The Chinese car industry is ‘King of new brands’. Since the late 1990’s new brands appear almost on a monthly schedule. It’s one of the fun reasons to follow Chinese cars. Since it’s the holiday season, I deemed it appropriate to step away from ‘hardcore history’ for a week and choose a bit more lighthearted subject to talk about. It’s a special category of Chinese car brands, which I call ‘fake brands’.
Before we get to the lighthearted part, I have to do a little bit of hardcore history though.
In the early 1980’s China designated the car industry as one of its industrial pillars and designed the joint venture policy. The policy stipulated that foreign car makers could only produce vehicles in China with a local joint venture partner, who had at least a fifty percent share in the business. The strategy behind this policy was twofold. First it was meant to quickly scale up the industrial output and secondly it should encourage technology transfer between the advanced foreign manufacturers and China’s artisanal car industry.
Fast forward two and half decades and the first part of the strategy has worked wonders. In 2009 China becomes the largest car manufacturer in the world. The second part of the equation… well, that’s different. Foreign manufacturers remain reluctant to share technology with their Chinese partners. The joint ventures often don’t own the intellectual property of the cars they’re making, but license it from the international manufacturer.
A short word about copying. The joint ventures are usually with one of the large state-owned local manufacturers. These state-owned manufacturers sometimes inherit the obsolete leftover technology from their foreign partners for their self-developed products, but that’s about it. The obvious examples of copying foreign designs and technology are mostly done by the new private brands that have appeared since the late nineties.
So around 2010 the central government sees that its own industry is still lagging the international manufacturers by a long way and begin to apply pressure to increase technology transfer. At the same time the government identifies New Energy Vehicles as a promising sector to catch up with international standards. The foreign manufacturers remain reluctant on sharing technology and invent an imaginative loophole to mislead the Chinese government: fake brands, preferably ‘making’ EVs.
I call them fake for lack of a better word, but these brands are very real. Several joint ventures announced new EV-brands and showed cars of which they owned all intellectual property. Usually though the cars were outdated models from the foreign manufacturer, modified with ‘off-the-rack’ electric motors and batteries from some small Chinese manufacturer. It’s almost like all the foreigners secretly conspired to this deception. The Chinese government fell for it and now we have a list of brands that never really were.
The FAW-Volkswagen joint venture presented an electric VW Bora on the 2010 Guangzhou Auto Show. In May 2011 FAW-VW announced that the car would be sold as Carely E88 (Kaili in Chinese). At first the car appeared in the shape of the first generation Bora, which was pretty much a refined 1983 Jetta. Later the car got the looks of the New Bora, which was a facelifted Bora mk.1. The E88 sported a tiny 20 kWh LFP battery (range 135 km) and a SAIC 90 kW electric motor. According to FAW-VW the Carely should hit the market in 2013, didn’t show up and the brand was officially killed again in 2014.
In this case the technology transfer did work: FAW inherited the outdated Bora platform and later used it for the Junpai A50 and CX65 models.
Dongfeng-Honda registered the Ciimo brand (Siming in Chinese) in March 2011, seemingly in line with all the other joint ventures. But then something went horribly wrong. They presented an internal combustion car instead of an EV and actually produced it! The car by the way was just the 2005 Civic sedan with a different logo. Dongfeng-Honda’s lackluster ambition shows from the fact the company didn’t even bother to come up with a model name. The car was just Ciimo 1.8. There was a very minor facelift in 2014 and production ended in 2016. Sales were poor.
If it works once, it might work twice. When Honda needed an EV in 2019 to comply with China’s NEV-policy, Dongfeng-Honda bolted a battery pack below the floor of its best-selling Honda HRV and resurrected the Ciimo brand for this compliance car. The Ciimo X-NV sells in very small quantities. Nonetheless Dongfeng-Honda added a slightly restyled version as Ciimo M-NV to the lineup in 2020.
I hesitated to include Denza (Tengshi in Chinese) in this list, because it’s slightly different in nature. Denza vehicles are made by Shenzhen BYD Daimler Technology, a dedicated joint venture between BYD and Daimler established in May 2010. The first car called 500 was introduced in September 2014 and actually sold to the public. The car combined electric technology from BYD and the W246 platform from Mercedes. An updated version appeared in 2018, then called Denza EV. Apparently it’s still available, but sales are not listed anymore.
The reason why Denza still made this list, is that Mercedes never showed any interest in the joint venture. After the 500-model, there has been no obvious input from the Germans anymore. Denza added a second model in 2019, the X, but that’s just a slightly restyled BYD Tang.
Dianyue was brand introduced by Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia in March 2012. The car on display, an electric Kia Cerato, followed the exactly the same template as the Carely above. A 22 kWh LFP battery and a 90 kW electric motor were bolted to the dated Cerato platform. The car never made it to production, at least not as Dianyue N30. The same car was re-introduced under the Horki brand a year later (see below).
