Missing Out? The American-Branded Cars You Can Only Buy In China

Oh Americans, you must have thought you were so special. The European and Asian automakers spent years developing models specifically for your market. Cars like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Avalon… they were just for you! Well, guess what? You’re old news now. There’s a huge market out there and it’s being lavished with attention, including exclusive new models. I’m talking of course about China. Even the American Big 3 automakers are rushing to woo Chinese consumers with unique offerings.

While the ageing D3 platform Ford Taurus trudges along with no updates in North America, Chinese buyers have an all-new Taurus available to them. Based on the CD4 platform underpinning the Ford Fusion and Lincoln Continental, the Chinese Taurus is available with three different engines: the Fusion’s turbocharged 1.5 four-cylinder, the turbocharged 2.0 EcoBoost four from the Fusion and the North American Taurus, and the twin-turbocharged 2.7 V6 found in the F-150 and Fusion Sport.

As the entire world continues to embrace crossovers – truly a remarkable example of global tastes converging – the Chinese still have a lingering fondness for sedans. Despite this, the Chinese Taurus isn’t selling in the volumes Ford would like and indeed their entire lineup is struggling in China.

One thing the Chinese Taurus appears to have hugely improved over the American model is interior packaging. The American Taurus has a surprisingly confining cabin for a car with such large exterior dimensions, while the Chinese Taurus is spacious. As with many sedans in China, special attention has been given to the rear seat accommodations.

Given its shared platform and engines, it would seem as though the Chinese Taurus could be easily offered in North America. But Ford doubtless sees the futility in such a move—Taurus sales are down, a Fusion replacement has yet to be officially confirmed, and the Police Interceptor sedan is being outsold by the Explorer-based Interceptor Utility at a rate of almost 6-to-1. I imagine the Taurus will soon meet its demise in North America and, if the Taurus doesn’t gain traction in China, the Chinese model could also end up on the chopping block.

While Ford may be faltering in China, GM is performing swimmingly as usual. Buick is GM’s most successful brand in China, with twice as much market share as Chevrolet and more even than GM’s budget brands Baojun and Wuling. Until last year, Buick was also enjoying a meteoric rise in the burgeoning Chinese market, although it remains to be seen if 2017 was a mere hiccup. While the full American Buick range is sold in China (except the Cascada), Buick also has some vehicles exclusive to China. The oldest nameplate of this group is the GL8.

The GL8 started as a locally-produced, mildly restyled version of the GM U-Body minivan in 2000. It’s now in its third generation, although it remains underpinned by a revised version of the U-Body platform.

The latest series of GL8 has a new front and rear suspension – finally ditching the rear beam axle for an independent set-up – and now uses GM’s ubiquitous 2.0 turbocharged four. This replaces the 2.4 naturally-aspirated four and 3.0 V6 in the previous GL8. There’s also a posh new Avenir range-topper, as with the new LaCrosse and Enclave.

While the GL8 uses old components underneath its modern (if rather awkward) sheetmetal, the interior is contemporary and strongly reminiscent of other Buicks like the Envision and LaCrosse.

As is common in the Chinese market, the previous generation remains on sale and even the 2000-vintage model was offered up until recently. Confusingly, Buick didn’t change the name of the first two series even after they were technically replaced.

The popular GL8 was joined late last year by the smaller GL6, using the much more modern Opel Zafira platform. This relatively handsome new MPV seats five or six, the latter in a 2+2+2 format.

The only powertrain available in the GL6 is a turbocharged 1.3 four-cylinder with 160 hp and 169 ft-lbs.

In the past few years, Buick and Opel have become increasingly aligned. With the latter’s sale to PSA, it’s unclear what will happen with next-generation versions of current Opel-based Buicks like the Regal and GL6. Another Buick with an uncertain future is the Verano GS, effectively a rebadged Opel Astra with sporty trim.

In sharp contrast to the more sedately styled sedans in Buick’s Chinese lineup, the Verano GS is a sporty, compact hatchback. To drive the point home, Buick has added carbon fiber trim to the Astra’s interior as well as numerous red accents both inside and out.

All Verano GS hatchbacks also come with red brake calipers and a turbocharged 1.5 with 166 hp and 184 ft-lbs, mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. There’s also a more sedate Verano hatchback with a naturally-aspirated 1.5 four-cylinder, producing 116 hp and 107 ft-lbs and mated to a six-speed automatic. The Verano hatch replaced the Excelle XT, a rebadged version of the previous Opel Astra.

The use of the Excelle XT name (and Excelle GT on the previous Verano) was a tad confusing as, for many years, the Buick Excelle was the brand’s best-selling model and little more than a Daewoo Lacetti in thin disguise, sold simultaneously alongside the newer and better (if pricier) XT and GT. Now, the Verano nameplate has been introduced to China, both on the aforementioned hatchback and a new-generation of the sedan. While the Verano sedan was axed in North America, the Chinese can buy a new Verano sedan on the D2XX (Cruze/Astra) platform.

The exterior is as conservative as it was before but the interior is even more elegant than the old Verano. Powertrains are the same as in the Verano hatch.

Buick didn’t discard the venerable and popular Excelle nameplate. The Buick Excelle remains, slotted under the Verano hatch and sedan in the Chinese lineup. It was completely redesigned in 2015, shifting to a new, Chinese platform. A far cry from its aged Daewoo-derived predecessor, the Excelle GT can even be had with the ever-so-slightly bigger Verano’s dual-clutch auto.

There’s also an attractive station wagon version, called the Excelle GX.

You may be seeing a theme here: while many of these cars share platforms with American-market models, they all have unique exteriors and interiors. Not all Chinese models follow that pattern, however. Take a look at the Buick Velite.

