The Compact Contender
I grew up being very familiar with Japanese compact cars over the decades.
Our family had a 2001 Corolla Altis 1.6G, a 1997 Corolla 1.3 XE, a 1994 Corolla 1.6 GLi, a 1990 Nissan Sentra 1.6 SGX, a 1987 Mitsubishi Lancer, and before that a 1983 Isuzu Gemini Coupe. I remember all those cars very well and have a lot of fond memories of them growing up.
In recent years, however, the Japanese compact car has found itself to be the victim of evolution. As carmakers improved on the compact car concept the prices inevitably went up. That didn’t bode well with the intended market of the compact car which is younger drivers just getting started, establishing their own families, and looking for something affordable. It also didn’t help the compact car’s case as subcompact sedans or hatchbacks slotted underneath in terms of price, all while the costs of small crossover SUVs and small MPVs became more attainable. Japanese automakers shifted their focus to making the production of subcompacts, small SUVs, and MPVs more efficient.
That, however, opened up the possibility for Chinese automakers to try and enter the market with their own compact cars. While many have misgivings about Chinese automobiles, we can’t deny that they do flex their huge economies of scale to offer models at lower prices, and the quality is getting better with every generation. And that’s what we see with the GAC Empow.
GAC is still relatively new in the Philippines, having only been launched at the end of 2018. The quality of GAC is better than what we were used to from China’s auto brands at the time, which is good. The price, however, was also not what we were used to as the pricing was a bit higher than expected.
In late 2022, GAC changed hands to a new distributor: Berge Auto or Astara. It’s a different group, and they’ve come in just as GAC was making a big push with new-generation models. Actually, we got a peek at what was in store for GAC during the 2022 Manila International Auto Show when they showed off the new GS8 (which we also reviewed) and the new Empow55. The Empow took a while to be launched, and that’s what we have now.
What we’re looking at is not the top-of-the-line model though; this is the Empow GB. In GAC’s new model designation, the GB is the mid-grade model, while the top variant is the GE. But nothing about the appearance of the GB indicates it’s a “lower” variant. The lines are clean, the details are quite profound, and the curb appeal is definitely there. If you’re the type that looks to the side as you pass by a store with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, then you’ll get a kick out of this.
The Empow GB looks classy, and that’s not something we normally say of these kinds of cars. If you’re looking for something sportier, then the GE is the one to look at because it’s got a different front end and some rather aggressive color combinations like green with yellow accents. For me, the GB is just right. The only thing I’d remove is the faux rear tailpipe finishers on the bumper. Those are just unnecessary. My preference would also be to upsize the wheels a bit because the 17s just don’t do the look justice.
As for the interior, I believe they nailed it. The dashboard is nice to look at if you’re in traffic all day with interesting details that invite closer inspection. The driver’s seat is comfortable and the way the center console is gives the space a rather cozy feel. The ergonomics are just right with the controls feeling very natural for the type of car. The switches have a quality feel about them. There are no eyesores like gaps or excess plastic from the molding process of the interior pieces.
Of course what’s really dominating the driver’s view is a continuous black panel that houses two screens: the digital display serving as the instrument cluster and another touchscreen that is the multimedia system. It’s got the usual stuff like Bluetooth, USB input, and Apple Carplay, but not Android Auto.
There are some nuances given that this isn’t a top-of-the-line model. The steering isn’t leather wrapped but the urethane feels like it’s of very high quality. There is no manual shift override like paddle shifters or a manual gate on the shifter; actually, the shifter reminds me of the throttle on my Thrustmaster flight sim rig as a kid. There’s also something weird with the rearview mirror: the position is a bit lower on the windshield compared to other compacts whilst the third brake light on the backboard is a bit high up. So when my eyes go to the rearview, I see just a big gray hump. Maybe they can reposition the rearview closer to the ceiling or make the third brake light smaller or both.
When I took out the Empow for the first time, I have to say I was truly impressed with how well it managed roads that are far from the best. The tires aren’t exactly the best for handling, but they do well in keeping noise on our corrugated-style concrete to a minimum. The wheelbase is as long as the one on the 11th-generation Civic, and that means the front suspension has more time after a bump to settle before the rear tires go over it, leading to a smoother ride. But what impressed me the most was the manners of the car on numerous and “assortedly-shaped” humps in my village. No volume market sedan -not even the larger saloons like a Camry- had a ride like the Empow on the humps in my village. Even on EDSA, it really performed well in the comfort department.
When you take it out on the open road, there are some interesting revelations too. The Empow is powered by a 1.5-liter turbo gasoline engine with an air-water intercooler. 1.5 is the sweet spot for automobiles imported from China to the Philippines because it results in a much lower import duty compared to a 1.6 or larger. What I would probably note here is that the 1.5L on the Empow is one of the best ones I’ve tried because (1) they got 170 PS out of it and (2) they did not go for a three-cylinder. So you’ve got the power, and you don’t get the vibrations associated with a typical three-cylinder engine.
Yes, it does have the punch if you want to overtake on a typical provincial highway, but what I’ve found is that the wet 7-speed DCT they have could do with a bit more tuning. On the highway, I can feel the delay from when I put my foot down to when it decides to downshift a gear or two. The response in sport mode seems slower than many similar wet DCTs. The transmission on this one also doesn’t seem to like our kind of traffic; not that any do, but it’s a reality of driving in Metro Manila.
Even given the programming or performance of the transmission, I think there’s really a good car in the Empow that just wants to come out. Even if the suspension is comfortable, it handles well on our little autocross. Even if it has power, it returned good fuel efficiency on our drive at 9.5 km/l at a slow average of just 14 km/h in the city and 16.2 km/l on the highway. Even if it’s not the top variant, it almost feels like it. And we appreciate that GAC is paying attention to the compact car class while many automakers are already moving on.
What is perhaps truly impressive about the Empow is what it shows us: the pace of development of China’s auto brands, particularly GAC. With the Empow, they’re flexing their capability at R&D and production because comparing it to the GA4 is like pitting an iPhone against a Nokia. It’s no contest. Yes, there’s room for improvement for the Empow, but isn’t there always? We already know Geely is way up there in terms of quality but local aftersales have a lot of room for improvement. There’s always something that can be done better.
The challenge for GAC is pricing. As tested, this Empow GB is set at PHP 1,215,000. Honestly, I think that’s a bit too close to some already established compacts like the Corolla Altis with the 1.6L engine. Yes, the Empow is better in a lot of ways with its specs and power, but at the end of the day, Toyota is Toyota in the mind of consumers.
Also, the SRP of the Empow will change because it’s an introductory price until April 30. Hopefully, it won’t go up because even though GAC’s models are getting better and more sophisticated at a pace that the conservative Japanese brands may not be able to keep up with, GAC may have challenges with market acceptance. We have to be realistic: consumers still view the many automobile brands from across the West Philippine Sea as the budget-friendly option.
If the price isn’t right, why look in that direction?