After a day touring the Guangzhou Auto Show and talking to Chinese makers, Great Wall’s luxury brand seems ready to impress the west.
Jens Steingraeber isn’t Chinese, as is probably evident from his surname. The CEO of brand-new Chinese luxury automaker, Wey, may just be pivotal in his company’s product being the first Chinese branded vehicle to enter the U.S. car market. Maybe.
After hours of walking around the Guangzhou Auto Show, and dozens of conversations with executives of Chinese brands and other journalists, I found it’s not hard to get an answer to one of my favorite questions: "When will a Chinese brand’s vehicles be sold in America?" The answer is, almost universally: "About two years from now."
The trouble is that I’ve been hearing that answer – from executives and PR pros from Chinese automakers – for a decade now. At the Detroit show in 2008, the cars were coming in 2010. Here in Guangzhou, everyone seems ready to tackle Europe and the U.S., en masse, sometime around 2019 or 2020. The information is unreliable, even though the message is consistent.
So why is Wey, any different?
Well, for starters, the vehicles that are already in production – the VV7 and VV5 crossovers, and soon a flagship called the P8 – are credibly executed. Walking around the show floor it’s easy to spot production cars from other Chinese manufacturers hampered by poor panel fit (on an auto show stand, no less!), interior materials that range from boring to unacceptable, and badly executed styling. The Weys, meanwhile, are crisply designed from the outside in. Sure, the tidy SUVs would not compete as "luxury" vehicles here, as they do in China, but the basics are in place in terms of design and fit and finish.
Even more important is Steingraeber’s note about crash-test work that has already been completed. Wey vehicles are not certified for U.S. sale, but the company is building with the toughest U.S. standards in mind. That means the small front overlap test that caused just about every OEM to revamp or redesign vehicles, starting just a few years ago, as well as the rollover test that demands incredible loads be carried by the top structure of every vehicle. If what Steingraeber says is true, this is a lot more specific than the now-expected "see you in two years" routine I expect from Chinese makers.
Companies don’t spend money over-engineering for safety standards they never expect to test; certainly not in China. If Wey can indeed pass a few of the strictest U.S. tests, well, I would hope that European Union, and North American sales really are on the horizon.
The CEO also understands, in the light of very poor performing Chinese vehicles past, that hitting developed markets with a strong safety story is critical. "We will not start with a mistake," says Steingraeber.
Of course, words and nice-looking cars on an auto show stand are one thing, how the vehicle goes down the road is quite another. Thankfully, Wey provided a car for me to drive at a local test track – along with vehicles from other Chinese automakers – more on that, to come.