HOW things have changed in little over five years. When the first Chinese cars arrived on our shores, some of us scratched our heads, some laughed and others tried to make sense of them. A number of importers and brands have come and gone, but some have survived and are attempting to enlarge their local (and international) footprints. A select few have done this with more success than others. One of these brands is Chery.
In 2008, Chery launched its first range of vehicles in SA with the back-up of the Imperial Group. Today, the Chery offering is made up of three hatchbacks – the QQ (tested in August 2008), J1 (CAR, July ’10) and this J3 – and a compact SUV, the Tiggo (we ran the test in October ’09) that are sold through 35 dealerships.
At the end of last year, Chery released the J3, an important car for the brand locally as the B- and C-segments for hatchbacks have grown significantly during the last decade. The J3 straddles both, being C-segment sized but B-segment priced.
Chery charges, rather coura-geously, the same price as established B-segment rivals such as the Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo. Therefore, the question on the lips of each CAR tester was: has the Chinese manufacturer made a large enough leap in quality, comfort and performance to justify this price, even though the J3 is bigger?
Although discussion on the design of a vehicle is often irrelevant because it is approached so subjectively, the J3 does possess a neat, clutter-free appearance that should age with some grace. This rounded design hides a cabin that bests the Rio’s for boot and utility space, although like all other hatchbacks it can’t hold a candle to the sheer practicality of the Honda Jazz. Unfortunately, rear-seat accommodation feels pinched in all directions, confirmed by measurements that lag those of the Kia and Honda.
Move to the front and the firm seats will come as a surprise. They are very uncomfortable, even on short journeys, and provide zero support. The controls and infotainment screen are adequately positioned on the facia and relatively easy to use, but the display screens aren’t as legible as they should be, forcing the driver’s eyes off the road for too long when adjustments are called for. Most of the materials in the cabin feel cheap and can’t be compared with those of rivals. The spec level is decent, with such items as auto lights and wipers and steering wheel-mounted controls as standard, but by no means does it trump the goodies list of a Rio, Clio or 208.
Unfortunately, on the road the Chery J3 proved to be a disappointment. Unconventional sounds were transmitted through the suspen-sion into the cabin, while the
soft ride means there is lots of body lean. Furthermore, the five-speed manual gearbox drew scorn for its unrefined action.
Performance is mediocre at best. Even though Chery claims the J3 offers more power and torque than the two rivals we’ve selected, it was still the slowest from standstill to 100 km/h.
But what proved to be its biggest dynamic failing was the braking system. The ABS setup activated only after five braking runs had been performed, confirming that the brakes lacked the necessary bite to overcome the friction limit of the tyres. However, even when the ABS did kick in on the sixth and seventh tries, the braking distances and times were still unacceptable. The average time of 3,87 seconds is one of the worst we’ve recorded for a passenger vehicle. A carmaker can be forgiven for skimping on standard equipment and trim quality, but not in terms of the quality of the safety specification.
Although the Chery J3 is rather uniquely positioned as a C-segment sized hatchback for B-segment money, its more generous dimensions do not really translate into a bigger cabin, which would’ve given it an on-paper advantage. With that potential USP out of the equation, it becomes hard to make a case for the J3, especially given the wide choice of superb rivals from trusted brands at the same price.
We don’t by implication mean to criticise the Chinese carmakers that haven’t been in existence for the same amount of time. In fact, we’ve witnessed vast improvements in their vehicles’ drivetrains, interior ergonomics and design, and dynamic ability in recent years.
It’s for this reason that we can’t label the J3 as anything but a disappointment. Its rivals, some of which are cheaper, outperform it in every way and, as such, it is too expensive. Were Chery to offer it at a much lower price, it may have stood a chance. But, at nearly R180 000, it simply jeopardises the fragile chance it stood at gaining a foothold in this challenging industry.