China is the world's second largest auto maker, and it surpassed the U.S.A. in the first months of this year as the world's largest car market. Exports of Chinese cars on the other hand are disappointing. A recent Gasgoo article said: "As of now, only a small group of Chinese-brand cars have been sold in Ukraine, Russia and some other Eastern European markets. Entering the Western European market is challenging for those carmakers." Challenging might be an understatement. There are people who try to make the entry as hard as possible - even if it needs shady practices.
A few years ago, Hans-Ulrich Sachs, a former Volkswagen board member, had a brilliant idea: He wanted to import Chinese Brilliance cars. Brilliance is BMW's joint venture partner in China. Brilliance also makes their homegrown cars. The plan: Import the cars to Germany, and sell them at a very attractive price. A plan that couldn't fail, except that it failed miserably: A few months before the launch of the car at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the German auto club ADAC crash tested the Brilliance BS6, supposedly under EURO-NCAP conditions. The car received one measly star. The video landed on YouTube, and Brilliance was done. A later test in Spain gave the car three stars. But the damage was already inflicted. Brilliance's entry into Europe was severely affected.
Last Thursday, the ADAC published the results of a crash test of the new Brilliance BS4. It failed miserably - at least according to ADAC's press release: The car received exactly zero stars. Those results must have come as a shock to Brilliance, because the BS4's safety has been significantly improved. However, in the meantime, the Euro-NCAP standard also had been toughened-up. The ADAC release concedes: "According to the old standard, the car would have received three stars." Says the ADAC: "The reason for the missing stars is the new rating system with more stringent standards. Apart from passenger safety, safety of children, and safety of pedestrians, electronic assistance systems are part of the test. Due to a lack of ESP, safety belt warner and speed limiter, the BS4 received zero stars." The BS4 was introduced in October 2008, while the old standard was in effect.
This time, even voices in Germany shouted "unfair!"
A call to a government accredited certification expert in Germany revealed that the ADAC has most likely grossly overreached. According to the new Euro NCAP rules, a car without ESP is not eligible for five stars. But it is not automatically disqualified. It could get 4 stars. ESP is not even mandatory yet in the EU, there is a push to make it mandatory. However, ESP is not expected to become law before 2011, possibly not even before 2014.
The German Magazine Focus raised serious "doubts about the procedure" of the test. The magazine points out:
- Euro NCAP is not an official standard. An Euro NCAP rating is not relevant for a car being legal in Europe or not. Manufacturers voluntarily submit their cars to the test - devised by manufacturers and consumer protection organizations.
- The timeline "makes you wonder," Focus says. The BS4 was introduced in Europe in October 2008 while the old Euro NCAP rules were in effect. Under these rules, the car would have received 3 stars. How come the ADAC finds it necessary to test a car introduced last year according to a standard introduced in February this year?
- The magazine says "To the unsuspecting buyer, the zero stars suggest an absolutely unsafe car - which the BS4 definitely isn't. It doesn't crash brilliantly, but solidly."
The test may not even have been an official Euro-NCAP test. ADAC simply says that the test was performed "according to the new Euro-NCAP norm, which is in effect since February 2009." One indication: Brilliance is not listed under the Euro-NCAP test results, neither according to the new rules nor according to the old rules.
Euro-NCAP itself says that its tests have zero legal meaning: "All vehicles sold within the EU must meet the requirements of European Whole Vehicle Type Approval. Type approval is the process where a car is shown to meet all of the requirements of European legislation regarding safety, emissions, noise etc. The frontal and side impact crash tests used by Euro NCAP are based on those used in European legislation. However, much higher performance requirements are used by Euro NCAP. The frontal impact speed used by Euro NCAP is 64 km/h compared 56 km/h for legislation."
All of this is carefully omitted in the ADAC press release. A crash video travels around the world on YouTube. "Brilliance BS4 scores zero points in Euro crash test" is making headlines throughout the blogosphere. Some car sites even mischaracterize the ADAC auto club as a "German regulatory body" - which it definitely is not. It has as much standing as Shanghai's Anji Motor Club The ADAC auto club is a club with an agenda. It was behind (or the front for) the infamous Landwind test which is rumored to have occurred under dubious circumstances. The club targeted Brilliance, and this time resorted to highly questionable practices. The club even boasts: "China dares to make first steps on the European auto market. Without success, which is mostly due to the catastrophic results during the ADAC crash tests."
There are many cars on the Euro-NCAP list that had received 3 stars, all the way from the Audi A4 to the VW Polo. Did anyone haunt them for that?
It seems as if the biggest challenge to China's automakers who want to enter the European market is an auto club with a mission. Possibly, this club needs its own challenge: A challenge in court.
Next time: Let's get back to parts
About the author: Bertel Schmitt, Gasgoo's columnist, is CEO of Hong Kong based parts sourcing company Sinamotive. Before founding Sinamotive, with the assistance of U.S. venture capital, Mr. Schmitt was a marketing consultant to Volkswagen AG.