The last decade and a half have seen the introduction of a wide variety of Chinese automobiles into the Philippine auto industry. That was really inevitable.
The Chinese auto industry is making strong overtures to conquer the markets adjacent to it, particularly in the Japanese-dominated South East Asia automotive industry. They're leveraging the experience and knowledge they have with their joint ventures in the PRC (i.e. SAIC and GM, Chery and Jaguar Land Rover, etc.), they're buying car factories in Asia (i.e. Great Wall bought Ford's factory in India and Chevrolet's factory in Thailand), and they're buying up foreign car brands and companies (i.e. Geely owns Volvo, Proton, Lotus, while SAIC owns MG, etc.), all in a bid to make a stronger and much more competitive presence in SEA and the world.
In the last year or two, they've really accelerated their efforts.
The promises are certainly attractive, especially considering that automobiles made in China have very competitively priced, typically anywhere between PhP 100,000 to 200,000 less than its counterparts from more established brands. They achieve that with the ridiculous huge economies of scale in their production, the fact that parts are made there, and the free trade agreement that ASEAN has with the PRC.
But beyond the economics of it all, the question remains: are Chinese automobiles any good?
While we endeavor to review as many cars as we can, there are just too many. Whether it be Japanese, Korean, American, European, Indian or Chinese, we honestly don't have the manpower to review every car available in the market in a calendar year. So we decided on something else: we'd rather show you how to do it as we at AutoIndustriya would.
In this article, we've collated as many lessons as we can from years of driving different Chinese automobiles from various Chinese domestic brands in the Philippines. In our reviews, we typically focus on the driving performance and everyday usability, but now we'll show you how we can apply what we've learned over the decades so you can better inspect, evaluate, and research about that Chinese automobile (or any other automobile) you've been trying to make a decision on.
And mind you, we'll be a bit more detail-oriented on this one, and focus on the three main areas you can evaluate Chinese vehicles. Actually, this is very much applicable to any vehicle you have your eye on, regardless of where it was manufactured.
PART 1: AT A SHOWROOM OR MALL DISPLAY
The mall display is often the first time a customer often has an encounter with a new vehicle in the market, perhaps even more so than actual customers making the drive or commute to a nearby showroom. Car companies try to woo customers with big banners, fancy exhibit stands, good drinks, delicious snacks and attractive models (male or female); that's just business.
Whether you're at the showroom, mall display or another similar public event, there's already a lot you can learn about the car just by looking a little closer.
A. Inspect the tires
The first thing that people notice about a car is its design and that's natural. That is, however, also the first thing that needs changing.
Personally, after having driven many cars from different marques, the first thing I notice now is the tires. There's a good reason for this: tires determine everything about how well a vehicle will drive because tires are the only things that actually touch the road.
Here's a simple way to rationalize it: the better the tires, the better the performance potential. And by performance potential, we don't just mean acceleration and handling, we also mean shorter braking distances, fuel economy, and overall safety.
The thing about our experiences with Chinese-made vehicles is that these (more often than not) come with tires from brands that we've never, ever heard of before. In fairness, some have proven to perform alright with good braking performance, road holding, noise, so on and so forth, but we've also encountered some bad ones in the past especially when it comes to braking. Good as a car may be made, cheap tires can ruin the experience, so keep that in mind.
Here's the thing though: some new generation Chinese vehicles come with tires from known international brands like Continental, Goodyear, so on and so forth. So, before you let out some oohs and ahhs over how good a vehicle looks, take a look at the tires first, and make sure that the vehicle you actually buy comes with a good set.
B. Evaluate panel gaps inside and out
In the last few years, Chinese automobile companies have made great strides in vehicle design. They've invested in hiring foreign designers and establishing design centers worldwide, which is why it's not so common to see copycat cars, at least outside of the PRC.
But one aspect that we're more interested in is the quality control in the manufacturing of the vehicle itself, and that means examining the panel gaps.
While car companies (including Chinese ones) rely on high precision robots to do the welding and manufacturing, not all are created equal, and you can see this by examining the spaces between the metal body panels (hence the term panel gaps).
On the outside of the vehicle, check if the gaps between the metal body panels are consistent and even. You can check how well the hood is aligned or if it's slightly warped. You can also check the seams between the fender and the plastic bumper (front or rear) and see how consistent it is.
Inside the vehicle, you can also check if there are any gaps that stick out with the plastics or other interior panels especially between the inner door panel and the dashboard. That will show up easily because carmakers like to design vehicles with almost interlocking interior pieces. And mind you, having inconsistent or bad panel gaps isn't exclusively Chinese; we've seen this problem in cars made all over the world, including premium European ones.
