Chery J2 driven

As much as people love to hate Chinese cars and manufacturers, it has to be said that they’re moving up in the world. Compared to the first Chinese models that came into South Africa, the cars we get today are Rolls-Royces. And with that in mind, Chery decided to launch the J2, a car that the company reckons will not only be its volume seller, but one that Chery says can genuinely compete with the likes of the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta and, perhaps more directly, Kia Rio and Hyundai i20.

Now, we all know that that is one of the most important and competitive segments in South Africa, but before you say that could never happen, let’s not hate Chinese cars purely for their nationality. Everyone deserves a chance. We were told on the J2’s launch that this new hatch is a true B-segment competitor when it comes to build quality and fit and finish as well as specification levels and mechanical integrity. So, is it?

B size, sub-B price

Well, no. Not at all, in fact. Priced at R129 500, it costs significantly less than your entry-level B-segment rivals, but what Chery has done is priced it smack bang in sub-B territory with the likes of the Toyota Etios, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo Vivo. Which is a good thing because, quite simply, no-one looking for a true B-segment car would give this thing a second glance.

And that’s not because of its looks – I think it’s actually quite an attractive car, with angular lines and creases creating an appealing profile. That’s not the problem at all. The problem is that when you get inside, that promised fit and finish just doesn’t materialise. All the plastics are hard and scratchy with not a soft surface in sight, the design of the centre console is straight out of the ’90s – the early ‘90s at that – and really there’s nothing inside to make you feel at home.

On the spec front it’s got alloy wheels, electric windows all round, air conditioning, a front-loader radio/CD player with a USB port and remote central locking. With regards to safety it boasts dual front airbags, ABS with EBD, side impact protection and seatbelt pre-tensioners. Now I’m not knocking that list – it’s not bad – but what it doesn’t have is an RDS radio, not that that’s a huge deal (it reads the station name rather than the frequency), a multi-function steering wheel, more airbags or ESP. In fact, the J2 is not being introduced in Australia yet because of a regulation change that makes ESP complusory, but it is still being developed and thus not available on our South African J2.

As I say, I’m not knocking the specification the J2 does have, it’s just that when you’re Chinese, rightly or wrongly, you need to pack your car to the hilt with comfort and convenience features and still come in significantly cheaper than your rivals. And, given the unimpressive interior of the J2, its rivals are undoubtedly the sub-B competitors, and in that segment its only the second cheapest car (the Etios will set you back less).

What about GWM’s C10?

Mechanically, the J2 is also a little disappointing. It’s powered by a 1.5-litre petrol motor that delivers 72kW and 140Nm (admittedly the most torque in its class), although it’s not a very refined engine. That fact is also evident in its claimed fuel consumption of 7.4l/100km and its rather high 176g/km CO2 emissions figures. Furthermore, when you drive it you discover that there’s plenty of vibration through the steering wheel, the five-speed gearbox that sends power to the front wheels has way to much in-gear play and the brakes are spongey and unresponsive at best and hair raising at worst.

Interestingly, GWM’s C10 was not mentioned at all, and that’s probably the best comparable Chinese car out there at the moment. The C10 has more style, better tangible quality and, on the whole, more appeal.

Thing is, with all these promises of serious and genuine competitiveness, I really wanted to like the J2. But I don’t, not because it’s an absolutely horrific package – that would be unfair – it’s just not as good as its rivals, simple as that. I know Chinese cars aren’t up to scratch yet, and I know it must be incredibly hard to crack such a competitive market, but I have no doubt that in ten year’s time, they will be where Kia and Hyundai are now. It’s just evident that they’re not there yet…