Maybe This Is Why China Isn't Buying Chinese Cars

What you're looking at is not the newest Mini Cooper derivative. It's the Lifan 330, a car that went onsale in the Chinese home market last year and recently made an appearance on the floor of the Beijing Motor Show. And I think it may be why Chinese buyers aren't buying Chinese cars.

Well, part of the reason, anyway. Maybe this cheerful little copycat can give us some insight into what's going on over there.

First, the Lifan 330. It's said to be a more "upscale" version of the Lifan 320, a more blatant Mini Cooper copycat that's been on the market for years now. Like its younger brother, the 330 is a pretty obvious Cooper ripoff (with some Fiat 500 mixed in for good measure) powered by a 90 horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine.

Care of our friends at Car News China, here's a shot of what the 330 looks like on the inside. As a Cooper S owner myself, I'm getting a very distinct feeling of déjà vu. They even got the air vents right!

Maybe This Is Why China Isn't Buying Chinese Cars

We Westerners look at these shameless Chinese knockoff cars with a mix of laughter and incredulity. The Chinese, apparently, aren't looking at them at all.

As Travis mentioned in yesterday's Morning Shift, Chinese automakers are consolidating and scrapping some of their brands on the heels of buyers opting for Audis, BMWs and Nissans over their home market brands. The Wall Street Journal talked to several young Beijingers about what cars they want to buy, and none of them said they wanted a Chinese car. A Hyundai or a Toyota? Sure, but not a Dongfeng or a Geely.

Or a Lifan 330. They'd rather have a Mini Cooper, and they can afford it. (The Lifan 320 hasn't been a strong seller historically.)

Perhaps Chinese home market cars — many of which are uninspired, underpowered knockoffs with highly questionable safety and build quality — just don't appeal to buyers experiencing one of the biggest wealth booms in history.

Despite fears to the contrary, China's economy continues to chug along like a freight train, creating both new millionaires and members of the middle class every day. These people covet cars and they can afford them. So what are they going to buy: the knockoff or the real thing? If you make $6 million a year, you don't buy the fake Birkin on Canal Street; you buy an actual Birkin bag.

To their credit, Chinese automakers are improving in terms of quality, but the WSJ says prospective buyers don't see it that way. And they want the cachet offered by foreign automakers, according to a J.D. Power analyst in China:

"Quality is improving, but the customer doesn't perceive that," Mr. Broderick said. "Chinese love brands and the perception among Chinese consumers is that if you have the wherewithal you'll buy a foreign brand."

I'll tell you one reason they don't perceive that: because rather than innovate and make something new and different, the Chinese brands are predisposed to making knockoffs of real cars. When you look at a ripoff like the Lifan 330, does that scream quality to you? Of course not, and Chinese buyers are smart enough not to see it that way either.

Here's my advice to you, Chinese automakers: the knockoff cars were cute and funny in 2008, but you exist in a different world now. Your potential buyers expect more than the Lifan 330.

If you want to stop losing sales to Buick or the real Mini — or even, I don't know, export cars outside of China — you're going to have to start attracting attention by doing your own thing and making unique, original and desirable homegrown cars.

This crap just isn't going to cut it anymore.

Maybe This Is Why China Isn't Buying Chinese Cars