They must have gone nuts.
That was the really the thought in my head when we first learned that a Japanese trading company, one formerly associated with another Japanese automotive brand, decided to try selling Chinese automobiles in the country.
While logic would tell us that the Japanese execs of Sojitz must be crazy to have gone for Geely, we suspected there was more to the story, and we'd like to tell it before we get to the car -er, crossover- itself.
For decades, Sojitz has been the other major shareholder of Mitsubishi Motors Philippines; they owned 49% of the company, while Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) owned the other 51%. But when Ghosn-led Nissan acquired the lion's share of MMC, they didn't want to deal with trading companies like Sojitz, so they made them an offer they couldn't refuse.
It was an amicable divorce settlement, so we're told. Sojitz walked away with some good profits for their ownership stake in MMPC, as well as one of the kids: the Fuso brand. But Sojitz wanted more, and that's how they got into a new relationship with Geely.
The odd thing is, this Sojitz and Geely thing doesn't seem like a marriage of convenience or a rebound thing. There must be something special about the brand and their models that convinced the fiercely methodical, stubbornly traditional, and take-no-risks Japanese to invest and pin their hopes on a Chinese automobile.
Our main man, Brent, was able to join Sojitz and Geely in China, and was impressed with the scale of their factories, the advancement of their design, and everything else in between. The problem is that on foreign trips you're whisked away quickly before you really get a full feel for how the vehicles perform, how the quality is, or how the features work. And frankly, if you're on a foreign trip, it's difficult (and rude) to be fully critical of the products with your hosts. The running joke is you'll probably end up booking your own flight home, and probably on Cebu Pacific or Air Asia.
What we really wanted to do is put this new age Chinese automobile through a proper drive, and so we raised our hands when the guys at Sojitz G Auto Philippines (AKA: Geely Philippines) to drive their sole model: the Coolray (AKA: Geely Binyue in China). We wanted to know what is it about this model and brand that convinced the Japanese trading firm to put it in their portfolio when the business of Chinese autos in the country is a fairly big risk.
The second risk they took is with the pricing of the model range. We expected Geely to completely and utterly undercut the competitors; they can easily do so with the economies of scale of China. But they didn't. The base model is the Coolray Comfort at PhP 978,000, followed by the Coolray Premium at PhP 1,088,000. For our drive, there was only one variant though, and it's the top spec Coolray Sport priced at PhP 1,198,000.
To put the pricing in perspective, similarly sized models from established Japanese and Korean marques are not too far off. For instance, the Nissan Juke is only PhP 20,000 more compared to the base model Coolray. The Seltos, newly launched by Kia Philippines, is right in the ballpark too with its prices starting at PhP 1,098,000, while the Kona from Hyundai starts at PhP 1,188,000. The HR-V from Honda is way up the order at PhP 1,295,000. The difference would be the fact that those brands have track records. By comparison, another new (or renewed) auto brand in the country is MG, and their small ZS crossover is turning heads and convincing buyers with its PhP 818,888 to PhP 998,888 price range.
So Geely is taking a risk with its pricing structure for the Coolray, but they're banking on something else with the model: design and overall quality. The designs of Chinese automobiles have always been the butt of jokes of the global auto industry based on the fact that many initial models (and some current ones) are blatant clones of other cars, or hodgepodges that brings together design elements of different models like botched cosmetic surgery.
Walking up to the Coolray for the first time at their brand new dealership, it's clear that this model veers away completely from that notorious Chinese tradition. This crossover isn't just original in looks, but very refreshing to look at. The design is fashion forward in the same way that its Korean counterparts are with cuts, creases and character lines in the right places that form a cohesive look.
Perhaps Geely's biggest edge is that the company really focused on design. Unlike the Koreans which hired top designers, Geely also bought whole companies. They now own Volvo, and have leveraged the advantage of intra company transfer of design capabilities. They have design centers around the world with one in Shanghai, one in California, one in Barcelona, and another in Gothenburg (the HQ of Volvo). In fact, if you check out Geely's design web page, you'll see more westerners rather than easterners doing the designing; their global ambitions are big.
The investment paid off. They played with LED running lamps as pioneered by the German brands. They even came up with a signature grille; if Kia has the Tiger Nose, Geely has the Expanding Cosmos. The wheels on the Coolray Sport are nice, as well as the two-tone effect with the floating roof effect. Dare I say, they really nailed the design of the Coolray.
There is also one test that the Coolray passed with distinction, and that's build quality. The quickest way to tell that you're looking at a vehicle that's a product of quality manufacturing is to look at the body panels. Do the trim pieces on the doors line up? Are the gaps between steel panels even? Heck, I even check if they use that awful rainbow colored "auto supply-type" steel for the bolts, nuts, hinges and catches. On those fronts and more, the Coolray passed. I couldn't spot any of the common signs of poor or subpar quality control.
The same attention to design and quality can be found on the interior. This top of the line Coolray may just be under PhP 1.2 million, but the choices of materials and the really exceptional fit and finish are what you can expect from much more expensive vehicles. We don't exaggerate when we say there's an uncanny European-ness about the Coolray. The glass cockpit layout with multiple screens serving as gauge cluster and the audio unit are quite Audi-ish.
Settling into the Coolray doesn't take long. Whoever did the ergonomics of this crossover really knew what they were doing, as it really feels natural from the driver's seat. The driving position, steering wheel orientation, and shifter placement isn't at Mazda's level, but this Geely isn't too far off either, and finding a comfortable position for a long drive took no time at all.
