After a brief hiatus brought about by the global economic slowdown, the Chinese automaker Geely recently re-entered the South African market with new local investors, management and products. The latest car to reach our shores is the LC – a mini-hatch with lofty ambitions in the ever-popular A-segment.

Geely first made its local appearance in 2007 with the CK – a first-generation sedan that could not match its European rivals for quality and only managed to sell 3 000 units. The new importers (made up of the Hallmark Group, which also imports GWM, and the Magic Group) are not only more realistic over the challenges of entering the market with an unknown Chinese product, but are also more methodical. Hence the introduction of the MK sedan and hatch (the replacement of the CK in China) a few months ago and the fact that the company has now entered the crucial A-segment with the LC.

First impressions of the car are very good. It is attractive with expressive styling and very neat detailing – note the headlights and grille that mimic the face of a panda bear and the rear light clusters that look like panda bear paw prints. I tugged and pushed many of the exterior plastics and none of them came loose (a regular occurrence on other Chinese cars we’ve tested). The fit and finish was good and it appears that this third-generation Chinese car has made great strides in terms of perceived quality and workmanship.

Swing the driver's door open and you are, unfortunately, still greeted by that typical Chinese car smell. It won’t stop me from buying the car, but I think the first Chinese manufacturer to introduce a more neutral odour would do well. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with the cabin. The seats could do with more padding to support the thighs and upper body. The steering wheel is adjustable for height, but still sits very low and the use of carbon trim on the facia and doors (while very cool in a Lamborghini or Pagani Zonda) did make me chuckle a bit. Actually, I’ve changed my mind... It’s cool.

It is a small car, but manages to offer a reasonable amount of rear legroom. Head and shoulder room is also not a problem in the back while the boot appears big enough for smaller families. The rear 60/40 split seatbacks can also be folded forward (but not flat) to offer extra utility space.

The fit and finish and materials used are also of a much higher standard from what I’ve seen in older Chinese cars. Standard features across the range include front fog lights, power windows all-round, remote central locking, air-conditioning and a radio/CD player with auxiliary jack. The GL adds MP3 capability and a USB port to the sound system. The GT also gets rear park distance control.

There’s only one engine available – an in-line four-cylinder 1 342 cm3 petrol unit that produces 63 kW at 6 000 r/min and 110 N.m of torque at 5 200 r/min. It is the same unit that was used to power the previous CK and managed to reach 100 km/h in 17,29 seconds when we tested it in 2008. It’s mated with a five-speed manual gearbox that offers surprisingly secure throws. It’s not a decidedly nippy car, however, and on our launch route at the coast near Knysna, the engine did struggle to keep pace. The LC does manage to pump out enough grunt from 3 000 r/min upwards, but the long ratios of expecially second and third gears that requires a very heavy right foot to keep things going.

Once cruising speed was reached, I was very impressed with the little car. It was very comfortable at high speeds ... and surprisingly quiet. There was some wind and road noise, but when compared with some (more premium) cars in this segment, the LC does well to keep external noises at bay. The engine does require high revs and, as a consequence, isn’t shy to clear it throat when more spirited performance is required.

Our route took us half-way up Prince Alfred Pass, a decidedly rutty and muddy piece of dirt road that would test even the hardest crossovers. Needless to say, I was sceptical and half expected the car to fall to pieces. It didn’t. In fact, the suspension did remarkably well to soak up bumps and hold its line on some very tight dirt sections. Back on the tar, and undoubtedly thanks to the high-profile 165/60 tyres, the LC offered a compliant and (dare I say it?) confidence-inspiring ride. The suspension is by no means firm, but body roll was within the limits of its segment and the steering, while offering loads of play at lower speeds performed much better than expected through tight corners. There was, as expected, some degree of understeer through the tight corners of Nature’s Valley, but – again – this was well within the limits of its class.

All models come standard with ABS braking with EBD, the GL adds dual front airbags and the GT also gets front side and curtain airbags. The LC managed to score a five-star rating in the Chinese NCAP crash tests – the first car to do so – but keep in mind that it has not yet been tested in Europe or North America.

So, it is a stylish car that offers some of the best finishes I've seen in a Chinese car. Its spacious enough and the enigne manages to do its job. It's well-specced and – if you look at the prices below – manages to offer great value.

From a product perspective, the Chinese seem to be catching up, but where the true test lies is with aftersales and reliability. Be sure to catch our interview with Geely South Africa managing director, John Jessup, later this week and in a future issue of CAR magazine where we chat about these issues, the Chinese car industry and its future.

PRICES:

LC GS R79 999

LC GL R84 999

LC GT R89 999

All prices include a three-year/100 000 km warranty with roadside assistance as standard. Optional service plans are available at R4 150 (two years/60 000 km) and R6 950 (three years/90 000 km).