The price is right on the Chery J1. The first Chinese passenger car to hit the road in Australia always had to be cheap to make an impact, and the bottom line is just $11,990 - on the road. The value is unquestionable, the J1 is the new Australian price leader, and the deal includes 24-7 roadside assistance for the length of the three-year, 100,000-kilometre warranty.
But the J1 is playing catch-up, and not just because Chery of China came to carmaking later than the Japanese and Korean brands that now dominate in Australia. The quality on the car is well below the accepted standard in local showrooms and the J1 also needs some engine room tweaking before the performance is up to par.
Chery is China's largest independent vehicle manufacturer with five assembly lines, two engine factories, a transmission plant and total production last year of 680,000 vehicles. It has ambitious export plans and Australia is its first big target, and a useful test case.
The local Chery importer - Ateco Automotive - believes the dollar deal on the J1 will be more than good enough to draw plenty of buyers, and it has already forced Suzuki to match the bottom line with its tiny Alto. Ateco has already proven the point with the Great Wall utes and SUV it also handles and has big plans for both Chinese brands in coming years.
It's impossible to fault the J1 on the value front. It costs a miserly $11,990, including on-road costs, and the deal provides two airbags, ABS brakes, air-conditioning, power steering, remote keyless entry, alloy wheels, power mirrors and front electric windows. The sound system is MP3 compatible.
The most important missing ingredient is ESP stability control, which means it cannot be sold in Victoria. But there is no Bluetooth, either. Rating the value means lining it up against the smaller - but better finished - Alto that starts at $11,790 with a smaller engine but is being sold at $11,990 driveaway to match the Chery.
It also needs to be compared with something like the impressive new Nissan Micra. The J1 is nearly 30 per cent cheaper than the Nissan, and that says a lot.
There is nothing special about the J1. It's a conventional five-door hatchback with a 1.3-litre baby engine, space for five inside with a reasonable boot, and a five-speed manual gearbox working the front wheels.
"Chery is known for its focus on constant innovation and drive towards better quality, well-appointed cars at an affordable price," says Ric Hull, managing director of Ateco Automotive. So far, though, the J1 is a predictable - not outstanding - newcomer.
The J1 has a pleasing design with a shape intended to maximise cabin space, particularly in the rear seats. Adults have no worries about headroom in the little Chery. The dashboard shows a little flair, and some youth focus, but the cabin package is let down - badly - by plastic pieces that don't match or fit together particularly well.
It's something the Chery team needs to fix, and fix fast, to satisfy picky Australian buyers. The sub-standard work also includes body parts that are not properly painted and plastic trim bits which do not do their job properly or fit together well.
Ateco says the J1 is a work-in-progress, but early buyers should not be made into guinea pigs for Chery quality.
No ESP is a big failing. But Ateco promises it will be fitted no later than November. We're also waiting to see what happens when NCAP gets a J1 for some serious independent crash testing. It definitely doesn't look like a five-star car.
The Chery J1 is not the best car on the road. Not by a long shot. In fact, it is badly under-done in some areas. We can understand the sub-standard quality because Chery is moving into a new and very tough car market in Australia, and Chinese buyers are snapping up anything with wheels. At least Chinese companies have a history of rapid updates and improvements.
But the J1 is also lacklustre to drive, thanks to poor gearing and a body that feels 'loose' compared to other baby-car choices. The Chery does not like hills, or hill starts, where it takes a lot of revs and some clutch slip to get going.
Thankfully, Ateco promises a change to the final-drive ratio very soon. The engine also has a 'hanging throttle', something that also blights some Proton models, and it makes smooth driving tough. There is no news on any change there.
Even so, the J1 rides nicely enough, is quiet, has comfy seats and - after all - is very, very cheap. It is basic transport and people will buy the car because it comes at a second-hand price with new-car backup.
It is easy to criticise the J1 and complain about what needs to be improved, but the Chery baby is a first from the brand and China and everyone knows things are only going to get better.
VERDICT: A great deal, but not a great car.
SCORE: 6/10 WE LIKE: Price, price, price WE DON'T LIKE: Performance, quality, unproven safety
PRICE: $11,990 driveaway
ENGINE: 1.3-litre four cylinder
RIVALS: Hyundai Getz (from $13,990): 7/10 Nissan Micra (from $12,990): 8/10 Suzuki Alto (from $11,790): 6/10