The key factor for the Coolray is the power unit. It's a three cylinder, 1.5-liter engine. Yes, it doesn't sound like much as we'd normally expect a larger 2.0-engine in a vehicle of this size. But as far as we know, for a Chinese-made vehicle to qualify for the tax breaks of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, the engine should be 1.5-liters or smaller. Coupled with China's massive economies of scale, a lot of new generation Chinese vehicles can be offered for much less than their counterparts that were made in Korea or Japan.
The engine seemed like a let down, but once we got out on the road from thr brand's new dealership on North EDSA, many of us found ourselves overtaking traffic handily. Despite the size, the engine underneath the neat Lexus-like cowling under the hood is turbocharged. The Coolray easily outperforms crossovers with much larger engines because it has 177 horsepower and 255 Newton meters of torque at your beck and call. That's the magic of turbocharging, and results in a crossover that can surprisingly achieve a 0-100 km/h time of just 7.9 seconds.
The gearbox Geely used is a 7-speed dual-clutch unit. I have my apprehensions about DCTs; Ford's Powershift Getrag-made DCTs were (and still are) problematic not just in maintenance but in the drive as well. The Geely's DCT seemed to be a leg up on that, as their DCTs are a product of an R&D program that goes back to 2010 after the company acquired Australian gearbox manufacturer DSI.
Geely says their DCT is one of the best in the business, particularly with only a power loss rate of 3%; surprising for a wet clutch transmission. In moderate traffic, there is a bit of that signature lurching common in other DCTs, but it's nowhere near as significant as other units I've tried out. As expected, on the highway this DCT and the engine proved to be a smooth and efficient combination. More importantly there wasn't much in the way or gear hunting if you're trying to maintain a steady 80 km/h as I was.
At high speeds, the Coolray proved to be stable and confident. Overtaking was easy and fuel economy was likewise impressive: we were getting over 15 km/l with three of us in the vehicle, plus luggage and camera gear.
Geely claims that the Coolray Sport is a quiet crossover, and I'm inclined to believe them. On the highway I was looking for that typical droning noise you get from cheaper tires. I had actually expected Geely to slap on a set of Chinese branded tires, but no. They specced this Coolray Sport with Continentals, and that made the difference; quiet at speed and excellent stability. One thing they couldn't cut down though was the wind noise from the side mirrors. Other than that, I'd give the highway manners a very high grade.
If you couldn't tell yet, I'm struggling to find faults in the Coolray based on my initial drive of it. No squeaks, no rattles, no ungainly driving manners, nothing. Heck, Geely even solved my pet peeve with most modern cars: blank and unused spaces for uninstalled features. Seeing so many of those empty spaces bugs me a bit especially with top-of-the-line models that should have all the bells and whistles; thankfully, the Coolray doesn't have any. Well, maybe 1 or 2.
So it's promising to drive, but that was mostly in medium traffic and on wide open highway with fairly perfect tarmac. What about roads that have seen better days and corners that can spit you out into the trees? Can this seemingly overachieving Chinese crossover deliver?
The short answer is: yes, it does.
Out of the expressway and into Subic, the Coolray showed itself to be capable of suppressing bad tarmac as a few of the roads in this freeport area are under construction, being repaved, or just bad. Surprisingly what we learned at the end of our drive was that the tires were actually overinflated to the shipping pressure of about 40 psi; once we lowered the pressure to a more reasonable 34 psi, the ride became even better.
On the winding roads of Morong, this Geely really showed us what it can do. We've driven the old Geely “Panda” LC before with the old distributor, and the handling of that car was really a handful; uneven and nervous around the bends. This new age Geely isn't anywhere near like that.
I won't go so far as to say it's hot hatch-like, but the Coolray is definitely fun, and the turbo engine does have thrust when you put your foot down at the exit of a corner. Turn-in is nice and fairly sharp, and it tracks the road neatly. Brake hard for a corner and it will hunker down fairly evenly; it's got disc brakes front and rear, not drums in the back.
The steering isn't really full of feel, but that's OK; that tactile steering feedback that we look for is really gone with these new electric power steering units. If you activate the sport driving mode, the ECU will adjust the response of the gearbox and tighten up the steering. And if you're bored with letting the DCT having all the fun even in sport mode, then you can flick the paddles and do it all by yourself. You've got plenty of ratios to play with too.
At the end of our day and with the Coolray's engine resting, I was starting to understand why the Japanese took a big risk with this Chinese car company. The Coolray doesn't need you to give it any handicaps or treat it with kid gloves for you to like it. Geely made a serious attempt at making a high quality and modern crossover that they can pin their hopes on not just for the Philippine market, but for the wider export potential worldwide. And I think they succeeded.
Now there are caveats here. Geely still has to prove itself in the fields of reliability, servicing, and parts availability, but given the global track record of the parent of new distributor Sojitz (they have dealerships of various brands worldwide), we don't expect the back end to be a problem. It's just a matter of whether the high marks of the initial quality of the vehicle can translate to long term reliability. We think it can, but we'll need to do much more driving on tougher roads and on a daily commute to show it. But nevertheless, things are promising for Geely's Philippine comeback.
The Japanese have a saying: the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.
Some some would argue or wonder if the Geely brand is that nail, and based on my drive of the 2020 Geely Coolray Sport 1.5 Turbo, I would agree. It is the nail, but it's not sticking out.
It's standing out. There's a very big difference.