It’s no secret Volkswagen has been having trouble in the North American market. However, the world’s largest automaker continues to thrive in China where it is the number one automaker. There, Volkswagen offers a dizzying array of vehicles, many of which are exclusive to China.
Volkswagen started producing cars in China in 1984 with the Passat-derived Santana, entering into joint ventures with domestic automakers SAIC Motor and First Auto Works. Since then, Volkswagen has been one of the dominant players in the Chinese market and narrowly beat GM for overall market share last year with 4.18 million cars sold. While Volkswagen has lost some ground recently in China, it is rebounding.
The original Passat-based Santana was manufactured all the way until 2012. Thereafter, the Santana name shifted to the A05 platform used by the Skoda Rapid.
Although the old Santana’s wagon variant no longer exists, there is a hatchback called the Gran Santana. Its styling is largely similar to the handsome Skoda Rapid, while the sedan resembles the Vento sold in Mexico and the Virtus sold in Brazil.
Volkswagen may have developed Americanized variants of the Jetta and Passat for North America but that pales in comparison to their efforts in the larger Chinese car market. As well as the Santana and Gran Santana, there are the Lavida, Gran Lavida, Lamando, New Bora, and Phideon, as well as a unique Chinese Jetta.
That’s in addition to almost the entire global Volkswagen sedan range. China is the only market to receive both the European-designed Passat (“Magotan”) and the US-designed one. It still has the Phaeton, while also offering the Jetta (“Sagitar”).
All the sedans are manufactured locally bar the Phaeton; imports are limited mostly to vans and hatchbacks. The range opens with the Mk5 Polo-derived New Jetta from FAW-Volkswagen and the Santana from SAIC-Volkswagen. Then there’s the Bora, Lavida and Lavida Classic, all using 1990s and 2000s Golf platforms, all looking much the same, and all selling like gangbusters – the Lavida was the 2nd best-selling car in China last year and the others weren’t far behind. These all undercut the global Jetta-based Sagitar (#10 in 2017), which just undercuts the Lamando. There is an almost inconceivable number of products in Volkswagen’s Chinese range, with a sedan at almost every price point and in every size class. Make that two sedans.
The Lamando is one of the more interesting Chinese Volkswagens, using a modern platform – VW’s new MQB modular platform – and wearing sleeker lines than its boxy cohort. There’s even an aggressive GTS variant featuring the Golf GTI’s 2.0 turbo four.
The Passat and Magotan are priced identically and slot below the CC. The priciest Volkswagen is the Phaeton, which has always been imported from Europe. Even though import duties pushed up the Phaeton’s price considerably, it has still been a steady seller for Volkswagen in China. There was, however, a huge gap in price between it and the CC, which led Volkswagen to introduce the Phideon in 2016.
Based on the just-superseded Audi A6 and using the Chinese A6L’s extended 118.5-inch wheelbase, the Phideon is a sleek flagship sedan priced against the extended-wheelbase versions of the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Eschewing the large, inefficient engines formerly available in the Phaeton, the Phideon offers Chinese buyers two powerplants: Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 2.0 TSI turbo four and a supercharged 3.0 V6.
Yes, China is full of extended-wheelbase luxury sedans. In addition to the Cadillac ATS-L, there are also stretched versions of the aforementioned German luxury sedans, their smaller counterparts, as well as the Volvo S60 and S90 and Jaguar XF. Many Chinese car buyers are driven around and place priority on comfortable rear seating and luxury car brands have been happy to respond.
That demand for spacious, luxurious sedans also led Citroen to develop a new generation of C6. Alas, it resembles its avant-garde predecessor in name only. Now a rather dreary three-box sedan, the new C6 is little more than a restyled Dongfeng Fengshen A9.
At least it gets a nicer interior. The C6’s dashboard is blocky and plain to the point of looking retro, although certainly not retro Citroen. There are some interesting textures, patterns and colors inside and the digital gauge cluster even displays a strip-style speedometer. Otherwise the C6 is unremarkable, using PSA’s new EMP2 modular platform and 1.6 and 1.8 turbocharged fours.
Intriguing interior aside, the C6 is a bland flagship for a Chinese Citroen range lacking in spunk. The latest, funkiest Citroens, like the Cactus and new C3, aren’t sold in China (yet). Instead, there are bland, three-box versions of old C4s, as well as the ageing C5. The brand has been struggling lately in China due to the lack of crossovers – they only had the Chinese-exclusive C3 XR – but the recent introduction of the characterful new, global C5 Aircross (above) should help turn the tide.
PSA would also like its premium DS brand to receive a boost. It has invested in Chinese-exclusive models for it, including the 4S. Meanwhile, the iPhone is up to version 10…
The 4S hatch is attractive in the vein of a Mercedes A-Class or BMW 1-Series but hatchbacks are nowhere near as popular with traditional buyers as sedans, nor as popular with young people as crossovers. To that end, PSA also introduced a 4S sedan known as the 5LS…
…as well as a crossover known as the 6WR. DS is still finding its groove design-wise; their vehicles are attractive but fairly forgettable, but for a slate of relatively interesting and colorful interiors.
Mercedes is launching a more conventionally styled sedan in its A range of vehicles, to complement the CLA. BMW has beaten them to the punch with the Chinese 1-Series sedan, developed with BMW’s joint venture partner Brilliance and using BMW’s new, front-wheel-drive UKL platform. It looks exactly like what you’d expect a 1-Series sedan to look like, inside and out.
A little more surprising is BMW Brilliance’s new brand, Zinoro, which specializes in electric vehicles. There are just two Zinoros at present and, naturally, both are crossovers: the 1E is a pure electric vehicle based on the old, RWD BMW X1, while the 60H is a plug-in hybrid based on the Chinese long-wheelbase version of the new, FWD BMW X1.
Interestingly, the 60H uses the same drivetrain as the X1 xDrive 25Le: a 136 hp 1.5 turbo four mated to a 15 hp electric motor. While it may seem pointless to rebadge the X1, BMW Brilliance’s creation of a new brand is in response to subsidies offered by the Chinese government towards consumers for purchasing electric and hybrid vehicles. These subsidies are available only to cars from a Chinese brand, made in China.
The other European brands are following Volkswagen’s lead and deploying new products for a huge and increasingly influential market. In the next instalment, we’ll look at what the Japanese and Koreans are doing in China.
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