Gert Volker Hildebrand, Executive Director of Design for Qoros

Gert Volker Hildebrand, Executive Director of Design for Qoros

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Is the world’s newest car brand a Chinese export, or a global brand that just happens to build its cars in China? Mark Bursa reports on the first steps of Qoros.

The birth of a car brand is a moment to savour. After all, the recent trend in the automotive industry has been rather in the opposite direction, as long-established nameplates such as Rover, Saab, Mercury and Pontiac head for the history books.

And while many Chinese brands have sprouted up in the past decade or so, most have grown organically – the likes of Chery, Great Wall and Geely were building cars for the domestic market for some years before they made it on to the world radar.

But Qoros is not like that. Billed initially as a “Chinese” brand, it’s a rather more complicated animal. It will build its cars in China, and Chery is a significant investor in the project. But to bill Qoros as a Chinese export brand is some way from the truth. This is a truly international venture – so much so that in China, Qoros is actually classed as a joint venture brand, rather than a Chinese domestic nameplate.

International talent

And although Chery COO Guo Qian serves as Qoros chairman, there’s no Chinese national to be seen among the managers I’m in Munich to meet ahead of the formal unveiling of Qoros at the Geneva Motor Show in March. Instead, I’m talking to a German, an Italian, a Swede and a Dutchman – all serious players in the industry with impressive track records. And to highlight the just how new-born the brand is, the car I’m standing next to is Qoros chassis number 4.

Highest profile among the Qoros executives is executive director of design Gerd Volker Hildebrand. In car styling terms, he’s a rock star, with a one of the biggest hits of recent times to his name – he designed the new Mini for BMW.

With Qoros he’s been given a completely free hand – he even designed the Qoros logo. Having said that, Hildebrand has played safe with the cars. These are not radical departures. Rather, the Qoros 3 models – saloon, estate, hatchback and crossover – are aimed squarely at the heart of the European lower-medium sector.

Nor is Qoros being pitched as a budget brand. Obvious competitors would be Skoda Octavia, or Audi A3 Sportback. Of course, European products play well in China, and Qoros is being pitched as a “joint venture” European brand built in China – just like Volkswagen or Audi.

A brand with no obvious “Chineseness” 

First impression is that Qoros demonstrates how far the Chinese have moved up the learning curve with regard to branding. The brand remains the central flaw of all Chinese launch strategies so far; even more so than the poor EuroNCAP scores resulting from cars built to Chinese tolerances.

Creating a new brand with no obvious “Chineseness” gets round the perception problem that Chinese brands are low-cost brands, and the only route to market available is at the lowest price point, slowly building reputation and quality to a point where price differentials are eroded. Kia and Hyundai have taken this route; Skoda too, and the Japanese before them. 

Downside is the time it takes – more than 20 years have passed since VW bought Skoda, or Kia imported its first cars to Europe. And even though the Chinese have explored this route, it’s doubtful they have the patience to play that long game.

Chery has dabbled with launches into Western markets. It took space at the Frankfurt Motor Show as long ago as 2007, and before that had an unhappy experience in the US with a stalled partnership with American entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles business.

In fact the seeds of Qoros were sown as long ago as 2007, when Chery set up a venture called Chery Quantum Auto, in partnership with Israel Corporation, an Israeli holding company. And while it took some time to sort out the business plan, by late 2011, the Qoros strategy was born, with Chery holding a 50% stake in the project rather than the majority holding it had originally targeted.

“At the beginning the intention was to take Chery platforms and develop them for the European market,” said executive director of sales & marketing Stefano Villanti. “But we realised that wouldn’t have created a different product, so basically the objective of the company changed, and we developed a completely new platform from scratch, very targeted to new consumers.”

Tier 1 suppliers on board

To make this happen, new partners were added to the project, notably MagnaSteyr, but also other Tier 1 suppliers including TRW, Continental, Bosch, Getrag, Benteler, Lear, Microsoft, Harman, Neusoft-Alpine and Iconmobile.

Chery’s role is principally as a shareholder, though it is manufacturing engines for the Qoros range at one of its plants. These are not existing Chery designs, but new petrol units developed in Germany by specialist AVL.

The timing of the venture wasn’t ideal – in late 2008, as the business plan was being finalised, the global economy was going into reverse. But that turned out to be a positive, said Villanti. “Starting a business in that condition helps you recruit the best talent in the market as there were not many ventures starting out.”

