Despite manufacturing more cars in a year than are sold in total here annually, Chinese manufacturer Chery has a tiny Aussie profile.
That could change following the arrival of the new J3 small five door hatchback. Why? Because it's up a rung or two on other Chinese vehicles we have so far seen in this country.
At $14,990 drive away the Chery J3 gets a 1.6 litre 4 cylinder engine and is available in manual only. Standard features include a decent audio system, air conditioning, power windows, remote central locking, MP3 player and reverse sensors.
Power comes from the twin cam, fuel injected, 1.6-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission with appropriate gearing and a pleasing action. The engine's good for 87kW/147Nm output but it's a tad thirsty at 8.9-litres/100km partly due to the J3's 1350kg weight.
Inside it's totally different to anything we have seen from the Chinese and is generously equipped with leather upholstery. There is a little too much plastic but this is softened by different textures and colours. Fit and finish is also better than most we have seen from the Chinese to date and we were pleasantly surprised at how functional it was with a decent size boot, adequate rear seat head and legroom and driving ease. It also comes with 16-inch alloys including the spare.
And it's easy on the eye particularly from the rear view with a neatly curving roofline ending in a pair of feline-looking tail lights. The whole car bears some resemblance to the previous model Ford Focus hatch but only in passing.
The J3 features six air bags, ABS and a basic form of stability control that should go close to scoring a five star ANCAP rating when tested. That's a relief considering what has come before from some Chinese brands.
The ride is comfortable via a MacPherson strut front set-up and semi independent trailing arms at the rear. Steering is hydraulic power assisted rack and pinion with a smallish turning circle. We scored Australia's first drive of the J3 last week and can report the experience to be positive. It's much better to drive than say, a Great Wall ute or the Chery J11 small SUV.
The company is fair dinkum about selling cars here and spends lots of loot on R&D as well as equipping its cars with plenty of kit as standard. The “asbestos issue'' in earlier Cherys has been dealt with... there isn't any in the new cars. The drive feel is much like most of the other small hatchbacks on the market in terms of performance and ride. It won't win any traffic light derbies but that's irrelevant to most buyers. The funky controls are also easy to identify and use.
We drove the car around the ‘burbs, parked and had a coffee, drove on major urban roads and then the motorway at 110kmh. It delivers acceptable performance and is both smooth and relatively silent in operation.
You keep coming back to the money which makes this particular car a real bargain among small hatchbacks, some of which cost twice as much or more. Do they go twice as well and look twice as good? Unequivocally no. Budget conscious and used car buyers should check this one out.