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Shanghai Auto Show 2017: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Foreign Cars

Just when the New York Auto Show in the US is in its final weekend, the Chinese equivalent is starting up in Shanghai. And while the former is an important event for the US market and no small show by any means, the latter is by far the largest auto show in the world with 350.000 square meters (3.7 million square feet) of floor space, over 1.300 cars on display and close to 1 million visitors. Besides being one of the major shows for the domestic auto industry (together with Beijing), Shanghai is also important to foreign automakers for some of whom the Chinese market is their largest single market, especially for luxury brands. This means they’re showing off some important products in China first, before bringing them to the European or US markets. We’ll take a quick look at a selection of those launches here.

Production cars:


Kriss: hot

What is there to say: the M4 CS is the halfway point between the standard M4 and the hardcore M4 GTS, and as such promises to strike the perfect balance between the two. That it still looks more attractive than the younger Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe and the new Audi RS5 is just the icing on top of the cake!

Bart: hot

If you’re sad for missing out the absolutely bonkers M4 GTS, the M4 CS may be able to offer some consolation. However, don’t see this model as just a watered-down consolation prize for missing out on the real thing. See this as the girl you took to the prom because the hottie of the class was already taken by the jock, and halfway through the night you realize she’s actually much more likeable and way more fun than the snobby and stuck-up girl you’d been drooling over. The GTS may be a bit too hardcore for everyday use, with its low hanging carbon fiber front splitter and its harsh ride, the CS seems to give much more approachable fun and some practicality, all wrapped up in a stunning design with subtle carbon fiber front and rear spoilers and intimidating wheels. The world can never have too many special edition M4s.

Citroën C5 Aircross

Bart: hot

Citroën’s daring design is officially back! This car looks almost exactly like the concept car we all thought would be greatly watered down before making it into production. I hope Subaru designers are paying attention here: don’t tease people with great looking concepts and then disappoint them with the final version, please. Back to the C5 Aircross: this car will replace the unloved C5 sedan and station wagon, at least in Europe, as the sedan may live on in China for a little longer. It’s also Citroën’s first real SUV, as the C-Crosser and C4 Aircross weren’t real Citroëns and the C4 Cactus isn’t a real SUV. And for their first attempt, I can only be impressed how good this thing looks. I like how the chrome strip wraps around the side windows, and the evolutionairy design of the airbumps, the shape of which returns in the front bumper and in the interior of the top-spec version, and I like the new grille with the stacked headlights. And then there’s the interior…. DS has already made a name for itself with its posh interiors, and PSA is smart enough not to keep those skills exclusive to its premium brand. This is going to be the brand’s savior both in China and in Europe.

Kriss: hot

I agree completely with Bart here – the C5 Aircross looks like a winner on many fronts. First, its looks great on the outside, and is my favorite design from among the PSA quadruplets (the others being Peugeot 3008, Opel Grandland X, and DS 7 Crossback). Second, the interior is quite stunning for the price, and has a truly contemporary design without outright copying the award-winning interior of the 3008 (VAG, take note: not all interiors need to look like different versions of the same design). Third, the EMP2 platform already delivers under the 3008, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t work great for the Citroën. But ultimately what’s great is the car’s positioning: I love the fact that Citroën continues to push in the comfort/avant-garde direction of the market, when most everyone else tries to cram themselves into the “sporty” part of the market.

Hyundai ix35

Kriss: not

Even though I did not even know that it was coming, the new China-only ix35 still ranks as one of the major let-downs of the Shanghai Auto Show in my books. That I would not be impressed is not hard to see why – in an effort to appeal to the often-conservative Chinese market Hyundai has gone the ultra-conservative route, making the new ix35 look as though it could have been an alternative design for the previous ix35 model. The mechanicals are even more old-fashioned – rumors are the model will retain the naturally-aspirated 2.0 and 2.4-liter engines with 160/170hp. All this adds up to a huge disappointment for me – I really admire Hyundai, and the progress they’ve made in the past decade, but just like its most recent North American offerings, the ix35 seems like a lazy design that tries to pander too much to the conservative part of the market.

Bart: not

Kriss is absolutely spot-on with this one. And in fact, the “new” ix35 has the exact same wheelbase as the old one and keeps the same old-fashioned engines, which means it’s not much more than a new design on an old platform. Beijing-Hyundai is no stranger to this strategy, as they still sell 3 generations of the Elantra alongside each other, and have just launched the Celesta, which is a 2006 third generation Elantra with just modern sheetmetal but the old platform and old engines and gearboxes. The styling isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s also not eyewateringly ugly. Well, apart from that weird rear side window.

