They say travel broadens the mind. It can do a lot for your car knowledge, too. Go to England and you’ll see Vauxhalls and Skodas and Seats and Dacias on the road. In Japan you might glimpse an Autozam or a Mitsuoka, in Russia a Lada or an elderly Moskvitch. And down in Australia you’ll find Holdens everywhere.
But for the sheer number of interesting and obscure car brands, there’s nothing like China. The world’s largest automotive market, with total sales of around 20 million units a year, China is dominated by international names such as Volkswagen, Audi, and Buick. But there are more than 60 Chinese brands also fighting for a share of their lucrative home market. Some, like Geely and Chery and Great Wall, are known outside China. Most, however, remain little known to the outside world.
Here are some we found at the 2015 Shanghai auto show.
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The Denza is an electric vehicle jointly produced by Chinese manufacturer BYD and Daimler. This four-door sedan — curiously, it only looks like a hatchback — is based on the first generation Mercedes-Benz B-Class (the second generation B-Class is sold in the U.S. as an EV-only model) and is powered by an 86-kW electric motor. Claimed range is 250 kilometers.
Another Chinese-market electric vehicle brand, Zinoro is a joint venture between China’s Brilliance and BMW. And yes, if you look closely at the Zinoro 1E, you’ll see some BMW design cues in the sheetmetal. That’s because the 1E is based largely on BMW’s X1 compact SUV. The 125-kW electric motor is at the rear, driving the rear wheels, and claimed range is 150 km.
This is the JAC Refine A60, which made its debut at the 2015 Shanghai show. This midsize front-drive sedan is available with a choice of two four-cylinder engines — 174 hp and 190 hp — and either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. State-owned JAC once concentrated on trucks, and built Hyundai SUVs, but is now developing its own line of cars.
Venucia is a new brand from the joint venture between China’s Dongfeng and Nissan. Venucia’s current lineup includes Nissan-based C-segment SUVs, and a rebadged Leaf EV that manages to look even weirder than the original. Put Nissan badges on the Venucia VOW crossover concept, however, and it would be a home run here in the U.S. The front fender hints at the iconic GT-R.
The Luxgen name reportedly comes from a combination of “luxury” and “genius.” It’s a new brand from Taiwan-based Yulon Motor, which has years of experience assembling Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, GM, and Mitsubishi cars in Taiwan. The new Luxgen U6 Turbo crossover, however, is apparently all its own work. Engines are 1.8- and 2.0-liter turbos with 150 hp and 170 hp, respectively.
Founded in 2003, Zotye build a range of sedans and SUVs, as well as small electric vehicles such as the Zotye E200 EV, which is powered by a 24-hp electric motor. While not exactly clones, Zotye cars are clearly heavily influenced by other designs. The E200 EV has a lot of Daimler’s Smart city car in it, for example, while Zotye SUVs and sedans have a lot of design cues VW and Audi models.
Roewe is one of the brands belonging to Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). If the name reminds you of Britain’s Rover, there’s a reason: SAIC bought the tooling to Rover 75 and 25 models from 2004, but the Rover name remained the property of BMW, which had acquired the British company in 1994. If you think the Roewe 950 looks familiar, you’re right — SAIC is also GM’s Chinese partner, and the 950 is a rebodied Buick LaCrosse.
Nothing if not ambitious, Lifan only made its first car in 2004, but now has seven production plants outside China — in Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Uruguay, and Iraq. Lifan used to make and sell motorcycles under the Hongda name until being successfully sued by — unsurprisingly — Honda. The Lifan X70 concept unveiled at the 2015 Shanghai show is said to go on sale in 2016, and is powered by 1.5- and 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder engines.
It’s an M5, Jim, but not as we know it … Haima is part-owned by the giant FAW Group, once the official car- and truckmaker in Mao’s China. FAW now has partnerships with VW, Toyota, GM, and Mazda. Haima cars were once simply rebadged Mazdas; the M5 looks to combine elements of Mazda3 architecture with a giant Buick-style grille. The M5 Turbo engine is a 1.5-liter with 160 hp.
Hongqi, or Red Flag, is another of FAW’s brands, this one aimed at the Chinese elite who want — or need — to drive a Chinese-made luxury car. The Bentley-meets-Volga styling of the massive Hongqi L5 sedan wraps around a lavishly finished interior. Under the hood is a 408-hp, 6.0-liter V-12 engine, and if you could buy one the price tag is reportedly $800,000.
Launched in 2010, Trumpchi is one of three Chinese-market brands of the Guangzhou Automobile Group, which also has partnerships with Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Fiat. Intended as the flagship of the nine-model Trumpchi line, the GA8 made its debut at the 2015 Shanghai show. The powertain is composed of a 1.8-liter, 177-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
One of the most egregious examples of intellectual property theft at the 2015 Shanghai show was the Land Wind X7, a carbon copy of the hot-selling Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. It’s so egregious Land Rover has reportedly threatened to sue. Land Wind is a JV between Chinese automakers Jiangling and Changan, which in turn have joint ventures with Ford, which used to own Land Rover. To complicate things further the real Evoque is built in China in a joint venture between Land Rover owner Tata and Chinese automaker Chery.
Leopaard — the double “a” is intentional — is a brand belonging to a subsidiary of Guangzhou Automobile Group (see Trumpchi) called GAC Changfeng Motor. Leopaard models are basically Chinese-built versions of old Mitsubishi SUVs, and complement Changfeng’s Liebao range. Mitsubishi is a partner with GAC Changfeng as well as GAC. Are you keeping track?
This is the Hawtai Shangdafei, one of a swarm of compact SUVs from Chinese automakers at the 2015 Shanghai show. Hawtai used to build rebadged Hyundais, and this car is designed to replace Hawtai’s Chinese-made version of the original Santa Fe, which is still in production. Incidentally, the name Shangdafei is apparently meant to approximate “Santa Fe” in Chinese.
The Everus S1 is made by Guangqi Honda, a joint venture company established by Honda and Guangzhou Automobile Group (see Trumpchi, Leopaard). It’s based on the same platform as the previous generation Honda Fit, and is meant to sell at the budget end of the Chinese market. Engines are Honda-based 1.3- and 1.5-liter four cylinders.
Great Wall was founded in 1984, and become one of China’s largest producers of pickup trucks, using designs from Isuzu and Toyota. It has also been accused of copying vehicles such as Fiat’s Panda and Nissan’s Frontier. Great Wall is now using the Haval name for its new range of SUV models, including the stylish Concept R shown at the 2015 Shanghai show.