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Five years later, China still wrestles with fit and finish issues

January 6, 2011

Back in the old days, 2006 that is, Chinese automakers thought getting their cars ready for the U.S. market would be easy. Do you remember the Geely car in the lobby of Cobo Hall at the North American International Auto Show?  At that time, Geely was talking about starting exports to the U.S. in 2008.  Chery has similar grand, or rather grandiose, plans.

They soon backed off those optimistic predictions. Sure, meeting stiff U.S. emissions and safety standards was tough. But even tougher, engineers in China admitted to me, was getting the fit and finish right. U.S. consumers wouldn’t put up with the imperfections that Chinese consumers were willing to overlook.

Five years have passed. Cars in China look a lot more polished than they did back then. Now that a lot of companies are talking about selling China-made electric vehicles in China, the fit and finish shouldn’t be a problem, right? Wrong.  Even if they have the technology, Chinese automakers still have trouble parsing U.S. consumer demands.

So BYD Auto Co. has delayed launching its cars here in the U.S. partly so it can make them more suitable for the U.S. market, Michael Austin, VP of BYD America told me. BYD plans to hire industrial engineers here in the U.S. to tweak its design for the U.S. market. Already, it has repositioned the integrated chassis and battery unit on the model of the e6 electric car destined for the U.S.  to add leg room in the rear seat, said Austin.

More changes are doubtless on the way. As part of a broader agreement signed in mid-2010, the City of Los Angeles Housing Authority  recently leased ten of BYD’s F3DM hybrid cars. That fleet will test both the technology and the design. Fit and finish suggestions will be incorporated into the e6, as well.

BYD will show a version of the e6 at the Detroit auto show next week.  But, “we won’t launch if there are concerns that are not addressed,” said Austin.

Zotye Holding Group is another Chinese automaker that is grappling with the fit and finish issue. Zotye is a small SUV maker located in east China.  It recently signed a 10-year extension of an agreement with Green Automotive Co. Inc,  a Dallas, TX-based company, to distribute its small electric SUV in the U.S.  No Zotye vehicles are here yet. Well, maybe one or two that Green Auto execs can drive around and show off.

Last July I wrote a not-too-skeptical blog about Green Auto’s plans to import Zotye’s electric SUVs. As it turns out, my usual degree of skepticism was called for. Steven Fly, who was CEO at the time, is gone. Who knows how long the new management team will last. At the time, Fly admitted that the Zotye SUV’s fit and finish needed work. It still does.

Don't expect to see more of the Zotye EV in the U.S. any time soon

A few days ago, I talked with Zotye’s Wu Aibing,  special assistant to the general manager of overseas projects. He said Zotye was working very hard to get the cars ready for the U.S. market. But he wouldn’t predict when the cars would be ready. “We have a lot of things to do,” said Wu.

Why do Chinese automakers have such a hard time getting the finer details of a car’s fit and finish right?  I guess it is still the prevalence of a “cha bu duo” mentality. The phrase translates as “more or less,” and it implies that something is good enough. But good enough isn’t enough for the U.S. market. It should be the highest quality. That’s not just a process technology issue; it’s a mindset issue, as well. Changing a cultural mindset is hard. Five years wasn’t enough. Maybe ten?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Lore permalink
    January 6, 2011 8:01 am

    You’d think they’d hone their chops in former East Bloc countries before jumping into the US … or even some smaller EU markets. Would be interesting to hear how stoked Buffet is on his BYD investment now…

    • January 6, 2011 5:27 pm

      Many Chinese automakers are already selling in Eastern Europe and Central and South America, and Mexico. But quality standards there are similar to China, so they don’t prepare the automakers for the U.S. market. BYD has other irons in the fire besides cars–such as batteries. I think Buffet had his eye on that side of the business, as well.

  2. Lawrence permalink
    January 10, 2011 4:09 pm

    It’s really baffling to understand why BYD would want to take the risk of introducing the largely untested and unproven “e6” to a market known to have America’s most discriminating auto consumers. And the last time I looked at BYD models up close, the fit and finish left lots to be desired.
    Perhaps JD Power or another, home grown quality watchdog will put some healthy competition in the race for quality.

    As for Zotye, there was another venture that tried to launch it as an refitted EV in the US market back in 2007.
    Here’s a quote from that venture’s now-defunct website:
    “The ZOTYE arrives in the USA as a Petrol-Powered vehicle, a 5-speed, with clutch, gas gauge, exhaust pipe, etc. We take these vehicles, remove the engine, transmission (as well as stick-shift), fuel tank, exhaust, etc. We remove the interior completely, installing the 2,900 (That is two-thousand, nine-hundred) LiPoly cells throughout the vehicle, along with all required electronics, and re-install the interior. We install corrected gauges, modified power steering, motor-cooling, electro-ceramic heating, and AC motor. The end result is a vehicle that looks like it was not modified at all.”

    Last I heard the chief of that venture ended up in a Pennsylvania jail for failing to deliver on a prepaid order by a southern dealer.

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