Mercedes-Benz S-class facelift

Bart: so-so

The S-Class needed to be kept fresh in order to defend its throne agains the all-new BMW 7-Series, Porsche Panamera and the upcoming Audi A8. But while it’s been made completely up-to-date in the technology department, the design could’ve used a bit more work. The difference with the pre-facelift version is hard to see, except for a bit more aggressive front bumper, new headlight graphics and a bit more chrome in the grille. Then again, no generation of the S-Class has ever been extensively redesigned mid-cycle, and that’s probably what keeps it so consistent. In terms of technology, the S-Class is once again leading the way for the lower models in Mercedes’ range, with the latest of its autonomous driving tech, gesture control and a huge double horizontal screen in the dashboard. As a result, the “S” is now on the same level as the “7”, and that should be enough to keep it ahead of its rival in terms of sales. The latter just looks a lot more modern still.

Kriss: not

Call me old-fashioned, but to me the S-Class should always be the most elegant car in the segment – less sporty than the BMW 7-series and Porsche Panamera, less glitzy than the Maserati Quattroporte, less techy than the Audi A8, but with much more character than the Lexus LS. After an unfortunate detour in the previous two generations, where the S-Class first went all jelly-belly shaped and then stole the wheel-arches from Mazda RX-8, the current generation restored the S-Class to its rightful place. But now it seems like Mercedes-Benz got all antsy with new competition around the corner, and gave the S-class the worst kind of facelift: giving it fuller cheeks on the sporty models, or by applying silver lipstick on the luxury ones. Where is the subtlety, where is the elegance?

Opel/Vauxhall Grandland X (not strictly a Shanghai debut)

Kriss: hot

While not strictly a Shanghai debut, we thought we’d include the Grandland X here because it debuts at the same time as its Citroën C5 Aircross cousin. So how does the last triplet from the PSA group stack up the rest? Its design is certainly least adventurous from the three, both outside and inside, but one can’t deny the fact that it’s altogether a handsome car – better looking to me than the much-loved new Insignia. Normally, I would not get excited about such a relatively unexciting car, but the Grandland X is interesting in that it suggests the spot where Opel/Vauxhall will fit in the PSA hierarchy: it looks like it will be the straight-laced brand, sitting alongside the more sporty Peugeots and avant-garde, comfort-oriented Citroëns. If they get the pricing right, and undercut most rivals (as they have with the Insignia), than Opel could go head-to-head with one of the most successful brands in Europe right now: Skoda.

Bart: so-so

Ah, there it is again: the shark-fin C-pillar which I also criticized at the Buick Enclave which debuted in New York last week. Not that it’s particularly ugly, but in my view it just doesn’t really fit with the rest of the design, which is pretty “German”. With that I mean a clean design, attractive in its simplicity but not very exciting. Then they decided they needed to make it more frivolous, so they visually lowered the C-pillar and extended the chrome strip and called it a day. I like the rest of the design, and like Kriss said, it clearly distinguishes the Opel/Vauxhall brand from the two French brands, even though its design was finalized long before the takeover was in the making. Surely this will be a homerun for the brand, in the same way its siblings 3008 and C5 Aircross are or will be.

Concept cars:

Audi E-tron Sportback

Bart: hot

This is a pretty realistic concept, and in fact Audi is planning this to be the second of three EVs it wants to launch by 2020. Looking at the desing, I like the new interpretation of the Audi Single Frame Grille for cars that no longer need a grille, keeping it instantly recognizable as an Audi, just in case the sleek headlights weren’t enough of a give-away in that respect. The rear is stretched out long into a sexy rear-end with the rear lights connected by a wide LED strip, visually connecting the lights. Then there’s an LED Audi logo on top of that, although that’s unlikely to make it into production trim. In terms of technology, it’s currently up-to-date with a 310-mile range (similar to the Tesla Model X), but of course by the time the E-tron Sportback makes it into production, that will be updated with the latest of that era, so it’s hard to judge the car by that now. For now just be thankful Audi has decided to join the club of sexy EV-makers, it’s about time word gets around that the future can be green and great looking at the same time. Honda and Toyota should join as well.

