Johannesburg - Chinese car brands generally haven't had a very successful run in South Africa despite typically offering major price savings over established makes. Cars and bakkies from brands such as Chery, JMC, GWM and FAW trickle out of local showrooms in small numbers, while we've seen the local demise of Chinese marques Chana and Geely.
But this hasn't discouraged newcomer BAIC (Beijing Automotive Group Co) from entering our market, and in a major way. China's fourth-largest automotive firm is building an R11 billion factory in Port Elizabeth's Coega industrial development zone, where from 2019 it will begin assembling vehicles for the local and export markets.
In the meantime, BAIC (which is pronounced "bike") this week launched an imported car, the D20, as its first product on local soil. At around four metres long it's a small car in hatchback and sedan derivatives available in 75kW/128Nm 1.3-litre and 85kW/148Nm 1.5-litre petrol guises, in five-speed manual or four-speed auto. The five-model range sells for between R149 990 and R209 990, placing it into price competition with the market-leading Volkswagen Polo Vivo.
BAIC has a technology sharing agreement with Mercedes-Benz and the D20 shares a platform with the Smart ForFour small car. Styling is also borrowed from Benz with the hatchback bearing a strong resemblance to the first-generation B-Class.
As per the usual Chinese-car formula, value for money is the big selling point here. The D20 is quite well kitted and standard features across the range include dual front airbags, ABS brakes with EBD, electric power steering, parking sensors, auto-on headlamps, and electric windows. There are IsoFix mountings in the rear seats for child seats.
The more expensive Fashion versions are really specced to the hilt with a number of features that aren't commonly available in this price segment. In Fashion models you get an electric sunroof, daytime running lights, alloy wheels, automatic folding side mirrors, climate control, remote central locking, audio system with 16.5cm touch screen, navigation, USB, CD player, radio and six speakers with speed-sensitive sound level adjustment.
Rain sensors that automatically switch on the windscreen wipers are standard on all models except the 1.3.
The BAIC D20 will be sold through a national network of 21 dealers in the country's major centres. Prices include a five-year or 120 000km warranty with service intervals of 10 000km, with optionally available service and maintenance plans.
Journalists were not able to drive the D20 at Monday night's media launch in Johannesburg, but I sat inside the cabin of a hatchback on display and it seemed reasonably well put together. The dashboard plastics were hard but the general fit and finish seemed decent for the price and the styling had a modern vibe. It didn't have the cheap-and-nasty feel of some Chinese cars, particularly the earlier ones that came to our market.
The cloth-covered seats seemed comfortable, there was also good legroom in the back seat and the boot contained a full-sized spare wheel.
The two engines are modern units that on paper produce good outputs for their size, and come with variable-length intake manifolds to optimise power delivery across the rev range.
Until we get to experience one on the road however (and BAIC has not yet confirmed whether it will offer test drives) it's not possible to say how this Chinese newcomer stacks up in a highly competitive budget-car market against long-established rivals such as the Vivo and Toyota Etios, among others.
BAIC D20 PRICES:
1.3 hatch Comfort, 75kW – R149 990
1.5 hatch Comfort, 85kW – R169 990
1.5 hatch Fashion, 85kW – R179 990
1.5 hatch Fashion auto, 85kW – R189 990
1.5 sedan Fashion auto, 85kW – R209 990
Renault Sandero 0.9T turbo Expression, 66kW – R159 900
Toyota Etios hatch 1.5 Xi, 66kW – R163 900
VW Polo Vivo hatch 1.6 Comfortline, 77kW – R201 300
VW Polo Vivo sedan 1.6 Comfortline, 77kW – R209 800Star Motoring
Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter@DenisDroppa