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Close up and personal: Qoros 3 sedan

We take a look at the Chinese super sedan

20/02/2014 08:23 |  Comments: 

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Self-appointed race-driver (whenever he gets a chance), avid car sports- and sports car-lover, manager of the mother site’s blog, Belsőség, he can always be found in the middle of the noisiest gathering. Steve has had a long-running habit of remodelling his facial hair bi-weekly. A Slovakian citizen but of Hungarian nationality, he lives in Budapest now. Has a wife, two small children and a dog.

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Behold the wonder car of China. Close inspection of a showroom car.

Fairy tale...

Here are the Chinese cars that will conquer Europe. Enter the non-cheapo Chinese car. Qoros stalks Europe. Behold the wonder car of China - these are the kinds of headlines that swarmed the web as soon as Qoros announced that it would be opening its first European showroom in Bratislava, Slovakia. All of this is immensely impressive, but before we take a closer look at the establishment itself, let's get straight with Qoros.

What you have always wanted to know about Qoros but never really bothered to look up – until now

Qoros is 50% owned by Chery, the brand that, until recently, was the number one automaker in China. They sold 563 300 vehicles in 2012, only surpassed by Great Wall at 624 600. Chery has made a name for itself with its – ahem – highly inspired (read: stolen) designs and magical car names. Their portfolio ranges from a Daewoo Matiz look-alike to a Ford Focus clone called A3 (which was actually penned by Pininfarina). Chery is a serious company with some serious market significance, but they rightly suspected that their current line-up and design trends would not win them customers in Europe. To rectify that they established a 'simply premium' brand in 2007 - that would be Qoros. The other 50% of Qoros belongs to an investment group called Israel Corporation.

They aim to manufacture cars that satisfy European customer demands and conform to local quality standards, and they have the resources to make this happen. But they have learnt from their competitors' mistakes, and are taking a cautious approach to entering the old world. There have been several attempts at importing cars from China to Europe but these projects, plagued by some serious issues, invariably met their fate either at the EuroNCAP crash tests or in the homologation process. Some shipments never made it through customs because their design was such a blatant rip-off that European courts banned their sale due to infringement of intellectual property.

Therefore Qoros is taking the slow but steady route. For a starter they admitted they have no clue about European cars and went on to recruit some serious brains from within the business. That is how executive officer Guo Qian was quickly joined by Klaus Schmidt, formerly of BMW M, to oversee the chassis and drivetrain development process. Roger Malksusson (ex-Saab) is the head of safety developments, while the design team has benefitted from recruiting Gert Hildebrandt who left Mini to work for Qoros.

Once they had the people they went on to spend about €600 million on R&D. They contracted prime rate automotive suppliers such as Magna-Steyr, AVL, Dassault, Bosch, Denso, Visteon, Valeo or Getrag, and created a brand new platform, based on which their first car, the Qoros 3 Sedan was born.

And now they blow the trumpets and beat the drums to announce their arrival. They have contacted Dutch specialist Auto Binck who have extensive experience introducing Far-Eastern brands to Europe. Qoros are still just feeling their way around, so they tried to find a market where they could reliably gauge European reception but where an eventual failure would not deal an irreversible blow to the overall reception of the brand. That is why Qoros established its Slovakian operations, hoping to land a much desired supporting role in the grand show of European car sales in a few years. Will they prevail?

... and the reality

They say first impressions make all the difference. If that is true, European carmakers may sleep easy now because two banners, a 2 x 3 m name plate and a dedicated corner within a Mazda / Mitsubishi dealership will hardly give Qoros the edge they need for a breakthrough of any sorts. Apparently Qoros also knows that a single desk and a handful of brochures are less than adequate to launch an offensive so they have also provided for some ammunition - there are two identical Qoros 3 Sedans displayed in the showroom. Although the term 'showroom' hardly applies here, in the same way we don't usually think of Rebecca Black and her infamous 'Friday' as a musical performance.

There is really not much to see here: two white cars with a price tag each. It recalls the sobering void of Eastern Block grocery stores from thirty years ago. There is also an LCD screen on the wall running a looped PR-video. You see the Qoros in the desert, a disguised Qoros in the Arctic, welding robots, quality controllers, smiling families, some more Qoros footage from the switchback roads of Col de Turini and the promenades of the French Riviera... all of this played backwards.

Yup, the film is looping endlessly from end to beginning, with the car driving around in reverse and all the smiling people backing out of their cars. I closed my eyes to make it go away, thinking frantically if anything I had for breakfast could cause hallucinations, but the mirage stayed, and the film kept running backwards. Maybe there is some oriental symbolism involved, with dragons and all, but I fear I'll never know.