Kriss: hot

This is the first Audi concept in a long while that has me really optimistic for the brand’s future. First, it looks great – much sleeker than the production Q7, or the previous E-tron SUV concept, the brutal-looking E-tron Quattro. What’s more, if it’s indeed an accurate indication of what the production model will look like, it looks to be on course to upstage the Jaguar i-Pace, which looks like a bloated Kia Niro by comparison. Second, the interior promises a new era of amazing digital interiors, combining Tesla’s touch-screen functionality with Audi’s quality and futuristic looks. Finally, it shows that Audi’s don’t have to split into those that are worthy but boring (think: A4), or those that try to step outside of the brand’s design comfort zone, but end up looking like they were mauled by the neighbor’s dog (Q2, Q7). Someone called it the Audi Urus, and that seems pretty accurate!

Chevrolet FNR-X

Bart: hot

Chevrolet’s answer to Toyota’s hugely successful C-HR, an aggressively designed crossover, and it looks pretty production-ready to me. And it should be, as it previews a crossover which should arrive in Chinese showrooms next year. No word yet on whether it will make it to the US market as well. It’s easily recognizable as a Chevy thanks to the grille and headlights, but it’s arguably one of the brand’s sexiest designs of the last few years. Even with its smorgasbord of lines and creases, it manages to look more in harmony than the C-HR. According to Chevrolet, the Find Rew Roads Crossover can alternate between on-road and off-road driving, as the engine can switch from Sport to Verstatility mode, the ride height is adjustable for the terrain conditions, even the aerodynamics can be adjusted to the needs of the driver.

Kriss: hot

Bart is once again very much on point with his take on the FNR-X – it’s a car that, if put into production, should help Chevy take on the successful Nissan Juke and Toyota C-HR, as well as to liven its rather staid image. With a newly-released Equinox ready to provide the platform, this really should be a no-brainer for the brand. My only concern is that the production model will be China-only like the Mazda CX-4 (still don’t understand why Mazda does not bring that car to the US as the CX-5 Coupe/Sport, or whatever name).


Jeep Yuntu

Kriss: hot

When I first saw the sketches of the Yuntu I was not really impressed – it looked like a promising design direction for the brand, but hardly anything groundbreaking. But when I saw the final concept my mind changed – I love the its strong proportions, minimalist design, and the subtle but progressive evolution of the Jeep design language. Sure, it looks a but like the Volvo XC90, but to me that’s not a bad thing. The interior is a bit hit-and-miss to me, with strong, simple lines undermined by the glitzy wood finish, but it still looks like a step in the right direction from the melting jelly-bean design of the current Jeep stable. Ultimately, I only wonder about the positioning – is a compact, 7-seat crossover really the best place to use this mature, strong design? If I were Jeep, I would turn the Yuntu into the production full-size Wagoneer to sit above the Grand Cherokee in the US, and evolve the current Cherokee into a compact seven-seat model.

Bart: so-so

We all know Jeep has been working on a new Wagoneer to be positioned above the Grand Cherokee in the US market, but this Yuntu came out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to be related to that upcoming Wagoneer. Then again, perhaps the Chinese market is craving for a 3-row Jeep even harder than the US is, so it makes sense to develop a China-only car for this hot segment. I’m just not very sure about the execution: when big, brash and shiny grilles is what sells SUVs (and cars as well, for that matter), Jeep has decided to go for a more civilized approach but it just fails to impress. I can’t put my finger on exactly what’s wrong with it or what’s missing, but the design just doesn’t look very harmonious nor stylish, from any angle. And the interior is the worst of all, with an abundance of wood in an obvious attempt to emulate Volvo’s success with its Swedish interiors, but again Jeep fails miserably in its execution. It looks just cheap and messy. The production version should be in Chinese showrooms next year, I hope the final design isn’t frozen yet.

Mercedes-Benz Concept A sedan

Bart: hot

With the BMW 1-Series sedan just launched in China, Mercedes-Benz won’t be able to lag behind in filling any gaps in its extensive line-up. The Concept A sedan not only previews a potential A-Class sedan for the Chinese market (and perhaps beyond) as well as the rest of the line-up of next generation Mercedes-Benz small cars, but it also marks a new direction for the design of the entire brand. Currently, the design language of Mercedes-Benz is characterized by pronounced creases in the flanks, but as clearly visible in this concept, that will soon be a thing of the past. The grille seems to come straight from the AMG GT, which is a good thing too. The only point of criticism I can think of is that the front overhang is to long again, due to being a front wheel drive car. Still, the overall execution is much better than the current CLA, so I’m more than happy with this.