The world first got acquainted with the Everus (Linian in Chinese) brand when they showed the Linian Roadster at the 2009 Guangzhou Autoshow. A few months later, at the Beijing show, they also had a Linian Sedan. Drivetrain specs are unknown for both, but the Sedan is said to be an EV.
Everus is a brand of GAC-Honda and debuted a real car in April 2011, making the same ‘mistakes’ as Dongfeng-Honda. The Everus S1 was a rebadged Honda City and available for sale with 1.3 or 1.5 litre petrol engines. The car underwent a small facelift in 2013 and remained on the market until 2016. Sales were 25.000 per year for the first two years, and around 4.000 per year thereafter. When the S1 was discontinued, so was the Everus brand.
But like Ciimo, Everus recently made an all-electric comeback. GAC-Honda turned their Vezel model into a BEV and sold it as Everus VE-1. The Vezel is of course the same car as the Dongfeng-Honda HRV. In 2021 Everus added the EA6 to its lineup. This is a rebadged GAC Aion S, which makes it exactly the same as the Lingzhi-Toyota iA5 (see below) except for its badges.
The joint venture between Dongfeng and Renault dates from 2013, so it’s not among the first to announce an electric sub-brand. The Fengnuo brand doesn’t appear until 2015, with the first car called E300 debuting on the Beijing Auto Show in 2016. The Fengnuo E300 is a rebadged Renault Fluence, or more correctly, a rebadged Samsung SM3 ZE, because the Fluence production already ended in 2014. Sales start late in 2016 and the model name is reduced to E200, a more accurate reflection of its range. Dongfeng-Renault keeps the car alive until the collapse of the joint venture in 2020.
Dongfeng-Yueda-Kia presented its mk.1 Cerato-based EV first as Dianyue, but re-launched its fake brand as Horki (Huaqi in Chinese) in February 2013. At the Shanghai Auto Show they showed a sleek looking design study called Horki-1. The real car, the Horki EV, to be launched in 2014 was exactly the same Cerato mk.1-based EV as the Dianyue. This model kept being postponed, but never made it to production.
In 2016 Horki launched an updated version called 300E, which more or less followed the line of the facelifted Cerato R petrol version. The 300E had a larger battery of 36 kWh and was actually made in small quantities until 2019, exclusively for the use of government agencies and the taxi market.
Changan-Ford revealed the Jiayue sub-brand in May 2014. The name has no English translation, but means something like ‘superior leap’. The giant step forward in this case was the mk.2 Focus sedan, which went out of production in Europe in 2011. In China the car was still produced as Focus Classic. The Jiayue was initially presented as the Focus Classic with a different badge, powered by an 1.8 litre petrol engine. Later in 2014 Ford also registered an EV version with a 107 kW motor from Magna and a battery of unknown size. Production should have started in 2016, but never did. The last Focus Classic was assembled in September of that year.
GAC-Toyota leaped ahead with the brand Leahead (Lingzhi in Chinese) in April 2013, when a nameless concept car was shown on the Shanghai Auto Show. This compact crossover was never developed and instead Leahead presented the i1 in Shanghai two years later. The i1 was a mk.2 Vitz/Yaris converted to BEV with a 70 kW motor and a tiny 22 kWh battery. The car was available for sale from late 2015 until the end of 2016.
Like the Honda fake brands, Leahead disappeared for a while, but was revived when Toyota desperately needed to earn some NEV credits in 2019. This time there was significant technology transfer, but not the way the government had intended. The Leahead-Toyota iX4 and iA5 are both rebadged models from its Chinese parent GAC, the Trumpchi GS4 and Aion S respectively.
Ranz (Shilang in Chinese, meaning ‘brighter life’) is the fake brand of FAW-Toyota. It debuted with the Corolla EX-based electric showcar on the Shanghai Auto Show in April 2013. Almost two years later Ranz brought the same car with a slightly different grille to the Guangzhou show and called it the production model. FAW-Toyota however never really assembled or sold this Ranz E50, apart from a few cars used in a taxi pilot program.
To convince the world that Ranz was not fake at all, the brand revealed a, quite frankly, stunning show car called RF-EA1 on the Beijing Show in 2016. A year later they did it again with the RF-EA2 for the Shanghai Show. Did these concept cars lead to anything? You guessed it, of course they didn’t.
At the Guangzhou Auto Show in November 2011 Beijing-Hyundai impressed the world with the BHCD-1 show car of its new brand Shouwang. The show car looked impressive, like a poor man’s Bentley Continental, with suicide doors and apparently a hybrid drive train. Would Shouwang turn out to be a real brand?
Well, skip two years of radio silence and the Shouwang 500e pops up. Yes, it’s the usual concept. The 500e is an old Hyundai Elantra with an electric power train of undisclosed specifications. Probably much like the Horki, as the Elantra and Cerato were related models. The Shouwang 500e cars participated in a small scale taxi pilot project in Beijing and thereafter nothing was heard of the brand ever again.
