When I first joined AutoIndustriya a decade ago, our little team back then made a policy: honest reviews, always.
That's not to say we'll crap on any car just for the sake of seeming honest. We'll praise it where its due, and we'll say what could be better, or what's outright bad. We call it as we see it because people will be paying for their cars for the next 12, 24, 36, 48 or even 60 months, and it's our duty to give a fair review so they know what to expect.
So when Chinese auto brands first started appearing on our local market over a decade ago, we were quite skeptical. The first efforts were lackluster, to say the least. Some were outright failures not just as vehicles, but as organizations looking to break into our market.
Much has happened since those initial efforts, and today Chinese auto brands are looking to make a much bigger and positive impact in the Philippine auto industry. They've got serious money behind them, they're focused on improving the customer and ownership experience, and they have hired some very experienced and highly respected industry personnel to help them along.
One such brand is GAC. They've got massively powerful backers, chief of which is undoubtedly Chavit Singson, The King in the North himself. They've got a grand flagship dealership at the outskirts of the Ortigas CBD; a showroom that aims to impress by its scale. They've even got some highly respected industry executives with them to bring decades of experience to help with their operations and marketing strategy. That's why you've been seeing so much of GAC on AutoIndustriya; they are very aggressive in letting us review almost their entire line up as quickly as possible.
They've clearly laid the groundwork to make a difference and elevate the expectations of Chinese automobiles, but that won't count for much unless the vehicles can actually deliver on the promise. Unlike the previous efforts, this Chinese car brand isn't banking too much on undercutting similar models on price alone. They want to compete on merit, they gave no excuses, and they didn't ask for any handicaps.
They decided to hand me the keys to the GS8; their biggest SUV in the market. The variant we're trying out is the GS8 GE 2WD. Technically it's the base variant of the line, but you wouldn't think it upon seeing it in the metal, or seeing its PhP 1,880,000 price tag.
Did that price raise your eyebrow? Yes, GAC is aiming to be a premium brand, not another eager Chinese company that wants to grab market share. Is it too lofty? Can this GS8 show is that there's a premium future with Chinese automobiles?
The first thing that struck me about the GS8 is its design. The look is very distinctive and, quite frankly, refreshingly original. We've become accustomed to how several Chinese brands blatantly copying other designs or creating the automotive equivalent of chopsuey by fusing the front of Car A, the rear end of Car B, on the platform or body of Car C. The GS8 does not qualify for that bouillabaisse status, and a big part of it is because GAC has been focusing on creating original designs. They even hired an ex-Mercedes-Benz designer to style the GS8.
GAC seems to have done a fairly good job on the design. The headlights are massive bulbous pieces that flank the equally massive grille that GAC calls “flying dynamic”. We like the classic proportions; GAC didn't try to make too much of an effort to go for sleek or for a shape that cuts through the air. As such, the GS8 is boxier than most other SUVs or crossovers rather; it's got no ladder frame underneath like a traditional SUV.
The first oddity we noticed is the presence of Trumpchi all over the vehicle. That's because in its native China, the GS8 is actually under the Trumpchi automotive brand, which in turn is under the GAC group, hence the 'G' emblems on the wheels, the grille, and the back. For the curious, the 'G' in GAC stands for Guangzhou; that's because like many automotive companies from China, it's partially state owned.
For the Philippine market, GAC isn't using the Trumpchi name, but they didn't omit the name from the actual vehicles. We'll venture a guess that it would have been uneconomical (and impractical) to do given our relatively small sales numbers, but with GAC looking to enter the U.S. market and have already announced that they won't use the Trumpchi name there (for the obvious reasons), perhaps future Philippine GACs can drop it too as the economies of scale increase.
Beyond the naming convention, there is one more strange bit about the GS8, and it's the size. GAC has been aggressive with advertising all over the world, and one of the first times I saw the GS8 was on an inflight magazine when I was transiting via Dubai. The image showed what looked like a vehicle that was about the same size as a Toyota Land Cruiser 200. But in reality, it was much smaller; without checking the actual dimensions, I'd say it's closer to a Hyundai Santa Fe.
Optical illusion aside, it's still a very classic-looking SUV even though it's a crossover. The one thing on the engineering side we wish the would have improved on was the ground clearance: at 200mm, it's not much for an SUV of this size and presence. Yes, it actually does have a nice and powerful presence about it, but when I was stuck in traffic next to a standard Fortuner I saw the difference; it felt like I was standing next to a pro-baller.
Where the GAC will impress, however, is when it comes to the interior. The cabin is exceptionally pleasant to be in, bar none. They really did the work when it comes to creating an air of luxury with the GS8 with the pleasing color combinations, patterns, and really comfortable front seats.
In the back, it's very nice too and with a generous degree of legroom; Chinese automobiles, after all, are known for having good legroom because of their affinity for long-wheelbase variants. That's why you get China-only models from foreign brands like a long-wheelbase BMW 3 Series or even an extended Audi A3. That's why the GS8 has a lengthy wheelbase and long rear doors for easy ingress and egress.
The GS8 is a three-row SUV, meaning it can seat a total of 7. The third row actually isn't a bad place to be even for adults. You just have to make sure the middle row isn't pushed all the way back, otherwise it's really just good for not-so-tall teenagers. Most of the time though, we expect the GS8 to have the third row folded down flat to provide more cargo room.