Yes, this is simply a Chevrolet Volt with Buick badging. While the Volt is certainly an attractive and capable vehicle, it’s a far cry from the memorable Velite concept of 2004 that gave this rebadged Chevy its name.

It’s not clear why Buick chose the Velite name for a Volt rebadge – it’s safe to say we were never going to see a production version of that rear-wheel-drive, mid-size convertible concept – but it makes perfect sense that Buick get a version of the Volt. The Chinese market is embracing electric vehicles and Buick is GM’s strongest brand in China. Hopefully when Buick finally gets around to releasing a dedicated electric vehicle in North America, they dust off the Electra nameplate—it just makes sense!

Cadillac is rapidly growing in China, which is great news for GM. While sedans may be dipping in popularity elsewhere, the often status-conscious Chinese market still prizes luxury sedans with ample rear legroom. GM locally assembles the XTS and CT6 but its Alpha-platform lineup is a tad different. The CTS isn’t sold in China at all, while the ATS is sold but only in a stretched, sedan variant known as the ATS-L.

The regular ATS sold elsewhere is a tad snug in the back and in China that just won’t do, what with luxury car owners often employing drivers to chauffeur them around. GM China took the ATS and added 3.3 inches to the wheelbase, comfortably increasing rear legroom without disturbing the ATS’ attractive proportions.

It’s not the first time GM China has taken a Cadillac with a cozy rear cabin and given it a good stretch—the last time they did this was with the SLS, a stretched version of the STS. While that model eventually received Chinese-exclusive facelifts and a 2.0 turbocharged four, the ATS-L stays true to the regular ATS but for the elongation. They addressed probably the most common complaint levelled at the ATS and they don’t have to worry about cannibalizing CTS sales as it isn’t offered there.

Finally, there are other Chinese market vehicles from the Big 3 that, well, don’t really impress. GM has its Baojun budget brand, a joint venture with SAIC Motor, that slots beneath Chevrolet in their hierarchy. Despite this, Chevrolet sells the Sail and Lova RV, rather bland and dated-looking compact models. Neither are flying off the lots, with more cohesive products like the Cavalier selling much better.

Yes, that’s right: the Chevrolet Cavalier. Slotting below the new Cruze and above the Sail, the Cavalier is a handsomely restyled version of the previous-generation Cruze. It’s proving to be a sales success for GM, being the 25th best-selling car in China in 2017.

It’s really quite a looker, especially inside—a Cavalier interior has never looked this good! Ah, but the Cavalier isn’t exclusive to China as it has recently been introduced to Mexico. Those of you in border states may have already seen one on the roads.

If you found it bizarre to hear the words “new Chevrolet Cavalier” for the first time in well over a decade, how about the words “new Ford Escort”? Yes, the Cavalier’s arch-rival is once again the Escort. Like the new Cavalier, the Escort is a rebodied version of a previous-generation compact, in this case the second-generation European Focus. Also like the Cavalier, its sole engine is a 1.5 four-cylinder.

Unlike many other 2015-vintage small Fords, the Escort has a relatively clean and uncluttered look inside thanks to a recent freshening. Overall, the Escort adeptly hides its rather old bones. Interestingly, neither the Ford Escort nor Chevrolet Cavalier names were ever used in China so there’s no real heritage to play on. I rather like the use of old nameplates, though, like the resurrected Datsun nameplate in South-East Asia, or the Indian Ford Freestyle.

The previous-generation Chevy Malibu lives on in China but has been treated to a significant refresh with a new interior and a frontend design reminiscent of a larger Cruze or Sonic. Design and engineering work was outsourced to Holden although the Malibu has recently been discontinued here and, ironically, we never even received the 2015 facelift.

Under the hood is the turbocharged 1.5 four-cylinder from the new Malibu. The new generation of Malibu, badged Malibu XL in China, has a much smaller global footprint than its predecessor due to Chevrolet’s withdrawal from Europe and the discontinuation of the Malibu line in markets such as Australia. Surprisingly, this Aussie-refreshed Malibu isn’t even sold in countries like Uzbekistan or India, markets that tend to hoard old GM products.

Looking at this fleet of Chinese vehicles, it’s safe to speculate that none of them would be runaway sales hits were they to be offered in North America, except for perhaps the budget-priced Escort and Cavalier. One Chinese model that would likely be a sales success is this, the Jeep Grand Commander.

The Grand Commander will compete with mid-sized, three-row crossovers like the Volkswagen Terramont (Atlas) and the Ford Edge (above). Yes, the Edge is available with a third row of seating in China, accommodated by a modest four-inch stretch in length. There’s no concern about cannibalizing Explorer sales as the Explorer is imported to China and therefore carries a steep price tag—base price to base price, the Explorer costs almost twice as much.

But back to the Jeep. The Grand Commander is visually almost identical to the Yuntu concept (above) and will slot between the Cherokee and the Grand Cherokee in Jeep’s Chinese lineup, offering something neither of them has: a third row of seats. Jeep has been rather slow to introduce a three-row crossover – its last three-row vehicle was the flawed Commander, discontinued in 2010.

When it launches this year, it will be offered with a 2.0 turbocharged four-cylinder in two states of tune. This is the same 2.0 that is being introduced in this year’s Cherokee and Wrangler.

Personally, I think this is a very attractive-looking crossover and it would sell like hot cakes in North America. Frustratingly, there’s been no indication given by FCA that this will be anything but a Chinese-exclusive model.

These American-badged Chinese models are merely the tip of the iceberg. In the next instalment, we’ll look at the vehicles produced by Asian and European automakers exclusively for the Chinese market. In the meantime, tell us: which of these, if any, would you like to see sold in North America?