The $12,990 Chery J3 is one of the better Chinese cars we've tested, but it still has plenty of room for improvement.
It’s one of the most common questions we get asked: what are those Chinese cars like? Unfortunately the answer isn’t straightforward because the quality varies between brands – and individual vehicles within each brand. But, as a rough guide, some are definitely better than others.
The Chery J1 hatch made headlines a couple of weeks ago when its price dropped to $9990 drive-away – the cheapest new car in Australia since the Polish-built Fiat-derived Niki of the early 1990s.
Lost in the hype was its bigger older sibling, the Chery J3, whose price was also trimmed, to $12,990 drive-away. It’s about the size of a Ford Focus (you may even seen hints of the design from the previous model), so you’re getting a bigger car for the same money as the runabouts from Suzuki, Nissan and Mitsubishi.
Chery is China’s largest independent car manufacturer but it has been slow to gain a foothold in Australia, unlike its compatriot Great Wall, which has made good headway with its ute and SUV range over the past three years. But the Australian distributor hopes to breath new life into the Chery line-up and find more homes for its cars having trimmed its prices to match the heavy discounting of the mainstream brands.
The Chery J3 offers a lot of metal and equipment for the money. It’s almost Toyota Corolla-size but is priced down with the tiny-tots. Standard fare includes six-airbags, leather upholstery, steering wheel audio controls, rear parking sensors and 16-inch alloy wheels. The passenger’s vanity mirror gets a light (hey, every little thing counts), and the flick-key appears to have been modeled on a Volkswagen’s (although, annoyingly, it has only one button to lock and unlock the car, so you’re never quite sure if the car is locked until you check the door handle).
Value, however, is an interesting term. The buying price is sharp: $12,990 drive-away equates to about $10,000 before on-road costs are added. And metallic paint (three of the four colours available) adds $350 (not $550 as it is on a Holden Barina, and $495 as it is on many other mainstream brands). But we know from recent experience that Chinese cars also have weak resale values – and depreciation is the single biggest cost of car ownership after buying the vehicle in the first place.
For example, a $12,990 Suzuki, Nissan or Mitsubishi would be worth more in three years than a $12,990 Chery – and there would be a greater demand on the used-car market for the well-known brands.
The Chery J3 is fairly basic on the technology front – it doesn’t even get Bluetooth – but we did spot one cool gadget. The rear sensors have a display in the instruments (near the odometer)s with a countdown in centimetres how close you are to the car behind.
The cabin is roomy and the boot is massive. The back seats fold down to create an even larger cargo area. The leather seems to be of a fair quality and a comfortable design. There are child restraint anchor point on the 60:40 split rear seat backs. All buttons and dials are logically placed and easy to use. Unlike some other cars from emerging brands, most switches and controls don’t feel stiff or clumsy in the J3. Annoyingly, though, there is no reach adjustment on the steering wheel, only tilt.
There is a clever hidden cubby near the top of the dashboard – and a neat sliding drawer in the middle of it – but the side pockets and the centre console are a bit too slim, and the cup holders are small for our tastes. The sound quality from the six-speaker audio system was good (bordering on above average), but the radio reception both AM and FM was patchy. At least you get steering wheel audio controls. The air-conditioning worked fine, although the vents are on the small side; I’d be curious to know how well it handled last week’s 46-degree heatwave.
The Chery J3 comes with six airbags, the first Chinese-branded car on sale in Australia to do so. But this does not automatically equate to a five-star ANCAP safety rating. Chery says internal testing has shown the J3 is capable of a four-star rating but it loses a star for its lack of stability control (which is due to be added mid-year when the CVT auto arrives).
Any speculation about an ANCAP star rating is unwise, however, because we won’t know for sure how it performs in a crash until the independent auditor smacks one against a wall later in the year. We should point out that the Chery J3 meets and/or exceeds the Federal Government’s safety regulations, but those regulations are a much lower benchmark than global standards.
But the J3 (and the J1) cannot be sold in Victoria because it does not yet have stability control (which can prevent a skid in a corner and is said to be the next big advancement in saving lives since the seatbelt). It has been common on almost all new cars for several years but is due to be added in June when the CVT automatic arrives.
Here’s the most surprising part: the Chery J3 actually drives quite well. In fact, I’d venture to say it feels like the most complete Chinese car I’ve driven to date. That’s not damning it with faint praise, but it does come with a few qualifications. The 1.6-litre is a little breathless and needs to be revved to really get moving. And although the engine itself is quite smooth and refined, Chery is yet to master the craft of noise deadening, so you hear more of the engine’s goings-on that you do in other cars.
Despite insisting on premium unleaded (the minimum requirement according to the label is 93 octane, which means you’re obliged to use 95 octane in Australia) it’s rather thirsty (8.9L/100km). So one of the cheapest cars on the market requires the expensive fuel. Hmmm. The five-speed manual gearshift was basic but normal, as was the clutch action, and the steering feel was more than adequate for this type of car.
What impressed me most, however, was the ride comfort and relatively good control from the suspension and 16-inch Maxxis tyres. It’s not going to out-maneuver a Ferrari (or a Mazda 3 for that matter), but it will serve most people’s needs.
The Chery J3 is one of the better Chinese cars we’ve sampled so far. But we’d wait for stability control – and to see how the car performs in ANCAP crash tests – before adding it to a recommendation list.
Price: From $12,990 drive-away
Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl, 87kW/147Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual (CVT auto due mid-year)
Thirst: 8.9L/100km (premium unleaded required)
Safety: six airbags. No stability control, no star rating, not yet tested by ANCAP.
Warranty: Three years/100,000km