A Challenge for the King
There are two main reasons why carmakers are introducing smaller crossover SUVs in the local market. The first is the global auto industry's focus is shifting (or has already shifted) to SUVs. That's what customers want, and so that's what manufacturers want to deliver.
The second is something that isn't really talked about that much, but so very obvious: no one wants to challenge the Toyota Vios directly.
Sure, there are the usual rivals like the Honda City, the Nissan Almera, and even the smaller Mitsubishi Mirage, but if you notice, they don't want to rival the number one car and automaker in the country directly. Despite the obvious similarities, the companies try to offer something different by going a bit bigger (or smaller), going for something sportier (like the Ford Fiesta), going for a much lower price (like what Hyundai and Kia did with the Chinese-made Reina and Soluto, respectively), or toss in unique features that Toyota won't offer. Even then, it is still not easy. Vios is still the king.
Given all those signs, why did Geely decide to toss their hat in the ring? The answer is simple: they like their chances with the Emgrand. And after driving the Emgrand Premium variant, so do we.
If you're looking at curb appeal, the Emgrand has it. The car simply looks good; it seems like Geely has pulled out a shrink ray and pointed it at the Volvo S90. Not that Volvo can complain; Geely is the majority owner of the company. But yes, this oozes with curb appeal, especially in this shade of metallic teal. Even when you press the unlock button, the front and rear LED lights do a neat little dance.
The proportions of the car are the classic 3-box sedan and appear to have premium pretensions about it. Just look at the details like how the doors are perfectly aligned, the finish on the wheels (including the matte lug nuts), and the consistency of the panel gaps. They clearly spent time calibrating the assembly of the vehicle right from the start, and that's a good indicator of a quality car.
If you're a fan of clear (or no) tint, then the Emgrand Premium is a perfect candidate for it just so you can show off that blue and white leather interior. The dash, the door cards, and the seats are done that way. Granted, not everyone is a fan of that color combination especially if you have kids, but it just adds to the cool factor of the car. It almost makes me wonder why they didn't do this kind of option for the Coolray.
But the thing I really like about the interior is how efficient it looks and how well thought out it is. The dual screens have a streamlined look about them; one serves as the instrument cluster while the other is your infotainment screen and central control unit (more on that later). There are no fancy curves or lines, apart from a stitch pattern on the door cards. There's a generous tray for your wallet and another for your phone that's perfectly placed for the USB port. There's even a little hook beside the passenger's knee; you can use that if you've got a little sling bag or if you're bringing home some take-out.
The rear is a nice place to be in. The color of the interior coupled with the windows, the sunroof (yes, this has one, but not the panoramic kind), and the little rear quarter glass maximize the light when you sit in the back. On the center console, there are dual A/C vents and a USB port with a neatly placed pocket if you need to charge.
Perhaps the best bit is that you've got extra legroom here versus many rivals. The reason is that the Emgrand sits on a 2650mm wheelbase; to put that in perspective, the Almera sits on a 2620mm wheelbase, the City is at 2600mm, while the Vios is 2550mm. As is typical with cars from the PRC, the wheelbase is a bit longer because the Chinese prefer extended wheelbase cars; that's why automakers produce LWB models of what would have normally been SWB cars there. The benefit is extra legroom and knee room.
Back up front, and yeah I'm really digging the cleanliness of it all. It's like they hired Marie Kondo to do the interior. Do extra buttons and blanks (AKA: “abang”) give you joy? If not, remove them. But some have found that Geely may have gone a bit too far, and that's why many of the Emgrand's functions that normally would have its own button panel have been removed.
If you look up at the sunroof, there are no controls for it on the map-light panel. This car also has Eco, Comfort, and Sport driving modes, but there are no buttons for those features near the shifter where they would normally be. This car also has traction control, but there's no switch to turn it off (if you really, really want to) beside the driver's left knee where the headlamp leveler dial is along with the trunk release button. And by the way, there's no trunk release button on the trunk. You either use that button or your keyfob trunk remote.
Many of the functions that normally would have buttons of their own have been deleted because Geely opted to centralize everything into the infotainment panel. That's where you control the sunroof and the drive modes and activate/deactivate driver aids. That's going to be strange to some (perhaps even many) drivers, but I think it's genius especially when you start to consider the decision-making process with the Emgrand. They wanted to give customers more features, but at a very attractive price.
If you look at the spec sheet of the Premium, you have to wonder how they can offer features you couldn't possibly have expected at PHP 908,000. Things like 6 airbags, sunroof, cruise control, 60/40 rear seats, electronic parking brake, auto brake hold, power driver's seat, and so much more are not normal at this price point. How did they do that?
