2024 GAC Empow R: the promising sport sedan from China

GAC Motor has big plans for the Philippine market. Just last week, the automaker revealed that it is working on bringing in several models in Asia, as well as in the Philippines very soon. One of those is the GAC M8 luxury MPV which will succeed the now-discontinued GN8.

But if there’s one more vehicle that we would like to see on Philippine roads soon, it’s the GAC Empow R. Meaner and more aggressive than your regular Empow, this one gets a more powerful turbocharged engine, a sports-tuned transmission, improved handling, and an overall sportier interior to match the vehicle’s meaner looks.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Do the mechanical (and exterior/interior) upgrades on the Empow R translate to a sportier driving experience?

If Looks Could Kill

The regular Empow already looks sporty with its coupe-like shape and aggressive front fascia. But the designers over at GAC decided that wasn’t enough and cranked things up to 11 for the Empow R.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Immediately, your attention is fixated on the angry-looking front end which now gets bigger air intakes to feed a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. Yes, it gets a bigger four-cylinder under the hood but we’ll get to that later. The R also loses the large “waterfall” style grille but it does get a sportier front end courtesy of an R-specific grille complete with an off-center R badge - a reminder that this Empow is not your typical four-door.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

A new set of side skirts further amp up the already sporty looks of the Empow R. But it is perhaps the rear that gets the most drastic of changes. The rear bumper gets a larger diffuser element which should help with aerodynamics... or at least just look cool. Meanwhile, the trunk gets a spoiler which helps keep the Empow R planted to the pavement. Last but not least are the quad exhaust pipes which were actually carried over from the regular Empow.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

All in all, the Empow R’s meaner looks give the sports sedan a more distinct appearance. While some might say the exterior looks a tad overkill, you have to appreciate it from all angles in order to see that the extra bits and bobs are both functional and add to the sleek form of the Empow R.

Inside The Cockpit

If there’s one word to describe the interior of the GAC Empow R, it would be cutting edge. Immediately greeting you are a pair of digital displays. While it may look similar to what the standard Empow has, the instrument panel has been restyled to be as sporty as possible with its racing-inspired graphics and dials.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Then there’s the touchscreen infotainment system which is high-tech. But for enthusiasts who want to enjoy the Empow R on a track, the screen can display a myriad of dials like turbo pressure, engine oil temperature, oil pressure, and even the air intake temperature. For the driver who always needs to monitor a vehicle’s stats, the Empow R will deliver.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

GAC even installed a pair of sport bucket seats for the driver and front passenger. Not only do they have an embossed “R” logo on the headrests, but the seats have thick bolstering on the side for better support when you’re driving on the limit. It also has adjustable lumbar support for extra measure. Did we mention the seats are racing harness-ready? Yes, the seats have slots in them to put a proper racing harness.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

If you still think the Empow R is just a riced-up sports sedan, well it's not. 

Fast & Agile

A the heart of the Empow R is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four. It replaces the regular 1.5-liter turbo found in the normal Empow and it produces a lot more power and torque. Instead of just having 170 PS with 270 Nm of torque, the Empow R’s engine puts out 265 PS and 400 Nm of torque which translates to an increase of 95 PS and an additional 130 Nm of pull. The 7-speed dual-clutch transmission has also been replaced with an 8-speed sport-tuned automatic gearbox.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Clearly, GAC has been busy giving the Empow more muscle under the hood. But do the powertrain upgrades actually translate to better performance? Yes, and then some.

In a closed space on the outskirts of Guangzhou, GAC set up a track in what looked like an abandoned pier to allow us to have a feel for the Empow R’s power as well as experience the sedan's more agile handling. The track itself featured a long straight, some sweeping curves, a slalom section, as well as a figure 8 course.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

After a short briefing with the instructor sitting shotgun and telling me what I can and cannot do, I was off to experience the Empow R in its natural habitat. With the 8-speed Aisin automatic transmission set to sport, I buried my foot on the gas pedal and was firmly planted in the driver’s seat. While it may only have 265 PS, it feels like it actually makes more power than what the brochure says. Couple that with the 400 Nm of torque and it’s sports car fast.

I wish I had a timer set up with me during my initial run because GAC claims that from a standstill, the Empow R can catapult itself to 100 km/h in just 5.7 seconds. That's pretty close to the new Civic Type R which is at around 5.5 seconds. 

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Coming into the first turn, I applied the brakes and was surprised to see how much it was able to shave off speed just before I entered the first sweeping bend. Back on the gas pedal and the Empow R remained stable through the corner - allowing me to actually have more fun behind the wheel.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Next were the slaloms. Despite its length, the Empow R was able to snake its way through the slalom section with finesse. However, I do have to mention that while the steering was precise, I was disappointed with the sedan’s lack of steering feedback. In other words, the Empow R has a rather numb steering feel despite the vehicle’s sportier nature. I hope GAC takes notice of this and actually tunes the steering to deliver more road feedback to the driver.

With the slaloms sorted, it was now time for the Figure 8 section of the course. This was perhaps my favorite segment as I was able to fully test the steering on the tight turns and roundabouts. Despite the lack of steering feedback I mentioned earlier, the tighter turning radius combined with the firmer suspension made short work of the Figure 8 segment.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

As for the suspension itself, it’s not overly stiff but the firmer setup means it’s planted but will not deliver a jarring ride, at least from what I experienced in the test track. A more realistic test will be to get it out on the open road on different surfaces, but that will have to wait should GAC Motor PH actually decide to bring it here.

Civic Type R Fighter or WRX Competitor?

After getting behind the wheel of the Empow R, I was mightily impressed with what it could deliver. Sure, it was just a short run around a makeshift track, but it was enough to actually make me want to drive it again. A longer test drive on the open road might have given me more to work on but since we didn’t get an international license, it was understandable we couldn’t take it on public roads in Guangzhou.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

But now for the bigger question, is it actually a Civic Type R fighter? While it has the makings of a high-performance sports sedan, it’s slightly down on power and torque to actually face Honda’s halo car. In addition, it’s a four-door sedan, not a five-door hatchback. Last but certainly not least, the CTR has a great 6-speed manual whereas the Empow R is only an 8-speed automatic with no classic manual version. 

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

Given this conundrum, I can argue that it could be a more suitable competitor against another vehicle, the Subaru WRX. Side-by-side with the four-door from Gunma, the Empow R only makes 10 PS less (WRX has 275 PS) but bounces back in terms of torque as the GAC makes 25 Nm more pulling power (WRX only has 375 Nm). Both the Empow R and WRX are automatics but the former makes use of a sports-tuned torque converter while the latter gets a CVT with 8 simulated gear ratios to play with.

First Impressions: We want GAC to bring Empow R to PH image

I wish we had more time to get familiar with the GAC Empow R. But should Astara Philippines actually decide to bring it here, we certainly cannot wait to compare it with Honda and Subaru’s offerings. Hopefully, they will be able to price it competitively in order to undercut its (possible) closest rivals in the segment.