I was in Shanghai, China, recently to report on Volvo’s new electron-slathered premium/performance brand, Polestar. Even though I was only there a short time, I wanted to be sure I captured what the general carscape of Shanghai is like, because it’s bewildering. And now I want to bewilder you, too.
Automotively, China is sort of like turn of-the-20th century America right now, at least in terms of just how many automakers there are operating. In the early 1900s, making cars was sort of the internet bubble of that era, and there were many, many now-forgotten companies making cars.
China seems to be in a period like that right now. One estimate I heard pegged the number of active Chinese automakers at 103! Walking around Shanghai, it sure seems like that could be an accurate estimate, because the number of badges and brands you’ll see at any moment is, to American eyes, pretty staggering.
The average age of the cars is quite young, and almost all the cars look pretty modern—the strange, low-speed electric vehicles with the crazy styling or really blatant Western knock-offs are mostly out in the countryside, so the cities are populated with new-ish cars that all look sort of like the generic cars used in insurance ads or the made-up cars from videogames.
I found it all quite exciting. Seeing a car badge that you don’t immediately recognize isn’t something that happens often in daily life in America, but in Shangai I was perpetually walking around in a state of gleeful bafflement, saying things like “What the hell was that? Was that a starfish on the grille? What’s that one with the horse head? Are those two dolphins?”
Anyway, join me on this little tour of the mostly unfamiliar bestiary of Chinese cars!
We’ll start with a familiar one, at least to our British readers. The newer London Black Cabs have been Chinese-built for some time now, and in China they’re free to be colors other than black. Such as cartoon-pig pink, like our friend here.
The oldest cars I saw in general use were these Volkswagen Santanas. There’s a number of versions and faces on these things, but they’re all based on the second-gen, 1981-1988 Volkswagen Passat.
They’ve been built in China since 1985, and have stayed in production until at least 2012, maybe longer. They’re mostly used as taxis and other fleet-type cars now, but you do see an occasional private one. They’re about as close to a Chinese Crown Vic as you can imagine.
There’s electric scooters and bikes absolutely everywhere, and some are very modern and sleek looking, like this guy here. It looks almost like something Apple would have made around 2003.
Okay, here’s our first unfamiliar brand: that red stylized bird-W thing is Wuling. Wuling is also part of SAIC-GM-Wuling, which is a joint partnership with Wuling, another Chinese carmaker SAIC, and our own GM.
Most of the Wulings I saw were little, competent-looking vans.
Even for recognizable brands, there’s some surprises. This is, I think, a Guangqi Honda, and, more importantly, a variation of the JDM Honda Odyssey that’s less like a boring old minivan and more like a big, sleek station wagon. This thing was actually pretty cool.
There’s at least two joint ventures with Volkswagen in China, meaning that VW are especially baffling. This Lavida here, for example—I’m pretty sure I saw at least two or three other Lavida variations (one may be the ‘New Lavida?), all around the same year, that looked remarkably different. I think they’re all based on the same Mk4 Golf/Jetta platform.
What you’ve heard about the Chinese market loving Buick isn’t some rumor spread by septuagenarians in an attempt to impress the younglings—it’s true. This Buick Excelle is a China-only car, a Buick version of the Chevy Cruze, sort of. Same platform, at least.
It’s so strange seeing these unfamiliar Buicks. It messes with the mind.
I liked this Iveco 4x4 possibly armored truck thing. It looks like such a competent brute.
That oval with the lambda-looking thing in it is the symbol of Chery, and that appears to be a Chery eQ electric car. Apparently, after all the government incentives, it’s only about $9,600 US, making it one of the cheapest “real car” vehicles in China. It’s got a range of 120 miles or so, which is pretty good! It’s like a half-price Nissan Leaf with a friendlier face.
So many vans. I’ll be honest with you, I can’t remember what the hell this one is. I’m looking into it more and I’ll update. This is a badge I saw a lot, how come I can’t figure this one out? Jeez.
Ah, okay! Thanks to my pal Tycho over at Car News China, I know what this is: a Brilliance Huasong 7 HPV!
Another interesting van next to that Audi, this one with a pleasingly ornate grille. It seems to be A Jinbei, which has a very heraldic-looking goblet or shield-and-sword looking badge.
This van is a Foton, part of the BAIC Group, and I think this particular model is a Foton View. I think it’s a version of the Toyota Hi-Ace.
