Our test drive was arranged in Anting, in a park adjacent to the Shanghai Auto Museum - to which GM is an active donor - near the F1Race Circuit. Our path there was through China's busy and impressive expressway network, soon to be the biggest in the world. Being a ride and drive, we were to keep speeds to below 60km/h. But since the path meanders through scenic lakes, trees and arched bridges, there were plenty of opportunity curves to test the "ride".
My first stab was at a GM Wuling Sunshine minivan with manual 5-speed. Similar to an enlarged Suzuki Carry, its models like this that make up 40% of the entire Chinese car market as it appeals to the farming communities and small business entrepreneurs. Despite its mini-commercial roots, its got a substantial front for crash safety, longer leaf springs for more payload, sliding side doors, air con, Euro III 16 valve engines, air bags and ABS.
My next car was a huge Buick LaCrosse hybrid. This is a traditional American sedan with Chinese characteristics, i.e. stretched legroom in the rear over the regular Buick Regal. Mind you, this is only the mid-size model as the extra stretched Buick Park Avenue is even bigger. Its powered by a V6 and if that is not enough considering the car's weight, the hybrid was there to boost things along. The hybrid allows the LaCrosse to crawl in city traffic with a minimum of fuel consumption as the hybrid electric drive takes over. True to its Yanqui roots, the Buick looked like one and behaved like one. Extremely soothing quiet amidst polished wood and fine velours are what Chinese businessmen aspire to and this has shaped the Chinese market's expectations for such features even in humbler saloons. The soft bouncy ride is great on the smooth 4-lane expressways, but caution is needed on lumpy asphalt pummeled by China's big fleet of heavy trucks.
Next was the intermediate-sized Chevrolet Epica, a Camry sized vehicle with a 4-cylinder. Just like the vehicles in its range, the Epica is better as a torquey turbo diesel version as the weight just overwhelms the 2-liter engine. Its a traditional American sedan too, so the soft ride turns flaccid on the bumpy bits.
The Buick New Regal was the revelation of the lot. Looking like the Opel Insignia, it had a wildly futuristic yet tasteful interior, with a BMW like electronic parking brake release and start stop button. And it drove BMW like, tight and competent over bumps and corners. It was reassuringly precise in steering and GM made sure that the performance expectations of the BMW market are not disappointed with the provision of a turbocharged 2-liter. This immediately won the hearts and minds of all the gathered press.
Next was a gasoline powered Opel Antara; Chevrolet Captiva in our local market. This China made one had the improved and more comfortable leather seats, better than the 1st few Thai made ones in our local Captiva. There was an updated Aveo, which is soon due for a replacement as the thumping NVH of its rear suspension already showed its platform's age. The Chevrolet Fuel Cell Equinox, which was in Bangkok last year, was also there for us to refresh ourselves with the instant torque of an electric motor along with the squishy seats and squishy springs of a trad American SUV.
But the piece d' resistance were 2 variants of the new Chevrolet Cruze. This is GM's entry into the world compact car class, the Civic-Focus-Elantra-Corolla class. First, it has very high quality interior surfaces. Its got push button start/stop and an interior design that would out-auto show concept the Honda Civic's. Its got space aplenty now that the Cruze has grown up from the Optra. And the drive is far more refined than the class average. It comes in 1.6 manual and 1.8 automatic. Other markets with Euro IV diesel fuel like China's will get the 2-liter turbo diesel with 6-speed twin clutch - just like the Ford Focus power shift. Its going to replace the Optra and it would be quite a challenge to the Honda Civic.
It has taken only ten short years for GM to be tightly intertwined with the fabric of the Chinese and by extension, the Asia-Pacific economies. GM's ties extend to Shenyang Norsom, Dong Yue and even Jiao Tong University. If ever, GM Asia Pacific and Shanghai GM, is truer to its corporate origins as it is composed of several brands. An irony in today's world, as the original Detroit based GM, sheds brands.