I used to have a lot of skepticism about Geely's return to the domestic automobile market. A much younger version of me was there to test and experience the first batch of Chinese vehicles that tried to enter the local industry. Let me tell you that there were a lot of mistakes made in terms of business practices and after-sales. Some were minor, some were outrageous.
The products were mostly unflattering facsimiles of other Asian originals, and were unabashedly marketed as such. Does a showroom sales pitch that includes the words "Ser, ito'y parang yung SUV ni Toyota, pero mas mura" [Translated: Sir, this is like Toyota's SUV, but cheaper] inspire much buyer confidence?
Geely back then was middling. We drove the LC hatchback (AKA: “Panda”) and, while it wasn't bad or a flat out clone, we didn't see much promise in the brand. That wasn't the best foot forward that a new brand needs to succeed in a very discerning market where the concept of resale is king.
Today, Geely is a very different brand in the country. The distributing company is, oddly enough, Japanese; they were the once partners that formed Mitsubishi Motors Philippines. And their first product, the Coolray, is very much a beacon in the segment. If you're in the market for something the size of a Juke or an HR-V, you really should consider the Coolray.
With such an impressive first product, Geely (pronounced as “jeely”, by the way) needed something equally strong -if not better- to prove it wasn't a fluke. They need to do that if they are aiming to be the premium China auto brand on the world stage. We're going to be one of the first major markets that they want to test their expansion plan on.
And so that brings us to the Azkarra.
Well before the local virtual launch last week and even before the ECQ, I was able to bring home the “Luxury” variant of the Geely Azkarra for a few days. Let me tell you now that the Azkarra lives up to the promise. But first, let's trace its roots.
Azkarra is the name chosen by Geely for this compact crossover for export to the global market, but in China, it's been around initially as the Geely Bo Yue/Boyue since around 2016. The Boyue is also sold as the Emgrand X7, and is also known as the Proton X70 in Malaysia. Geely also owns Proton along with Volvo and Lotus.
They gave the Boyue a facelift last year and called it the Boyue Pro. The name "Boyue" won't cut it in foreign markets, so they went with Azkarra. As to why, the explanation is odd, but it is what it is. What we're getting is effectively the facelifted and upgraded Boyue. For reference, the Coolray is known as Binyue in China.
Design-wise, I'll say that the Azkarra is something I'd like to have in my garage based on looks alone. The grille looks nice, pronounced a bit forward on a snout somewhat resemblant of Jaguars. The headlights look a bit more mature, which is proper for this model targeted at more grown-up and family-oriented audiences. They didn't overdo the character lines or creases; heck, I even like even those fin-type lines on the hood, even if those are a bit muscle car-ish.
The proportions are proper and conventional which is good; some of the Azkarra's compatriot models look oddly proportioned. The greenhouse is nice and blacked out, creating that floating roof effect common in the more avant-garde models of today. The wheels are beautifully cut; I've always had a soft spot for Y-spoke type wheels. Combined with the impeccably buffed shade of blue, the Azkarra just looks good, especially out in the sun on a very clear day.
The Coolray introduced us to the Geely's impressive interior design capabilities and high-quality build characteristics. The Azkarra Luxury, however, steps it up considerably. The digital screens look fantastic, the materials chosen give off that quality feel, the black surfaces are clean, the stitching on the brown Nappa leather is perfect, and the fit and finish is very consistent. The layout of the buttons beside the shifter reminds me of a Vertu.
Press the surfaces and you won't hear any weird creaks normally heard in lesser vehicles. The doors even close with a satisfying thud; no clunkiness whatsoever. Oh, and for those that have driven older generation Chinese cars, there's none of that pungent “Chinese” new car smell. I'll say this: you'll be forgiven if you think you're in something from Audi. It's that high a level of execution.
The back seat is also very nice. The upholstery and padding make for a rather supple experience, and there's plenty of knee room even if you prefer to cross your legs. The seat cushion is not set as high as I would have preferred like the elevated theater-style arrangement (having the front seats a bit lower, rear seats higher) commonly adopted by many SUVs, but the panoramic glass roof more than makes up for it.
This isn't a three-row crossover SUV, meaning there's no seat folded down in the very back. So if you open the boot, all you'll see is a fairly spacious trunk that's common in the compact crossover class. Open the cover and you'll see a spare tire; nothing to report here except for a device that looks like an audio amplifier... but it isn't. That's the battery for the Azkarra's hybrid drive system.
