American automakers can usually count on selling just below 3 million vehicle sales in China every year. While that figure includes the caveat that the Chinese Communist Party requires foreign manufacturers to partner up with established local companies, it remains substantially larger than the number of cars Chinese brands manage to move in the United States per annum — which is effectively zero.
From BYD to Zoyte, just about every large Chinese manufacturer has issued a deluge of promises about breaking into our market over the last decade — including most of the names we’ll be mentioning below. Consider this sort of the “Where Are They Now?” of evergreen automotive content about regional disparities. Because very little has moved in regard to China’s involvement with the North American auto market and the current geopolitical climate doesn’t make us think that’s likely to change anytime soon.
But it hasn’t been for a lack of trying.
Zotye Automobile International was last recruiting U.S. dealers in 2018 and even had a couple of importers on its payroll to help it figure out how to start shipping vehicles to the West. It even had a distributor set up in California with HAAH Automotive Holdings helping to build its sales network. Everything looked great and Zotye USA was supposedly months away from opening its first batch of franchised dealers, all of which had been right-sized to cater to a small Chinese brand with a highly limited lineup.
The company’s first entrant for the North American market was to be the T600 (above) — which happened to be a doppelganger of the Volkswagen Touareg and should not be confused with the similarly named Kenworth Class 8 truck. Retailing in Asia for as much as a secondhand Honda CR-V in good condition, the T600 looked as though it could take the credit risk segment by storm and was supposed to arrive in 2020. The brand had also stated that is had been making major strides in electrification in 2011, vowing to deliver one to the U.S. by 2015. But neither showed up.
What happened instead was Zoyte Autos’ controlling shareholder declaring bankruptcy in September of last year and Ford Motor Co. dissolving its planned EV partnership with the brand in China. However Blue Oval claimed the decision was made due to CCP government policies having changed to a degree that it no longer felt confident it could adhere to regulatory measures under the existing plan.
HAAH Automotive Holdings also had plans to build Chery’s Exeed XT SUV (below) using a new brand name that didn’t so much like Chevy. Despite also appearing to have fallen through, a revised strategy has the model coming to the United States as the Vantas XT sometime this year. Models will be shipped from China as knock-down kits, with about half the loose components allegedly coming from U.S. suppliers.
Since Chery’s launch date has been pushed back, we suppose there’s a chance it could hit the target. But we’ve heard nothing about where these vehicles will be assembled and that kind of stuff usually takes quite a bit of time. Even though the Exeed/Vantas did seem to be capable of throwing the compact crossover segment an interesting curveball, we’re not under any illusions that’s going to happen within the next 12 months. Still, one has to admire the brand for bothering to set hard targets for itself.
Though my favorite Chinese automaker vying to get into the United States has to be Guangzhou Automobile Group, perhaps better known to you as GAC. Unlike its contemporaries, GAC had set up a special division to research how to make its products work for the American market and you could those efforts manifesting in the real world. It even had booths rivaling the size of many established manufactures at many of our biggest automotive trade shows — back when we still had the opportunity to attend such events.
While its Chinese staff was extremely particular with the branding and acted highly annoyed whenever someone said “Gak Motors,” I also watched them survey just about every person that walked into their booth. While the brunt of their products were a rung or two down from what seemed acceptable and we mocked the exhaust finishers attached to nothing, their dedication to consumer engagement was truly enviable and made the other manufacturers look lazy. It was clear that GAC had not come to play and was clearly serious about selling in the U.S.
At the 2018 North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit, the staff informed us that the company intended to launch their large Trumpchi GS8 utility (above) here. Scheduled for 2019, the SUV would represent GAC achieving a goal it had held for years and it quickly went to work meeting with dealers at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention. However, tensions created by the Sino-American trade war forced the automaker to delay some of its plans, with it remaining confident that we would see the GS8 (and its “Trumpchi” brand) arrive by 2020… back when GAC cared.
We’re obviously still waiting and I think that’s ultimately what we should take away from all of this. Chinese brands aren’t universally up to the challenge of delivering the kind of vehicles Americans are accustomed to. Most of these SUVs are already derivative in their designs and too meek in terms of the powertrains and features being offered (though not always by that much, if we’re to be objective). Consumers who just want an affordable crossover would probably be well served by a GAC or Zoyte product. But those accustomed to more of everything might find them lacking in too many areas to make the almost assuredly lower MSRPs feel sensible.
You’re probably wondering how that’s any different from what happened with Japan or Korea, both of which broke into our market selling products far below the typical size and engine displacement at prices well under the typical exchange rate. While there are plenty of similarities, Japanese and Korean automobiles arrived long after their relationship with the United States had bottomed out completely (war). Meanwhile, the Chinese opinion of the West continues to degrade, and survey data here would suggest the same thing has been happening on our end. Throw in the trade war and China’s extremely vocal commitment to expanding its own global influence and it’s genuinely difficult to imagine there being enough enthusiasm to see Chinese cars being sold in sufficient numbers to warrant the international commitment.
Then again, there are other ways of doing business here.