The first Chinese passenger cars headed for Australia are surprisingly normal. Three models from the Chery brand do not look or drive like third-world clunkers and, with a value-added approach, they promise a better deal than the Koreans that currently dominate in the bargain basement.
Chery is partnered with Ateco Automotive, Australia's largest independent importer with a portfolio from Great Wall of China to Ferrari of Italy, and the two companies are aiming to have cars on the road by the third quarter of this year.
The J1 baby hatch will come first in partnership with the J11 front-drive SUV, which looks a lot like the Toyota RAV4, with the Corolla-sized J3 to come in 2011. No-one at Ateco or Chery is talking prices, but the J1 should be less than $13,000 driveaway - it is pitched against the Hyundai Getz in Australia - with the J11 at less than $20,000.
The cars have been created by China's largest local maker, as opposed to joint-venture brands, and the company with the biggest exports. Chery is aiming for production of one million cars this year and intends to send 100,000 overseas. "Chery car, in terms of the quality and after sales service and all this, will be no different to our competitiros, This is our target," says Biren Zhou, vice-president of Chery Automobile.
Chery is mostly state-owned by the government in WuHu and the local province, and has been in the car business since 1997. It's cumulative production is more than two million vehicles and it has a range of more than 20 models, from 800cc microcars to HiAce-sized vans.
The big hurdle for Australia is safety - Chery trumpets the first four-star car in China NCAP tests - and acceptance of cars from China. But the J1 and J11 look good, they drive fairly well, and Ateco chiefs have experience with all three Korean brands - Hyundai, Daewoo and Kia - to fast-track acceptance and sales.
"In our perfect world we will come in below the Koreans, but with a meaningful value advantage," says Dinesh Chinnappa, special projects manager for Ateco, during a press preview in WuHu, China.
The J1 is tiny, but it looks good and gets along reasonably well with a 1.3-litre engine. It also has a funky looking dashboard design that will be good for youthful first-car buyers. The J11 is better again, with more space and a reasonable 2-litre engine. There are quality glitches, but the cabin is way better than the first Korean cars that reached Australia.
The J3 looks the most impressive, but rear vision is crimped, performance is nothing special, and there is a power-steering whine in one car and clunky steering in two cars. These first impressions are formed during a severely limited drive at the Chery factory, but they are a positive pointer.
Of course, it all comes down to prices and equipment and the crucial dealer network - Ateco is planning 40-50 agents at the start of sales - as well as the vital ANCAP crash test results. Great Wall utes have been selling strongly despite a two-star ANCAP result but Chery must do far better to create the right first impression for Australia.