Volkswagen and JAC (Jianghuai Automobile) set up a joint venture in 2018. It was the third joint venture of Volkswagen in China, legally possible because JAC-VW would only make electric cars. JAC-VW was also supposed to be the vehicle for the introduction of the SEAT brand to the Chinese market. The Chinese authorities however objected and preferred a (new) local brand name. And so it became Sol (or Sihao in Chinese). The origins of the brand may be slightly different than the others on this list, but it’s still a fake brand.
Sol’s only car, called E20X, is a straight rebadge of the JAC iEV7S. It served as a placeholder (to comply with minimum production regulations) for the joint venture and only a few hundred were sold in the two years it was made. In 2020 Volkswagen acquired a majority interest in the joint venture and started converting the assembly lines for its ID-models. The Sol name was re-translated as Sehol and transferred to parent company JAC, who now uses it to revive its ailing car division.
On the 2010 Guangzhou Auto Show SAIC-GM debuted its second generation Chevrolet Sail as sedan and hatchback. Tucked away in a corner was an electric version of the hatchback, without any Chevrolet badging. A year later on the same show the little hatchback re-appeared as Springo Sail EV with a redesigned grille borrowed from the Chevrolet Volt. Specs were disclosed as well. The Springo came with an 85 kW motor and a 22 kWh battery for a range of 130 km. Springo even mentioned a price for the car, a whopping RMB 258.000 (or $41.500). Remarkably Springo managed to sell over 60 units of the car until 2015.
In September 2011 SAIC-VW announced the new Tantus brand (Tianyue in Chinese). The Tantus EV which appeared in a few low-resolution images is an EV Based on the VW Lavida. The SAIC-VW Lavida is of course technically identical to the FAW-VW Bora. So it’s no surprise that the Tantus and the Carely are exactly the same car. Tantus’ fate is similar as well. After some talk about production, the brand is silently killed off without any cars ever sold.
The Zinoro brand (Zhinuo in Chinese) by the BMW Brilliance joint venture was first presented on the 2013 Guangzhou Auto Show. The car on display was a first generation model BMW X1 converted to a BEV and called Zinoro 1E. The electric motor produced 125 kW of power and the LFP battery allowed for a range of 150 km. BMW Brilliance didn’t bother to sell the car, it was only available for lease.
On the Shanghai Auto Show of 2015 Zinoro previewed its second model with the Concept Zero show car. The series production appeared in March 2017, replacing the 1E. This new car was called 60H, based on the second generation X1 (with long wheelbase) and replaced the all-electric power train with plug-in hybrid technology from the BMW 2-series Active Tourer. In 2019 the battery was upgraded and the car was renamed 100H, reflecting its increased electric range. The 60H and 100H were available for sale.
Exceptions and implications
And with Zinoro the long list of fake brands ends. So did China’s policy on encouraged technology transfer fail in the hands of a seemingly orchestrated deception campaign by the international car manufacturers? Well, not completely. Two joint ventures either didn’t receive or didn’t read the memo on the preferred strategy. In 2010 Dongfeng Motor (Dongfeng-Nissan joint venture) and SAIC-GM-Wuling each created a sub-brand and made it work. The brands are of course Venucia (Kaichen in Chinese) and Baojun respectively. I will review these brands in future Automaker Stories, but needless to say that at least Baojun can be considered a success story.
What did it bring the international car manufacturers? Well, they continued their trusted process of supplying their Chinese partners with older or even outdated technology mostly. It might have slowed the competitive growth of the Chinese car manufacturers a bit, but at the same time the private manufacturers (without joint ventures) matured and established themselves as fierce competitors. In 2021 Chinese manufacturers have gained significant market share in the domestic market, from 33% to over 40%, so the turning point might have been reached after all.
On top of that, China’s market share gains are achieved for an important part with New Energy Vehicles, a segment where the international players are not very strong. And the Chinese are pushing out all kinds of new EVs, from super cheap to super premium. So much even, that they might challenge the international manufacturers in their home markets on short notice. The international car manufacturers are struggling to get to grips with the EV-market, challenged by Tesla on one side and the Chinese on the other. What if these big brands had taken their fake sub-brands a little more serious and really focused on affordable electric cars for the masses? The landscape might have looked entirely different today.
In 2021 Jiri and Tycho revived CarNewsChina as a full-blown website, after years in the doldrums. It was sorely missed for several years as reliable information about Chinese cars in English is hard to find, even today. So thank you for that, guys! Let’s make CarNewsChina a household name among car enthusiasts in 2022.
Our background tech-guy Jakub gave the site a much more contemporary look. I hope you like it, but I certainly do. Great work, Jakub.
Then Jiri and Tycho persuaded me to do the Automaker Story series for CarNewsChina. Without them it wouldn’t exist. I greatly enjoy researching and writing these articles, so thank you for the opportunity!
Last, but certainly not least, a warm thank you to my readers. I know people mostly come here for the latest quirks of these weird Chinese manufacturers, but quite a few of you also took the time to read my stories. I greatly appreciate that and it makes the effort all worthwhile.
I will now take a one week break, but don’t worry. I’ll be back on January 9 with the story of one of China’s most notorious businessmen. Until then, happy holidays and best wishes for 2022!