Seeing me enter, the sales representative (at least he appeared to be one) removed his wireless headset and made efforts to greet me in his small, secluded world. As I approached him with a confident smile it didn't take a degree in psychology to see that he downright hated his job. He must have been a sales rep for another Auto Binck brand and he was punished for something he did or didn't do. Armed with a desk, a four-page brochure and three pre-fabricated responses to eventual customer enquiries, it was him against the European market, trying to educate prospective buyers asking about something that he had no clue about and was not even available yet.

For a second I thought I saw some sparkle in his eyes as I told him I came to inspect the vehicle (true) because my bosses are contemplating buying a fleet of ten, maybe twelve cars (false). He could not really tell me anything of value, of course, citing his Standard Response #2 about how sales would only start in the second trimester of 2014 after manufacturing commences in China. That's all he said but he did let me take photos. He stayed with me for a while but after about three clicks he chose to return to the solitary confinement of his desk.

Come to think of it, he actually did tell me more. He said they have had prospective customers from Austria and the Czech Republic but really, all he can do for them is to enter them on a mailing list. I pitied the poor man. He probably didn't deserve to work for Qoros, but that's life. He mentioned that Slovakian journalists have already seen the cars, we discussed how lowly and treacherous journalists can be, and he reiterated that the cars on display were preproduction models.

This was the third time he mentioned pre-production but I did not want to insult him or give away my true position so I held back on the question why Chinese decision makers would be sending pre-production cars for display. I chose to act amazed instead, keeping my mouth shut and my mind focused on what would be for lunch because I was getting mighty hungry.

All this time the showroom lived its regular everyday life, with mechanics emerging from the garage for a quick coffee and sales reps running around with a bundle of license plates under their arm. It was pretty darn regular but hardly a cause for optimism regarding buying power and resurgence of market.

I wanted to blend in and returned to the desk, starting to talk about new car sales. Slovakian customers buy nothing but BMW and Skoda, he said. The Mazda3 is a great car but overpriced at €16,000, and for the price of a Mazda6 they can get an entry level BMW. End of story. But the Qoros, priced at €21K, is a good deal, he says. It's only €16K before taxes, he adds, and there will also be cheaper variants. And a station wagon too. Not to mention the diesel. When? Not before production starts early 2014. Thanks for nothing.

Twenty-one thousand Euros? That much can buy you basically anything on the market, significantly weakening the prospects of a Chinese brand with no history. Maybe Qoros does not know they are stacking up against better established, higher quality competition at this price? Because while the Qoros 3 may come with all the bells and whistles, from full leather upholstery to cloud-based infotainment services, European customers tend to prefer traditional features like the availability of a service network or roadside assistance.

Compared to previously seen Chinese cars this is the kaizen-coated Mount Everest of motoring

Also, it is too easy to see the truth behind the façade, especially if compared to locally established makes. Still, compared to other Chinese cars we have seen, this is the kaizen-coated Mount Everest of motoring. It is hard to believe that the Qoros 3 came from the same context as the Flybo Total Electric, our most entertaining test vehicle ever.

Here's what we know of the Qoros 3 so far:

- the car is not yet being sold, with no down payments accepted before production starts.

- for the moment the car is available with a single engine, in a single (highest) specification level and a single body variant, with a choice of six body colours and two sets of upholstery.

-Excellent quality, splendid design, modern technologies, touch screen menu system, brand new platform, very, very good, quality, premium – really – leather upholstery, electric whatnot, double clutching double clutch, long wheelbase, double clutch, colour screen and reversing camera and.. and could I now please see it for myself?

Because the internet is always ahead of reality I am pretty sure there are already Chinese car trolls lurking in the dark, waiting to prove it otherwise, but whatever they may say, the Qoros 3 is modelled after the Volkswagen Jetta. Its proportions are identical, with a hint of BMW around the headlights, but the rear is the spitting image of the Jetta, with typical VW tail lights and even the sheet metal around the D-column seems to have been made on the same press. We may never know how much liberty Mr. Hildebrandt had in designing the car, maybe he was briefed to clone the Jetta and design the logo. The car is different enough to avoid a lawsuit from Wolfsburg. The Qoros 3 is sized to brush shoulders with modern compact four-door sedans. It is 4616 mm long, with a healthy 1839 mm across. Qoros must be really proud of the wheelbase of the car, why else would they list it down to a single decimal digit at 2689.4 mm.

The overall design is pleasantly neutral but it's better viewed from a distance: coming up close you are confronted by details that reveal production technologies far from being up to date.

The first thing I notice is the panel gaps. I haven't seen such wide gaps since my 1989 Seat Ibiza. Some panel edges are not parallel either, and the triangle where the door, the front quarter panel and the A-pillar meet looks like a botched repair job after a serious crash. The front bumper displays uneven fitting on the left and ride side, and the boot lid is out of alignment which is strange because the tail lights are lined up fine.

Headlights are not exactly flush with the fenders, although a botched paint job and rough sheet metal edges help cover up the gaps. Overall paint quality seems to be mediocre with the paint running into crevices. If we took a layer thickness gauge to the panels I am sure this paint job would not hold up favourably.