Fiddling about with the features, I have to say that I really am impressed. For a “base” model, this is very well appointed. You've got crisp and easy to read gauges in front, nice upholstery on the steering wheel and shifter, and a lot of clean and cohesive buttons. What could be improved on were the buttons on the steering wheel; the resistance of the buttons to being accidentally pushed is not enough, so much so that sometimes the strap of my watch kept maxing the volume accidentally when I relax my grip on the steering wheel.
The features list is fairly long, but off the bat the things you'd find useful is the smart key and push button ignition, a rear view camera, an electronic parking brake that has that hold feature which is useful for traffic, power seats, and even a sunroof. For safety, it has 6 airbags, stability control, anti lock brakes, and even a body that uses high-strength steel. The doors even unlock in case of a crash. Higher grade models even add more things like a panoramic moonroof, LED headlights, and a start stop system, but they're not really essential.
We like the fact that it has a three zone climate control system, meaning the rear passengers can set their own A/C settings. What we really would have liked is a power liftgate for this variant; the button on the keyfob is just to unlatch the tailgate, but doesn't fully open it as we would have expected from the presence of such a button.
The audio system is fairly nice too, and the graphics on the touchscreen are very crisp for a production unit. Actually, it feels like a smartphone to use; no surprise there as China does make most, if not all, of our smartphones now. Audio quality is exceptionally good; surprising considering that this one doesn't have the premium Harman Kardon speaker system yet.
There are, however, two niggles I noticed with the cabin off the bat. The first is not so apparent: the pod housing the control panel for the windows on the driver side is squeaky. You can check the video to see what I mean. The other is more visible: there's about a 1/2 inch gap between the door panel and the dashboard when you close the door. It's one of the biggest gaps I've seen in a series production vehicle, and I could actually insert my fingertips in there without trying too hard. GAC should focus build consistency at the factory because at the GS8's price point, quality control expectations are much higher.
The engine fires up to a smooth hum, and this is the time you'll realize that all variants of the GS8 are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter gasoline motor, not diesel. In all honesty, I thought the engine would have a hard time with the big GS8, but on an urban drive, that theory was quickly debunked as the crossover was quite sprightly, all things considered.
We liked the operation of the gearbox. The GS8's 6-speed auto is smooth in city traffic, quiet on the highway at 100 km/h, and fairly responsive when driven spiritedly. It's definitely a plus on the GS8's scoresheet. And for those asking, this GS8 is front wheel drive only.
We liked the nimbleness of the vehicle in urban streets. Normally, vehicles of this size can seem difficult to maneuver on old town streets and tight 90 degree corners with tall curbs, but the GS8 was having none of it. It proved to be easy to maneuver, and easy to park with those sensors and the rear camera. Some versions even have a 360 degree camera system similar to what Nissan uses.
The fuel economy, perhaps, could be better. The engine is still fairly small, and while turbocharging does offset its limitations for a body of the GS8's size, you do have to rev quite a bit more compared to either larger engines or a modern turbodiesel. As a result, in traffic and with a light load, the GS8 was doing 7.2 km/l (22 km/h average speed). On the highway, that improves to 11.1 km/l (85 km/h average). If there were more passengers, then those figures will most definitely drop significantly at the same average speeds. A diesel or even a hybrid would be welcome upgrades for the GS8.
On more open roads, the GS8 performs respectably. I didn't have big expectations of great handling from it, but the GAC holds its own. It's a heavy vehicle, but the weight is managed well through corners. Braking is powerful and the brake assist doesn't activate as eagerly as other models, which is good for smooth driving. If you do need to slow down in a hurry, the GAC does hunker down to scrub speed. Steering feel, well, there's not much of that to be expected anyway, but it is smooth and intuitive.
There are a few things that need improving with the GS8, but I think its a matter of fine tuning and attention to detail. There isn't much that can be done about the engine choice, but if GAC can devote more time to post-assembly quality control, that will make a better impression overall. But perhaps the most important thing about the base GAC GS8 is that represents an argument: Is this Chinese automaker ready to take on the established order of Japanese, Korean, and American midsize crossovers with the GS8?
There are really only two things that stand in the way of the GS8. The first is the price point. Yes, the GS8 GE has a price that's much lower than similar midsize crossovers like the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Ford Explorer, but the price is in the vicinity of the very popular PPV segment that has the Fortuner, Montero Sport, Terra, Everest, Trailblazer, and mu-X. It can be argued that the GS8 isn't competing against those models, but we can't deny that it's going to be a factor; there are a lot of choices for GS8 money.
The other thing that stands in the way of GAC's success is the sophistication of the Philippine car buyer. Some may think that the local consumer is unsophisticated, but that's just not true. The modern Filipino car buyer is a smart, discerning, and very brand conscious individual. He or she has to be that way, as cars on our islands are becoming dearer to buy and own. Finding bang for the buck is very important.
Can the GS8 succeed with that in mind? The pricing would be difficult to overcome, but we think GAC has a fair shot at turning customers' minds around. If they can prove that the ownership experience is good, and that the maintenance is both prompt and fairly priced, then they can succeed.
It'll be interesting to see how GAC can do it, but clearly they're aiming high, and they're ready to go to work and achieve it.