C. Check the alignment of the doors
Here's a little known tidbit of information: if the final quality control check of a vehicle isn't that good, there's a good chance it'll show up with the doors.
Unlike panel welding which is largely done by computer-controlled robots for maximum precision, mounting a door to a body is still fairly manual in nature. Yes, the workers on the assembly line have a hydraulic lift or other kinds of assistive devices to help them lift the doorframe into position, but it still requires manual precision to do that, particularly on a moving assembly line.
There is a possibility of the door being installed whilst not being fully aligned. You can tell by looking at trim pieces at the edge of the side windows from the A-pillar to the C-pillars or D-pillars; if they line up, it's probably good. If it's not fully or perfectly aligned, try opening and closing the doors; there's a chance it won't feel as smooth. We have seen vehicles that have misaligned doors, and it's not always Chinese.
D. Check the screws, bolts, welds
Here's another tip: look at the metal.
We're not referring to the painted body panels; what we're talking about are the other bits and pieces around the vehicle like screws, bolts, nuts, washers, catches, or any other bare metal pieces you would only see when you open the door and look at the frame.
If these parts are painted or are alloy steel (like a matt black color) or are of the stainless variety, then it speaks of a fairly good quality vehicle, or at the very least more attention to detail. If you can see rainbow-ish, zinc-plated metal (the kind you would find in a friendly neighborhood auto supply), then it is the more cost-effective (read: cheaper) material. That's one of the ways that car manufacturers try to save on production costs of a vehicle; it doesn't matter as much to see zinc-coated metal on commercial vehicles like trucks, but we'd argue it matters on personal passenger vehicles.
Also, while you're at it, another thing you can check is the engine bay. Here you can see how they've welded the vehicle together, and you can spot it by inspecting the weld seams. The more uniform the patterns, the better. Some carmakers also resort to masking the engine bay with plastic covers to “clean up” the look, but that's only really reserved for cars that are intended to impress customers.
E. Inspect the plastics, and press on them
One more check you can do without driving the vehicle is to check the interior, and we don't mean by admiring the look.
The first thing you can do is perform a quick visual inspection of what you don't really notice, and by that, we mean things like the steering column shroud or the lower edge of the dashboard or glove compartment closest to where your feet would be. Try to look for sharp edges on the plastic or the excesses that you would normally get during the plastic injection molding process. If there are, these would be reminiscent of the excess plastics you would find on lower grade plastic model kits; not Tamiya-grade.
Another test we found to be fairly effective is to press on the cosmetic trim pieces on the dashboard and doors; the kind they would use to cover up the rim of the audio unit or pods for the power window switches. You can also grab the inner door handle and try to twist it a bit. If you hear sounds akin to a loud, high pitched squeak like you get when you twist a cheap TV remote control, you'll know they could have done better.
PART 2: DURING A TEST DRIVE
After you've performed our kind of visual inspection of a vehicle and concluded that you want to push forward, then the next logical step is to test drive. Sometimes it's about visiting a dealer and scheduling one, but oftentimes at the mall displays or other special exhibit events, the company will have a test drive event for clients to try their vehicles.
Whichever the case may be, getting an opportunity to test drive is easy, but evaluating isn't. Every car buyer has a different way to test a car, and while we've come up with general guides and tips for test driving cars, we thought we'd point out a few things that you can specifically look for when you try out a Chinese automobile. There are, frankly, some differences.
A. Try to get a comfortable driving position
The first thing is about ergonomics. Even before you start the car up, try to find the perfect driving position that can fit your body shape because not everyone is shaped the same. Some automobiles, particularly Chinese ones, aren't as comfortable for some people, while for others it's no problem.
Some have found that getting in or out of some Chinese vehicles to be somewhat different, especially concerning the headroom. Others even have shorter-than-usual seatbelts and might be uncomfortable for larger individuals; on that, I speak from personal experience. Often I find that the lumbar support is unusual with something pressing on my back on the seats of some cars, but that's just for me.
For manual transmission vehicles, you should also keep an eye out for the shifter throw. We've found that some models have an unusually long throw to 1st, 3rd, and 5th gears, as if it was intended for someone with really long arms, even if you're in the proper driving position.
B. Press as many buttons as you can
Before even leaving the parking slot, try pressing as many buttons as you can.
Bring all the windows down, and then up. Open the moonroof and close it. Turn the A/C to the max, and back down. If your seat has power adjustments, play with it. Check the lights, high beams, wipers, locks, audio system, connect to the Bluetooth, so on and so forth. Go nuts and press all the buttons you can.