The Azkarra is powered by the same 177 horsepower 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder engine you'd also find in the Coolray and is mated to a 7-speed wet DCT (not the dry dual-clutch system that is giving Ford so many headaches) driving all four wheels.
The Azkarra also has a hybrid system... sort of. This is a mild hybrid, and it's effectively a baby step into electrified driving from internal combustion engines. What that means is this doesn't drive like a Prius that can go on for several kilometers on electric power alone (if you manage your throttle pressure); this is still primarily a gasoline vehicle, with some electric drive assistance.
The hybrid system operates by marrying the functions of the alternator and the starter motor in one unit hooked up to the 48-volt battery in the back. These systems are called belted alternator starter (BAS) units, and they allow a certain degree of electric drive, and also let the engine rest in certain situations... even while the vehicle is moving. But we'll get to that later.
As an urban commuter, the Azkarra is fantastic. The steering is light (there's a comfort setting), the throttle response is quick, the ride is on the comfortable side, the gearbox is smooth in low-speed city driving, and the torque comes in at a very early 1500 rpm; making quick work of a fully-loaded cabin. I especially liked the 360 camera system in the Azkarra; the video is very crisp, and can make a novice parker feel like a pro.
What's particularly enjoyable about the Azkarra is its digital nature. The main instrument cluster is a digital screen, and very detailed in its display; if you're familiar with the digital gauge cluster on the Honda Civic or CR-V, the one on this Geely is better. And honestly, the GKUI infotainment system (Update: We thought it had Apple Carplay and Android Auto, but it didn't) is second to none. I'd say the user interface is better than the latest versions of SYNC, iDrive, MZD Connect, so on and so forth. The one I find to be comparable is the new system in Jaguar/Land Rover vehicles, but the one from the Brits have some bugs. You have to try out Geely's GKUI to see what I mean.
At highway speeds, the Azkarra Luxury exhibits the qualities we expect of a higher grade Geely: smooth and rather refined. Acceleration isn't as brisk as the Coolray despite the Azkarra having the same turbo engine. Then again, the latter also has more weight being a bigger vehicle and having all-wheel-drive. The tires are quiet, but there is a bit of wind noise from the mirrors.
Handling is very decent for a crossover. The feel of the Azkarra's steering isn't particularly exciting, but that holds for most vehicles that use electric power steering units. But the road holding ability of the Azkarra whilst cornering at higher speeds is confidence-inspiring. No, it's not a sporty crossover like the Forester XT, but it's got some good stability at higher than normal speeds. Braking is also very solid and stable; not much nosediving even in emergency braking maneuvers.
And that brings us to the hybrid system. Honestly, it was a bit too mild. While driving in the daytime with the A/C on full blast, the hybrid system is unavailable to help out; you can tell by a small yellow indicator light on the dashboard. When that light goes green, the hybrid system can help out by providing an extra 13 horsepower to bring the total to 190 PS, and an extra 45 Nm of torque. Here's the kicker though: it only went to green on a couple of occasions mostly at night, on the downhill (which allowed the engine to rest and save fuel), and on flat roads (it deactivated on the uphill).
Like I said this mild hybrid is a baby step, but I was hoping for a bit more. But it's not like fuel economy was affected: if driven casually and smartly, don't be surprised if you get 8.9 km/l in the city (22 km/h average speed, with mild traffic) and 15.3 km/l on the highway (83 km/h average speed). The Azkarra can probably do better if I wasn't trying to rush home on those nights, but those are the numbers I was getting. And that's with minimal hybrid assistance.
There are plenty more features we can talk about like the chilled center box, the wireless phone charging, the long list of advanced safety equipment, or the fact that it now has CN95 filters as standard. If I were to talk about each feature individually, it would just make this review way too long.
Here's the gist: the 2020 Geely Azkarra Luxury 48V EMS is a very impressive crossover, and exceptionally loaded for the PhP 1,598,000 price tag. I'd prefer that the mild-hybrid system was a little less mild, but that's what you can expect from all similar 48V systems anyway. In many other aspects, the Azkarra Luxury scores very high marks.
What I'm more curious about though is if the base model of the Geely Azkarra which does away with some of the high-end features like the sunroof, the Nappa leather, and the 48V mild hybrid system. That one retails for PhP 1,438,000, and I have a feeling that'll be the model to watch because it can easily go head-to-head with many established crossovers, and I won't be surprised if this Chinese SUV came out on top, or very close to it.
If you think we're exaggerating about how good the Azkarra is, visit their dealerships and try one out for yourself. If anything, Geely is surprising us with their new-generation of Chinese automobiles.