional 2-DIN sound system. However, it seems BAIC opted to upgrade it to a touchscreen infotainment system instead. Not only does it give the crossover additional amenities like Bluetooth, navigation, and USB playback, the system now also doubles as the reverse camera's display. Good move on BAIC's part to upgrade the onboard infotainment system for the base model BJ20.
Motivating this crossover is a Mitsubishi-derived, 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four. The all-aluminum plant produces 147 PS at 6000 rpm along with 210 Nm of torque at 2000 - 4500 rpm. Power is then sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with manual select.
With a push of a button, the turbocharged heart of the BJ20 comes to life. Off the line, the BJ20 smoothly delivered its power to the pavement. With a light foot, one can actually drive the BJ20 without ever having to spool up the turbo.
Take it out on the highway and the tiny 1.5-liter turbocharged engine can impress. With over 200 Nm of torque readily avaiable at 2000 rpm, it made short of work of climbing up steep hills, as well as carrying heavy cargo. Overtaking slower cars on the expressway is a cinch, especially when one engages 'Sport Mode'. With it, the powertrain feels more alive and lingers on the powerband more.
Despite its boxy shape, the BJ20 returned admirable fuel consumption. Around town, the crossover is capable of averaging 8.0 - 9.0 km/l in light traffic. Hit the highway and the BJ20 will sip fuel at around 14.0 - 14.5 km/l. While it could have been better, do remember that the BJ20 does not have the sleekest of exteriors.
Ride and handling, on the other hand, were surprisingly good. Beginning with the former, the BJ20 managed to absorb most of the rough stuff Metro Manila streets had to offer. The dampers were neither too soft or too hard which gave the crossover its acceptable ride quality. As for its handling, the BJ20 was easy to maneuver and was not a handful in either city or highway driving. Also, thanks to its tall ride height and generous 215mm of ground clearance, the BJ20 can easily go over rough roads, debris, and even the occassional puddles of water with ease.
As far as rear cabin space is concerned, the BJ20 did not disappoint as it offers plenty of headroom, legroom and elbowroom. Passengers that are 5'8 or taller will be happy to know there is more than enough space at the back. Luggage space, on the other hand, is adequate for its size as it can easily swallow several duffel bags and still have enough room for a suitcase or two.
So the BJ20 has surprisingly good performance, a relatively comfortable ride and sharp looks. However, like all things it has some flaws. The steering, while electronically-assisted, could have been lighter as it sometimes felt heavy especially when parking. Then there’s the CVT which could have been smoother as it tends to be clunky when in stop-and-go traffic.
Despite having some faults, the entry-level BJ20 bounces back when it comes to safety features. All models come with anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, traction control with hill-hold control (another term for hill-start assist), rear parking sensors with reverse camera, tire pressure monitoring system, ISOFIX anchors for child seats, automatic door locks, and dual front airbags (Luxury variants come with additional side airbags for the front).
With a sticker price of Php 1,148,000, the BAIC BJ20 looks, sounds and feels like a good deal. It has a turbocharged engine, generous cabin and cargo space, a relatively tall ride height, and plenty of features despite being an entry-level variant. However, when you go over the prices of some of its nearest competitors (i.e. Suzuki Vitara, Toyota Rush, Hyundai Kona, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Juke), the BJ20 in Standard trim is a bit on the expensive side.
If you can look pass the BJ20's China-made badge, and view it as a product alone, then the BJ20 in Standard trim is indeed a good deal.