I just liked the name of this place. Much Beer! That’s fun. It’s like someone let that doge meme name their business.
I was really excited to see this one: A Great Wall Coolbear! This is essentially a first-gen Scion xB/Toyota bB, with big plastic fender skirts and a different front end. But look at that greenhouse, and that rear quarter— that’s an xB!
Here’s the strange front:
Also note the badass roof rack with the four driving lights, which I kind of want for my first-gen xB, which I’ve rebadged as a Coolbear already. Seeing this next to a conventional xB is like seeing the result of one of those twin studies where one twin was raised by academes in London and the other by hyenas in the veldt somewhere.
Hey, that’s the Starfleet insignia on the nose of that van! Holy crap, look at that. This seems to be Changan Commercial Vehicle’s insignia as well. I wonder if they have trouble selling their vans and trucks in red?
Ah, the bird’s head. This seems to be the badge of Soueast Motor Co., which is partnered with China Motor Corporation, Fujian Motor Industry Group, and our old pas Mitsubishi. This looks to be a Soueast Delica, which I think is a licensed variant of the Mitsubishi Delica van.
This British Racing Green is actually the color of China Post vehicles, which is quite fetching.
Some of the scooters have become something beyond scooters, and are edging their way into microcar territory. Like this one, which has what seems to be a commercially-made enclosure and a tacked-on literal trunk in back.
Oh, and lots of Spiderman stickers. Pretty sweet.
That’s a pretty great-looking minivan, right? In the U.S., there are no Buick minivans, but this Buick GL8 looks like it could be a real competitor to the Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Pacifica, right?
It’s a little deceptive, though. That’s a second-gen GL8, and while it looks quite modern, it’s actually based on the old, underwhelming Chevy Venture platform.
Still, that’s a hell of a re-skin.
BYD has probably the most exuberant lighting design of all the Chinese manufacturers. The taillights look like they were copied from the wall-menu of a tattoo parlor’s ‘tribal’ design options.
There’s some French cars around, like this China-market Peugeot. I like the funny wreathed crest thing on the C-pillar, there.
More weird Buicks. This looks to be an early 2000s one; I like the hood ornament.
What the hell is a Haval? I’ve never heard of Haval, but this Great Wall sub-brand seems to be the “No.1 SUV brand in China,” at least according to their website. I think this is a Haval H8?
These were actually quite handsome and seemed like they’d fit in in any Target parking lot in America, easily.
Remember British carmaker Rover? They’re mostly dead, but they’ve been sort of re-animated in China as this, a Roewe. I wasn’t able to find anyone who could absolutely tell me how this is pronounced.
This is a Roewe 550, and these are considered luxury cars in China. They actually look pretty good, I think. It’s based on the old Rover 75 platform, and uses an engine derived from the Rover K-series engines.
I’m amazed this platform is still around.
I was calling these “Tri-troëns” because the badge has three chevrons to Citroën’s two. I think this is an LDV V80 van/bus. It looks like LDV is now called Maxus, and is part of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, if that helps you relate to it.
This is a BYD F0, and is basically a knockoff of a Citroen C1. Nice glass hatch.
Here’s a more original BYD, a BYD Yuan, which is a bold-looking and modern SUV, with all the trendy styling cues like the broken D-pillar/floating roof.
Here’s my question, though: the name. Yuan is the unit of Chinese currency. Would this be like if Ford had a new compact SUV named the Ford Dollar?
There were a fair amount of these strange electric utility vehicles. I liked them, they felt like the sorts of things you’d have trundling around in the background of your low-budget rom-com set on the Mars colony in the year 2145.
Here’s a nice, non-taxi Santana, an older one based on the front end. This is pretty much a classic car in the context of Chinese traffic.
If this looks sort of familiar, that’s because it sort of is: the Soueast Lioncel is basically a fifth-gen Mitsubishi Lancer.
Another Jinbei van. I like how Lincoln-like they make their chromy grilles.
This was a strange thing I saw all over Shanghai. Cars would have incredibly dark tinted windows, almost opaque looking, and then have this weird gap so the driver could see the rear-view mirror.
If they need that hole for the mirror, that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that the driver can really see that well out of the rest of the car’s windows, right? I mean, the mirror is right there.
Yet another generation of a sleek Buick GL8 minivan. Buick has two concurrent and nearly identical minivans in China, we have none. Where’s the outrage?