It sounds weird and the sales agent (which will probably be sitting next to you) will just stare at you, but it does work. Basically, what you're doing is a function test of all the features, and this is especially helpful because Chinese-made vehicles tend to be well and truly loaded with all kinds of electrical or electronic equipment.
There is a logic to it: when any company crams as many features as they can into one platform, be it a smartphone or a car, you have to wonder if these features (a) actually work and (b) will actually last. Think about it this way: if a car manufacturer crams the extensive features you would find in a PHP 3 million car into something that costs less than half that, shouldn't you be a bit cautious and check?
C. Listen for strange noises
Remember that the sales agent that we mentioned would be sitting next to you? Well, during these customer test drives, they have a tendency to talk too much. That's normal of course; they're supposed to be a bit chatty and friendly. But the sales associate talking could detract from one key thing you should be paying attention to: the noise.
As a test driver, you should be listening to the different noises that the vehicle is making, particularly from the new Chinese brands in our market. After you test whether the audio system is working well, turn the volume to zero and lower the A/C blower setting to where it's not making too much noise. Then you just listen as you drive at a fairly steady pace.
Pay attention to any undue sounds you may hear. That could be plastic squeaking, which would be annoying. That could be in the form of the metal creaking, which would be worse (but very, very rare). Listen to the thuds made by the suspension. Listen for odd engine noises or transmission/gearbox noises, especially if its a CVT.
Any noise you hear from the vehicle could give you a good indicator if it's actually any good. Case in point: there was one time we drove a fairly premium Chinese-made vehicle with all the bells and whistles, but it had moonroof that squeaked like there was no tomorrow.
D. Do not avoid potholes
During test drive events, car companies generally plot specific routes for your drive. And honestly speaking, they try to look for routes that showcase the best of their vehicles, but not the bad.
That's fair; they only want to make a sale. But if you're looking to buy a car and spend the next 3, 4 or 5 years paying for it, you'll want to know if it can handle our roads, and a big part of our roads are the imperfections.
If you're on a specific test drive route, try to look for those road imperfections like potholes or expansion joints. Try to drive over the rumble strips at about 30 km/h. Go over speed bumps at angles. Yes, it sounds uncomfortable, but you'll learn more about the vehicle than if the road was level and smooth like a pool table.
Remember: the goal shouldn't be about trying to see how well it will drive under the best conditions. The goal should be trying to find out how it can cope with bad conditions.
E. Feel the torque and gearbox behavior at low rpm
Here's the thing about many Chinese-made crossovers and passenger cars in the market: there's a good chance they'll be sluggish and uninspiring at low RPMs.
The reason for that is because a good majority of these cars in the Philippine market will have a petrol engine with a displacement of just 1.5-liters in order to best take advantage of the ASEAN free trade agreement with China.
1.5-liter gas engines generally don't produce as much torque at low RPMs, so it will feel slow in general. Some carmakers compensate by engineering turbocharged 1.5-liter engines, but usually it only takes care of top-end power. Mid or low range torque may feel weak unless the turbo is already generating sufficient boost at low RPMs, meaning they would be fairly inefficient.
Doing a fuel economy test might be difficult on a short test drive, but you can try to by zeroing the fuel eco meter if it has one. What we would recommend you focusing a bit more on is the manners of the transmission during low-speed driving and traffic. Does it lurch? Is there gear hunting? Is it noisy? Is it rough? All these things will matter quite a bit, especially if you live in an area with high traffic.
It may also be good if you bring the whole family in the car with you and test how the vehicle behaves.
PART 3. ONLINE RESEARCH
Some would think that the online research should come before everything else, but we suggest you save it for last, and after your test drive. The reason is that you shouldn't make a decision so quickly after the test drive. You should take time time to process your experience, and use that to to help make your decision for you.
Understandably there will still be some questions that need answering before you make a final decision. Maybe you're impressed with the initial quality inspection during the display, and maybe even the drive was to your liking, but you still need more to make a good decision, particularly when it comes to the ownership prospect.
A lot of the Chinese made vehicles in the Philippines have a very short history in our market, and some of them aren't good at all. So a lot of the work has to be with regards to researching how the brand is and how the vehicles are on the web. There's actually a lot you can do to help you decide, and maybe learn more about what others are experiencing with their cars.
A. Read up on the brand (including JV partners)
One of the more interesting things to know about the current crop of Chinese automobiles is that they have improved drastically in the last 10 years, and a big part of that improvement is because of how they do business in China's auto industry.