Kriss: so-so

Here I have to disagree a bit with Bart – while I find the Concept A Sedan to be an attractive concept, I am worried whether it will translate into a good-looking production car. Bart already touched on the front overhang, which will only grow (visually, but possibly in actual length too) once the production car ditches the huge alloys of the concept. The profile overall is a bit of a letdown – the car looks OK now, but I’m worried the production car will look a bit nondescript, shorn of the pronounced creases of the current generation. The rear too, while better than the production CLA (that’s not very hard, though), looks a bit too much like the Audi A3 and too little like the other Mercedes-Benz cars. Ultimately, I’m really curious whether Mercedes really thinks there is space in its line-up for both the A-Class sedan and a CLA – by the evidence of this concept, I feel like it’ll simply change the name from CLA to A-Class sedan and be done with it.

Skoda Vision E

Bart: hot

Besides showing off Skoda’s (VW Group’s) EV technology, this car is most of all a preview of the upcoming Kodiaq Coupe for China. In fact, just imagine a regular Skoda grille and wash away all the concept car features like the headlights, glass roof, big wheels and lack of door handles and this is that car. While I’m still not convinced of the raison d’etre of SUV coupes, at least this one doesn’t look as tasteless as those by BMW and Mercedes-Benz

Kriss: hot/not

I am really of two minds on this car. On one hand, the shape of the car is really attractive, which bodes well for the Kodiaq Coupe if indeed that’s what it previews, as Bart mentions. On the other hand, it feels very cynical for this Skoda concept to be a powerful, electric vehicle, seeing as the brand is many years away from offering one. I understand that electrification is the new thing at VAG’s more upmarket brands (VW, Audi, Porsche, Bentley), but seeing as Skoda is likely to remain dependent on internal combustion engines for the foreseeable future, I find the Vision E a bit of a cynical exercise: “look at this great electric car, even though we most likely won’t build anything like it in the near future”. Oh well, a sign of the times, I guess.

Toyota Fun Concept

Kriss: so-so

OK, this is weird – the Fun Concept is good-looking alright, but to me it seems like it’s a concept version of a car that’s already been revealed in its production form (the US Camry, covered here). I guess I can understand that Toyota may want to prepare the Chinese public for a more assertive Camry design after the current bland one, but to go to the trouble of building a whole new concept? Also, knowing that it’ll end up a Camry, the name of the concept is probably the most ironic ever.

Bart: hot

Is this a Toyota or a Lexus? Because it would not look out of place in the showroom of Toyota’s luxury brand. Except that the current Lexus design language is much more aggressive and expressive than this Toyota Fun Concept. A sleek and stretched profile, elongated rear lights and clean lines: this is one of the very few current Toyota designs I really like. The front-end is perhaps the weakest part of the car, with a familiar grille designs above a way overdone air intake in the bumper. That and the similarly over-the-top rear diffusor are totally out of place on an otherwise very sophisticated sedan.

VW I.D. Crozz

Bart: hot

If Audi and Skoda both have SUV Coupe EVs, VW Group’s namesake brand can’t be left behind, of course. And this too looks attractive to me. The overall design is very minimalistic as we’re used to from Volkswagen, but its lines are still very sexy, with the swooping fenders bulging all the way into the hood, and the stretched roof line running into a high rear-end. This rear-end has a kind of retro feel to it, even though it’s absolutely avant garde in the details. Like the Audi, it has an LED strip connecting the rear lights, visually widening the rear-end. The I.D. Crozz is not expected to hit the roads before 2020, which makes its current claims in terms of range and charging times irrelevant as the technology will have continued to develop at lightning speed. At least VW is on par with what’s currently the standard in technology, so that should give us confidence they’ll still be by the time the Crozz makes it into production.

Kriss: so-so

I agree with pretty much all that Bart said about the Crozz, but to me the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Yes, the details are attractive, and bode very well for the I.D. range VW will be rolling out before long. Great for the brand’s design language too, if you feel that they’ve been evolving the same theme for too long. But look past the design language that we’ve essentially already seen on the I.D. concept, and what makes the Crozz different is less appealing. I know that off-road four-door “coupes” are the flavor of the month, but is this really the kind of car with which to flaunt your upcoming eco sub-brand? But what ultimately gets to me is that, in execution, I just don’t like the Crozz’s proportions – the wheelbase seems too short, the rear turned up too much, the whole things just looks tall and narrow – I much prefer the other two VAG siblings in the styling department. Ironically, an overly short wheelbase actually makes this more of a “coupe” than other similar concepts, as the term literally means “cut down”.

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