Of course, the first is economies of scale, but the other is to make little changes to reduce the manufacturing costs. Theoretically, if they can remove the extra wiring or installation complexity of buttons and control panels, they can lower the price and have the feature controlled by a screen that's already there. It's no different from when we made the big switch from the buttons on a Nokia and Blackberry to the touchscreens on a modern smartphone from Apple or Samsung. It's just a matter of accepting the change and adjusting.
Now if you step into the Emgrand from a Coolray and expect the same kind of acceleration, well you will be disappointed. Yes, both the Emgrand and Coolray have 1.5L gasoline engines, but the one on the crossover is a three-cylinder turbo while the one on this sedan is a four-cylinder without a turbo. The Coolray has 177 horsepower, but the Emgrand has 102 horsepower. And there's also the matter of the transmission: this Emgrand has a CVT while the Coolray has that wet DCT which we would consider to be the best in the class and for the price, bar none.
But the important thing to consider here is the decision-making process to go for that powertrain: so long as the goal is good, the compromise should be good. Turbo engines and DCTs are more expensive pieces of kit, and that's why the Coolray base model starts at PHP 998,000. Normally aspirated engines and CVTs are more cost-effective, and that's why the Emgrand starts at PHP 798,000.
The trade-off is the performance. This is not a quick vehicle like the Coolray, but that's not to say it's a slouch. The CVT does very well to adjust the drive ratio to give you acceleration when you want it, as well as outstanding fuel efficiency when you really need it. In my time with the Emgrand, I was averaging 9.4 kilometers per liter on my daily city commute without really trying to be efficient at all. If you manage your speed at around 80 km/h or a little less, expect fuel economy that's closer to 20 km/l, or maybe even a little more.
The other advantage of the powertrain is its smoothness and comfort. The steering is light in comfort mode. There is no such thing as an outstanding CVT but the one on the Emgrand is pretty good. It's smooth and doesn't have that whining sound similar to a sewing machine. The four-cylinder doesn't have the punch of the turbo three, but it doesn't have the vibration at idle or low revs either; that makes it smoother when you're idling in traffic. And then there's the wheelbase; cars with extra wheelbase tend to ride more comfortably, and that's definitely the case for the Emgrand on EDSA. You just let the suspension sort out the bumps and patchwork done on the road.
The Emgrand unit I drove also had a trait: there was a little hum or buzz from the electric power steering. It's very minute, so much so that you have to turn off the A/C and lower the audio volume to hear it, but it's there. I have driven another Emgrand unit (a Comfort variant) since then, and it doesn't have that. But other than that, the drive was solid. No squeaking from interior panels (like in the T-Cross) or body. It is just a well-built car.
So far I've been impressed with the Emgrand Premium, but there are some things I would recommend they change or improve. The first is the instrument panel. It's techie and all, but the design for the tachometer and speedometer reminds me more of the rifled barrel in the James Bond opening scene. I actually got to try the PHP 798k Emgrand Comfort and I have to say I prefer the standard gauge set better, but that's just me.
I would also prefer a different set of tires on the Emgrand. I have no issues with the behavior of the tires, but Chao Yang is just a strange name for a set of tires on the car. The third is really just a preference: the grille. I think the “Expanding Cosmos” on the Coolray would look so much better on the Emgrand. The “Energy Pulse” style of grille seems to be a bit too mature, and that's why it looks more at home with Maserati or Volvo.
There's also the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay; it has mirroring via an app, but customers want the other two systems. I know Geely is intent on keeping their proprietary system called GKUI and are working on a new cloud-based system that will be much better, but please do give customers what they want in the here and now, not a year or two down the line. It's just software, and I see no reason to withhold it from customers.
Those, however, are minor bits. I have to really be nitpicking to let those spoil the experience and what has been achieved. I think Geely has a really strong contender in the Emgrand Premium, and I think it can stand up on merit against the Toyota Vios, Honda City, and Nissan Almera. That means without even considering the price advantage of the Emgrand versus similarly specced rivals. Once we do start considering the price, then the odds skew in Geely's favor.
Geely is disrupting the industry, so much so that the leaders are changing the way they launch. Case in point: Toyota released the specifications and prices of the Raize crossover (which is in the price range of the Emgrand) way earlier than they have ever done for any model before the official launch. Toyota doesn't do anything accidentally; everything they do has purposes and objectives, and it seems like a pre-emptive strike.
If this keeps up, then the auto industry is really going to be very interesting to watch from here on out. The benefit for customers is easy to see: it's a re-calibration of expectations. So don't be surprised to see even better built and better specced cars from major players as they respond to how Geely is shaking up the market.