FIRST DRIVE | New BAIC Beijing X55 is an enticing proposition

11 October 2022 - 16:21
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The X55’s futuristic styling attracts a lot of attention. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The X55’s futuristic styling attracts a lot of attention. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

The rise of Chinese cars from cheap-and-nasty to respectable didn’t happen as gradually as it did with Korean brands a decade or so ago; it’s as if a switch was flicked and they became good almost overnight.

Dodgy build quality saw brands like Hafei and Geely shunned by consumers in SA, but now the Chinese are suddenly a force to be reckoned with.

Haval and Chery have paved the way with their latest cars, which have crossed the Rubicon with much better quality than earlier Chinese efforts but with price tags that still undercut their more celebrated peers. And South Africans are buying them in decent numbers.

Now BAIC (Beijing Automotive Industry Corporation) has similarly lifted its game with the new Beijing X55, a sophisticated and futuristic-looking compact SUV that is a far cry from the unrefined BAIC D20 budget hatchback that marked the brand’s  SA entry in 2017.

Beijing is BAIC’s premium brand, like Haval is to GWM. The X55 is expected to sell in high volumes and serve as a turning point in SA for the Chinese state-owned car maker headquartered in Beijing. Initially to be imported, local production of the X55 will begin at BAIC’s factory in Gqeberha’s Coega district from the fourth quarter of 2023, says Basil Costa, senior manager at BAIC SA.

The local operation, which is 65% owned by the Chinese government and 35% by the Industrial Development Corporation, will build the X55 for the local and export markets with 10,000 units a year initially planned.

The R11bn factory is the largest automotive investment in SA in decades and was opened in 2018 with much fanfare by President Cyril Ramaphosa. But it had an inauspicious start with strike-related production delays followed by low-volume, semi-knock down production of the D5 and the X25 SUV.

There were also few BAIC dealers in the country, making the brand all but invisible, but it plans to increase its footprint to 25 dealerships and 22 service centres by the end of the year.

The drive

Last week I had a drive in the X55 ahead of its local sales debut next month, and on first impression it’s a praiseworthy effort. 

Supported by Daimler’s technology (the German car maker is BAIC’s partner in China), the X55 is a competitor to cars like the Hyundai Tucson, Chery Tiggo7 Pro, Haval H6 and Toyota Rav4.

It stands out for its eye-catching futuristic design, highlighted by its aerodynamic shape, sleek LED lights, and hidden door handles that pop out when the car is unlocked.

The cabin has an all-digital dashboard. Picture: SUPPLIED
The cabin has an all-digital dashboard. Picture: SUPPLIED

The futuristic vibe continues inside the cabin with its digital screens and a gear lever that mimics an aircraft joystick. The car follows the modern trend to replace physical buttons with touchscreens, giving the cabin a clean and modern look if not necessarily the best user-friendliness as swiping through the menus can be distracting.

With a length of 4.6m it’s roomy inside with legroom and headroom aplenty for four or five occupants, and the high-spec example I drove had a pleasant, premium feel with leather seats, soft-touch surfaces and ambient lighting.

The standout characteristics are its smooth ride and silent operation, and this Chinese SUV rolled along bumpy roads with quiet sophistication.

Power is supplied by a 1.5l petrol turbo engine with outputs of 130kW and 305Nm, and it drives the front wheels via a dual-clutch auto transmission. Offering four driving modes that range from economy to sport, the X55 feels adequately perky once it shakes off some turbo lag in a standing start. It cruises easily and has reasonable overtaking punch.

The suspension is set on the soft side for a comfortable ride, but the SUV corners neatly.

Beijing X55 prices will range from R400,000 to R460,000, making them an attractive value proposition. Full details of the model range will be revealed at the launch next month, but specification levels will be generous across the line-up with all models getting peace-of-mind fare like six airbags, stability control and a five-star Chinese NCAP crash rating.

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