Every foreign car company that wants to do business in China has (by law) to partner up with a local company. China's auto industry is fairly young, but by forcing all foreign brands who want to sell vehicles in China to enter a joint venture (JV) with a local car company, the development time is shortened dramatically. The result is that the technology, safety, and the engineering all get transferred to the local partner.
So if you're looking at a new model from Changan, you'll want to know that their partner in China is Ford. The new Volkswagen product line in the Philippines is from SAIC, as are Maxus and MG. Chery, who just re-entered our market, has improved greatly; we think their JV with Jaguar Land Rover may have had something to do with it. GAC is partnered up with Toyota and Honda. Dongfeng is partnered up with Nissan. Geely has dramatically improved; perhaps it's because they now actually own Volvo.
Sometimes you'll even find Chinese made vehicles inside the showrooms of already established foreign brands in the country. Some examples include the Ford Territory, the Kia Soluto, the Hyundai Reina, and the soon-to-be-launched Kia Stonic, among others.
These back end things play a major role in making their cars better, and it's worth knowing which one is partnered up with which.
B. Learn about the local distributor and the dealer network
One aspect that will play a more major role in the ownership experience is the local distributor (which imports the cars and sells the stocks to dealers) and the dealer network (which sells the cars to customers).
We will make this clear: not all distributors and dealers are created equal. Some are very customer-centric, some are lax, some are just in it for the market share, so on and so forth; that's the nature of the business.
The best advice we can give is to read up on what customers are experiencing with different distributors and how they're building the brands; and yes, you can tell which distributors are doing well judging by the promotions, the pricing, honoring warranties, stocking up on parts, and things like that.
But more often than not, you'll be dealing with, uh, the dealers. While no dealer can keep every customer happy, there's usually an average you can figure out on your own. Check for what people are experiencing when they have their cars serviced, how long they have to wait for parts, or if they feel they're being overcharged. If we're talking about a percentage system, try to look for dealers that can keep 80% of their customers happy.
Dealers and distributors also tend to be multi-brand businesses, meaning they have more than one auto brand under their umbrella. You can also research about how the the brand is being handled, particularly with customer care and servicing, and that will also give you an idea how the Chinese auto side of their business may be managed.
The old school way to go about that is to hang around a dealer's service waiting area and observe the customers there yourself. You can even talk to them if you're feeling up to it. But an easy way is to join the many owners' clubs that are sprouting up on Facebook for every car brand, specific model or even variant. Browse these modern-day forums so you can formulate your own wisdom from the crowd.
C. Research about crash tests
The biggest question about Chinese automobiles (beyond durability) is vehicle safety, and the best way to do that is to research about the crash tests online.
Older Chinese vehicles had a terrible reputation for safety, and that was rightfully earned; some of their earlier vehicles performed horribly in crash tests, so much so that you had to feel sorry for the dummies (the non-living kind) riding in them. Modern Chinese vehicles have actually improved greatly in that regard, and you can search for them online.
Every major automotive market in the world has something called an NCAP, or New Car Assessment Program, and its mission is to do crash tests and rate vehicles for safety. In Europe it's EuroNCAP. In Australia it's ANCAP In Japan it's JNCAP. So, over in China, surprise surprise, it's called C-NCAP.
You can search C-NCAP's site (www.c-ncap.org) and check the safety rating of your vehicle. Most of them do well now, but still, it's worth searching.
D. Check the warranty
The vehicle warranty is a consumer's safeguard that they bought a good product that the manufacturer and distributor will stand behind. It's as simple as that.
In that regard, we expect that the warranty from Chinese brands should be some of the best in the industry in terms of length and coverage, especially since they're looking to build their respective reputations in our market. Still, it's worth checking.
Read the fine print of the warranty by borrowing a manual or a warranty booklet. You can ask the sales agent to email them to you, or you can visit a showroom and read for yourself. You should know what is covered and what isn't, just so there's no misunderstanding. You can also check the social media clubs of each brand to see how the owner-members are doing with regards to warranty claims. Don't forget to read or ask what it will take to void a warranty.
Don't get easily impressed by a long warranty if a lot of people are having trouble claiming repairs due to defects or issues not related to regular wear and tear.
E. Read and watch the reviews on AutoIndustriya.com
Shameless plug, right?
Kidding aside, we put a lot of work to review cars and show how they perform on the road and on a daily basis. A lot of these tips are from lessons we learned during our many test drives over the last 20 years, and we take great pride in giving you honest reviews in article form on AutoIndustriya.com and in video form on our YouTube channel and Facebook so you can make a better and more informed decision.