Weld paste is sometimes visible at sheet overlaps. The corner of the boot lid looks like something a class of welding apprentices took their first lesson on, followed up by a failed attempt at covering up by painting over it. The reversing camera blocks the way for standard (Slovakian) license plate fixtures, and the sealing strip at the base of the windscreen stops short of the pillars, leading water straight down into the fender. Although it's okay as long as the latter leaks

My guess: Qoros is about 10-12 years behind the industry; It's hard to say exactly how much. One thing is sure, they will need to work hard on quality control because Chinese cars will be scrutinised like no other on the market. And what I have seen is not going to win them any customers, not at this price.

If the Qoros resembles Volkswagen products on the outside it is only natural the same happens on the inside. I know it's hard to come up with new ideas when it comes to window or headlight switches but what about Chinese ingenuity then? Luckily the interior is sober and reserved; it looks like a Jetta, that's all. No bling here, everything is straightforward, controls are clearly laid out, pictograms are easy to read and understand, and easing the overwhelming multitude of VW-related controls is the BMW-esqe 'BC' lettering on the stalk control.

I could not ascertain whether the dashboard was intentionally finished in two different tones but I did notice the lid of the glove compartment is a slightly different shade of grey. Space is ample, the leather(ette) upholstery is finished nice, but the front seats are not large enough and the rear bench does not look more comfortable than, well, a bench.

Materials themselves are not bad, really, for what I know they could come from the same supplier where every other company is getting their stuff. They also feel right to the touch. It's when you move components that are meant to be moved that issues begin to surface. Whether it's the steering wheel, a storage compartment or the gear shift lever, it feels like you are breaking it for good. If you can recall the way the push buttons felt on your very first portable cassette player, you are very close to the sensation I was getting in the Qoros. It was as convincing as something coming from a teleshopping session. Mind you, some of the switches worked fine, and the rubber-encased A/C controls would be a welcome addition to Seats or thereabout.

The 8" touch screen infotainment system uses pleasant graphics and is localised flawlessly, representing all the funny letters of the Slovakian alphabet correctly. It's also relatively quick. It is basically identical to Volkswagen's system with two notable differences: the LCD screen within the instrument cluster scrolls sideways, rather than vertically, and you can switch between menu screens with an innovative double finger swipe.

Traditional swipes don't work, you gotta use two fingers. Don't ask why. The touch screen control panel gives you access to almost every comfort feature the Qoros 3 has to offer, from the reversing camera to the power folding mirror, except for the seats.

Things go awry for Qoros at the final assembly, when interior panels and fittings and accessories are all put together. Qoros either needs to hire some experts with a basic concept of what parallel means, or else mould the entire instrument panel in a single piece, like Dacia does it, because wherever two surfaces meet Qoros does not seem to get things right.

The chunky gear lever ends in a six speed double clutch Getrag unit which may look nice in the brochure (well, technically it's hardly more than a leaflet) but I have had the misfortune of driving this transmission in a Fiesta and I was not surprised to learn that this 'box has been ousted from the US market. It simply sucks. But maybe I am wrong, maybe it works just right with this 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine. Modernised by AVL, this is a 150 PS variable valve train powerplant delivering 210 Nm between 1750 and 5000 rpm. Qoros quotes an average fuel consumption of 6.3 l/100km and that actually sounds feasible - my experience tells me that usually translates to an actual fuel consumption of something like 7.5-8.2 l/100km.

There was no engine cover on either of the cars on display and if it wasn't me but our engine wizard Tibor opening the hood he may have had a stroke on the spot: there was plenty of black duct tape applied within the engine bay. This gives a new meaning to the term “hand assembly”.

As for the suspension, Qoros went with the run-of-the-mill, functional and cheap layout of MacPherson up front and torsion beam in the rear. The latter is usually beneficial for the boot, and indeed, there is 450 litres of space available. You can open the lid from the interior lighting panel and close it with a bit of fiddling as there is almost no room for your fingers to get hold of the inside handle.

Taking a deep breath I tried to assess what I have seen. The car itself is not bad. Priced at around 10-13 thousand Euros it could generate some significant sales. At €21K, however, it is a joke, and a tasteless one at that. It suffers from the same condition that plagues most Chinese cars: they really want to resemble something, and they do, so people compare the two products to each other. And they can only lose out on such a comparison, even though they really put together some fine components this time. They have the cash, the chefs and the kitchen and yet the food just does not taste right. And just repeating the word 'premium' does not make it so, especially when they fail to reach even budget levels.

The sales representative never even looked at me as I quietly said goodbye and left the building. Maybe he dozed off, dreaming of precision-built Japanese cars, whisper quiet Audis, or just Astra Wagons. But I didn't look back on the Qoros 3 either - why should I waste another second on a Korean car from the year 2000?

Sure, Chinese cars are right around the corner. And they should remain there for the time being, five-star crash test results or not.

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