Here’s another Volkswagen Lavida, and to me this doesn’t even look like a Volkswagen.
Shangai cops seem to be a bit more eco-friendly than cops in the U.S., driving around in their Roewe plug-in hybrid cop cars.
This was the only VW Golf I saw; the Chinese seem to prefer sedans to hatchbacks. Still, this is a pretty good Golf to see. Wait, that’s a Polo, not a Golf, right? We don’t get Polos here.
Man, I love these Toyota Alphard vans. Why does Toyota waste their time with the flaccid Sienna when they could be selling this badass thing in America? Americans would eat up that massive crazy grille, I just know it.
In case you were wondering what the humanoid from Berzerk has been doing since the ‘80s, it looks like he got a good steady gig being the ‘walk’ guy on China’s street-crossing lights.
Just a quick PSA: China’s corn dog technology makes the U.S. corn dog industry look like absolute garbage. We’re falling behind, people, corn-dog-wise, and something has to be done.
I’m not sure, but I think this double-decker bus was a mobile boutique? Is that a thing?
Sure, the logo is sort of a Citroën knockoff, but you can’t beat Golden Dragon for a badass name for your van. Or your Chinese restaurant.
Roewe makes some pretty handsome SUVs, I gotta hand it to them.
I saw these twin-dolphin Yin-Yang-like badges on trucks all over the place; it’s the logo of Dongfeng Motor Corporation, and they seem to be a big player in the van/truck/bus arena. Plus, they have the logo you’re most likely to find as someone’s tramp stamp.
It’s amazing just how many modern, up-to-date, premium-feeling SUVs are around. This one is the Haima S5, and, again, it would look perfectly natural between nearly any two American-market SUVs.
At least until you peeked inside and saw the manual 5-speed and opened the hood to find a 1.6-liter engine. Still, I think those are sort of pluses.
I was wondering how all those electric scooters were re-charging, and then I finally saw this: a coin-operated recharging station! Once you start looking around, you see these things mounted on walls all over the place. Brilliant!
I wonder if something like this could work here, in big cities, for apartment-dwelling EV owners?
I could not figure this one out. The only legible badge said “Yo-Yo,” which is good enough for me.
These types of crude electric vehicles were everywhere, doing all kinds of jobs. I was told they’re actually factory-built, which surprised me, as I thought they were DIY adaptations.
They look like a washing machine motor was just added to the same basic pedal-powered mechanisms, chain-driving the rear wheels. They’re incredibly basic, but they got the job done, all over the place.
Hey look! An MG! MG lives on in China, just in a very very different form than anyone ever thinks of MGs.
People’s weather protection solutions for scooters are very creative.
I really like the figure-8 lights on this scooter.
This seems to be some sort of trike for someone without use of their legs, but with massively powerful arms. Don’t agree to arm-wrestle whoever owns this thing.
Holy crap, a pair of colored tweels in the wild! This is one of those rental bikes, so the idea of not having to keep tire pressure maintained must be a huge tweel advantage. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a bike with airless tires like this before. It’s pretty cool.
Another nice example of the slow evolution of scooter into microcar.
Look at that guy. He’s wondering why the hell any sane person would take a picture of a Dodge Journey. He’s right.
China’s the only place you’ll really find the elongated, ‘executive’ trim of a Porsche Panamera. It’s all for more rear-seat legroom.
Same goes for this Audi A6L. The L is for ‘long’ or ‘legroom’ or maybe ‘La-Z-Boy” since those back seats are like recliners.
This is a Changan Raeton. Changan is one of the ‘big four’ Chinese car makers, and I think their badge looks like a fox head.
This was such a nice blue Santana, I had to take a picture.
Another Changan! SUVs seem to get a badge treatment involving their names set into grilles, really large.
I saw these ‘starfish’ cars all over the place; this is the JAC S2, a tidy little SUV with a CVT and probably a good choice for a DDS with a PhD into some S&M.
This is a Peugeot, but I wanted to show it to you because the practice of customizing your body pillars with Hello Kitty shelf paper is all but unknown in the U.S.
Also important: blue accents in headlights seem to be sort of a thing there.
Let’s end on a familiar note to bring us back from confusion: this pearlescent pink McLaren 12C. It’s almost calming, in this context.
Now I want to rebadge everything I can with horse heads and starfish and dolphins and Starfleet badges.