I’ll admit it. I’m Qoros-Qorious.
Can it really be just three years since the Chery/Israel Corp joint venture Qoros made its debut to the world on a positively lavish Silk Road-themed stand, taking up a sizeable square metreage of Palexpo real estate? In 2013, it really did seem as if the Chinese industry really did have a product with potential to sell in sophisticated international markets, and a brand and people who could facilitate the vision.
CEO Volker Steinwascher was formerly vice-chairman of VW North America, and joined the Qoros predecessor company Chery Quantum in 2009. Sales chief Stefano Villanti, ex-Augusta Westland and McKinsey, joined at the same time. The star frontman was the genial and extrovert styling head, Gert Volker Hildebrand, with a lengthy and productive career at Opel, VW, BMW and Mitsubishi behind him. His most noted recent design was the original MINI Clubman, in my dyspeptic opinion, the only member of that family I find in any way palatable. Hildebrand is the archetypal jolly German, and to show-goers has become the veritable “Mr. Qoros”.
Looking back, three years on, the Qoros 3 still looks neat, but bland; something of a synthesis of assorted VAG products from the end of the last decade. At least Gert sneaked in some very MINI-ish doorhandles to add a modicum of character. The mechanical elements failed to excite. The near-universal front struts and rear torsion beam, up front an indirect injection 16V petrol four with or without turbocharger. Not embarrassingly backward, despite hints of origins shared with the Chrysler Tritec (MINI) engine which powered Chery’s A11 Windcloud, but equally no advance on the sort of engines VAG, Ford and GM were making in the late 1990s.
The engine was described as a temporary expedient, soon to be replaced by modular all-turbo direct injection units being developed with Austrian specialists AVL, in 1.2 litre triple and 1.6 litre four cylinder varieties. The 3’s ‘infotainment’ developed with Neusoft-Alpine was state of the art in 2013, and was probably of more interest than greasy old engines and gearboxes to the technology and communications-fixated young professionals Qoros saw as their target market.
The stage was set, anyone who was anybody turned up to look, and many were observed to stay, chat, and enjoy the atmosphere. Along with the production-ready 3 sedan, two other cars were shown as concepts; a 3 estate, of the sporting, rather than utilitarian, sort, and a Cross Hybrid, a high riding hatchback on the same platform. In the heat of post launch jubilation, I was able to establish that the Cross Hybrid’s electric rear axle was a wooden mock-up, More interesting was the discovery that it was being developed by American Axle and Manufacturing from work started for Saab before the unpleasantness at the end of the last decade.
Move on to March 2014. Qoros are a car manufacturer at last. On 1 January 2014, lucky Mr Yu of Shanghai took delivery of the first production Qoros 3 saloon. At Geneva the Qoros 3 hatchback is launched. Gert Hildebrand is heard to describe the red hatchback as his “Little Alfa”. The Alfasud homage is somewhat discreet, perhaps it’s the car’s pleasingly solid, poised stance. There’s no word of the new engines, but there is a truly impressive achievement in the Qoros 3’s 5 star Euro-NCAP rating, with the best score awarded in 2013, and the second best score ever.
The European ‘pilot marketing’ venture, mentioned without details in 2013 is revealed. Netherlands-based Auto Binck will shortly begin selling the 3 through a chain of dealerships in Slovakia. Much is made of Qoros as “a global carmaker headquartered in China”, and the need to validate the brand through sales in Europe in order to achieve credibility in China.
Step forward to 2015. Things are very different. In January Volker Steinwascher left Qoros, to be replaced by a new CEO, Philip Murtaugh, bringing a solid CV as the former China head of General Motors and Asia Pacific chief for Chrysler, and a senior executive with SAIC. Stefano Villanti left around the same time. It’s reported that 40% of the foreign engineers and designers recruited to Qoros have now left the company. On the lavish stand, Mr. Qoros, jolly as ever, puts a good face on matters, but the numbers aren’t clever. 7000 cars sold in China in 2014, and the Slovakian venture has resulted in a woeful 51 registrations.
There’s something new on the stand, the Qoros 3 City SUV, last year’s hatchback with a raised ride height and big black wheel arch surrounds. Some will say it’s a shrewd, low cost move to court the young urbanites Qoros see as their natural constituency. For me it is the automotive equivalent of the Klabautermann, the jolly and helpful sea spirit of Nordic seafaring myth, which only becomes visible when a ship is doomed. Rover had the Streetwise, Saab the 9-3X.
Not long after Geneva, the gulf between the vision and sales reality was laid bare. In media reports the Qoros name was preceded by adjectives like “struggling” and “troubled”. The Financial Times of 4 May 2015 reported that domestic market sales for 2014 were 7000. The Slovakian venture had resulted in a woeful 51 registrations to date. Remember that 150,000 per year number. 2015 China sales were 14,247 (+107%). At the beginning of January 2016, Phil Murtaugh, tendered his resignation, citing “family reasons”.
In three long years, the world has changed. In December 2015, domestic brands held only two places in the top ten, BAIC at no.8, and Baojun at no.10. Qoros sat at a lowly 58. It could be that the Chinese auto industry could have a South American or Spanish-style future – plucky local efforts at building national cars being rapidly overtaken by joint ventures between local businesses and global producers. Qoros joint proprietor Chery has more than a toe in this particular water, with their manufacturing partnership with Jaguar Land Rover, announced in March 2012, also in Changshu.
It would be understandable if Chery placed Qoros well down the priority list, by comparison with the JLR venture, but there’s more than just life in the project. To most people’s surprise Qoros revealed the Qoros 2 concept at the Shanghai Auto show in April 2015. A plug-in hybrid about the size of a MINI Countryman, with delightfully brutal styling, it looks very much like a change of direction, technically and visually, for Qoros.
The Qoros 5 was shown at the Guangzhou Auto Show in November 2015, with production scheduled to start later this year. It’s a high riding SUV on the Qoros 3 platform, with an Evoque-ish front end, and the remainder evocative of the Kia Sportage. A return to shameless plagiarism? I think not. There are some very neat details, and the interior pictures suggest that the “affordable premium” objective is within Qoros’s grasp. Further encouragement is given by reports that Andy Piper, the British ex-Saab and Ferrari safety engineering wizard behind the 3’s NCAP triumph, has supervised the 5’s development.
Taking stock in February 2016, it’s no surprise that Qoros won’t be in Geneva this year Murtaugh hinted as much when he said that the Qoros brand would only become credible internationally when its strength was validated by strong sales in China. (Hadn’t we heard something like this before?). If the Chinese automobile industry is to establish an identity of its own, it needs more Qoros-like ventures. For three years Qoros was a breath of exotic (in the true sense) fresh air. I’ll miss them this year in Geneva.