Qoros cars are being built at a new environmentally-sustainable Chinese plant in Changshu. This will open with a capacity of 150,000, which can with minor adaptations and extra shifts ramp up to 250,000 cars a year. There’s room to expand – effectively a second line is in the long-term plan, which would bolster output to 450,000 cars a year.

Qoros also operates an engineering centre in Shanghai, with further input coming from Munich and MagnaSteyr’s Graz technical centre in Austria. Production hasn’t yet started at Changshu – pre-production prototypes are currently undergoing testing around the world.

Villanti believes the brand element of the Qoros launch is vital – not just in Europe, but in China too. “Chinese consumers are very sophisticated,” he said. “They can distinguish good products from bad. Brand is important for them and they are in many ways more sophisticated than we are. They get thousands of new brands every year, so they are more used to exploring new brands and what’s behind them.”

Villanti said the level of knowledge of Chinese consumers was extremely impressive when Qoros was undertaking market research into the Chinese market – quoting technical specifications from memory in a way that would be rare in the west.

The failed attempts to launch in Europe by the likes of Brilliance were also examined in depth. “We had to ask whether that was a brand problem or a product problem,” said Villanti. “If you have a good product, you will get into the consumer’s mind very quickly. Look at phones, such as HTC – does anybody mind having a Chinese phone nowadays?”

Hildebrand’s designs are clearly designed for mass appeal. “My job is to serve the needs of the brand,” he said. “I cannot do another Mini with Qoros.” Indeed. These are not quirky cars. In fact the styling is quite conservative, with obvious comparison points with other brands. The overall impression is “German” – Volkswagen is the obvious reference point, as is Audi. There’s also a hint of the latest Kia styling about the cars – perhaps not surprising, as Kia is another Asian brand with a German superstar stylist, Peter Schreyer.

'Creating future history'

With no existing ‘brand DNA’ to work with, Hildebrand has had a blank canvas for Qoros. “Our slogan is ‘creating future history’,” he said. “Apple started with no heritage. The brand is created by the owners – you can only provide the best content for them to define themselves with.” The logo is prominent on front, side and rear of the cars, and a “horizontal design language” has been used, making lines as long as possible so as to “stretch” the car.

Three models will be on the Geneva Show stand – the Qoros 3 sedan and estate, plus a hybrid Crossover that uses the same basic bodyshell of a fourth car – a five-door hatchback.

The sedan and estate are front-drive, powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, either naturally aspirated or turbocharged, with stop-start technology. Six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions will be offered. The hybrid uses a 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine with two electric motors. One electric motor drives the rear wheels –giving all-wheel drive capability - and the other acts as a generator. The three-pot engine will also be offered as an entry model. It’ll meet Euro VI regs.

A diesel option is still to be decided – current Euro V and future VI regulations favour gasoline, and China has almost no demand for diesel, so the decision is still to be made. Outsourcing would makes sense, if indeed Qoros does decide to go diesel.

The plan is not to pitch Qoros as an entry brand. Instead, the cars will come with a high basic specification, offering a good value bundle, with 16in alloy wheels, parking cameras and so on as standard, and a very advanced iPad-style infotainment system, which uses a very intuitive touch screen that looks as good as anything on any production car.

European distribution will start with independent importers, with sales scheduled to start initially in China and “smaller European markets”. In China Qoros is building its own stand-alone dealer network – already 120 dealers have signed up to sell the brand, with 80 dealers scheduled to be open by the launch. This gives coverage in most key cities, especially around the “gold coast”. Experienced Chinese managers have been hired to run the domestic sales programme. In China, the Qoros 3 range fits into the C-plus segment, and with a long wheelbase for its segment it will play well with Chinese owners who like to be chauffeured.

Currently, small test batches of cars are being built – “Job 1” and full-scale production is expected in the autumn, and the first cars will be on sale by the end of the year. Initial build will be left-hand drive only; UK and other RHD markets will have to wait until 2016 at the earliest. There are no technical obstacles to making RHD – the delay is really a capacity issue, though some crash-testing will need to be carried out again.

It’s a carefully-designed and well-worked plan. The cars maybe lack a little individuality, but they appear well-packaged in terms of size and specification. Pressure points on the strategy rest on the ability of the Chinese plant to build to global quality standards, and the ability of independent distributors to get a new brand to market in Europe. With a solid Chinese-market strategy anchoring the project, things are looking good for the world’s newest automaker.

See also: GENEVA PREVIEW: Qoros to show first production car