I thought my first experience behind the wheel of a Chinese-made automobile would be different.
I presumed the engine would be so loud as to give me a headache and the vibration from its operation so strong the entire vehicle would shake.
I expected to be looking at terrible fit-and-finish of largely hard-plastic interior materials when seated behind the wheel, a wheel that would be hollow and wimpy.
There would be zero to few “tech-y” features. Maybe power windows, if those still can be considered technology.
And I imagined that the first Chinese-made vehicle I drove would be cheap: $13,000, tickling $15,000 if it had those power windows.
Instead, my made-in-China vehicle has a barely audible engine from behind the wheel, a beefy wheel that is leather-wrapped and accented by lovely decorative stitching.
Soft-touch material covers a giant portion of the instrument panel, as well as upper doors.
Interior fit-and-finish is almost perfect.
Trim pieces fit tight, plastics are matte and stitching largely is even – the side of the front-passenger seat is a bit askew, but we here at WardsAuto see that fairly regularly even in U.S.-, Europe- and Japan-built cars and light trucks.
The first Chinese-built vehicle I drove also has a slew of creature comforts.
The short list includes leather seats, heated and cooled front passenger seats, heated outboard rear seats, a backup camera, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert, an 8-in. (20-cm) color touchscreen and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
As you might have guessed, it also cost a bit more than $15,000. Sticker price? $49,320.
The first Chinese-made vehicle I drove isn’t a Chery, Geely, Brilliance or one of the other multitude of Chinese automakers that have promised to ship vehicles here.
It was a Buick, a Buick Envision CUV.
Yes, the first Chinese vehicle I ever drove on U.S. soil is from a brand established in the U.S. in 1903. Owned by General Motors. Baseball, apple pie, GM. It doesn’t get more American than that.
If the Buick Envision is most Americans’ first experience with a Chinese-built automobile, then the American auto worker has the right to be concerned.
The Envision we have in the office for our 2017 10 Best Interiors testing is pretty flawless. I can’t find much to dislike, or certainly anything that screams poor quality. Poor quality that would hamper sales and brand acceptance is what many expected from the first made-in-China light vehicles sold in the U.S. Not a $50,000 near-luxury CUV.
But the Envision is built by GM with partner SAIC at their plant in Yantai, China, with the same attention to detail and type of quality checks Buick’s larger Enclave CUV undergoes before it rolls off the line in Lansing, MI.
GM can build the Envision more affordably in China – where Buick is a huge seller and has a sizable manufacturing presence – than it can in the U.S., and make more on each sale. Yes, shipping costs put a dent in profitability, but obviously not enough at these volumes or I’d be talking about a U.S.-built Envision.
So far Buick has sold 16,380 Envisions in the U.S. Do all those owners know their vehicle is made in China? Do any of them care? In Michigan and other stronghold states for domestic manufacturers we kid ourselves they do. But by and large, they don’t. They really don’t.