VROOM WITH A VIEW
Betting against Chery as a future contender is a fool’s errand
Chery is here and it isn't going anywhere. However, trying to predict car sales is silly.
I’m sorry, but this is going to get nerdy. I’m fascinated by the weird and wonderful statistics the motor industry is sharing at the moment. Almost every month there’s something that requires a little head-scratching and some “where the hell did that come from?’.
I was working at a car company when Covid hit. I watched bedlam unfold in a corporation that had every disaster management plan under the sun, except, regrettably, for a pandemic.
March 2020 seems like a lifetime ago. Around the world, with the tail of the pandemic, have come supply chain disruptions, component shortages, a war, regulatory earthquakes, raging inflation, boardroom bloodletting and model changes. In South Africa, we’ve also contended with looting, political atrophy, institutional decline, surging crime, climate-related disruption and the reality that a crisis is usually an opportunity for somebody.
We may be getting accustomed to living in perma-disruption, but one outcome is that it’s hard to discern a baseline for anything. What does normal look like now?
A few weeks ago, I reviewed a Chery Tiggo 8, a big Chinese SUV I thought was pretty okay for the money. Now, I’ve driven a midsize SUV from the company, the Tiggo 7, and I have to say it’s actually a few clicks more than okay for the money. What I did not expect was for Chery to blast into the top 10 sales charts for July, but there they are; no fewer than 1,262 South African driveways were bedazzled with a chintzy new Chery SUV in July. That’s impressive.
As the year progresses, and – hoping nothing new gets set on fire; no new pandemics emerge; no climate catastrophes, wars etc – we might get some sense of what normal means. Certain things are coming back to capacity. I don’t want to jinx it, but, in the coming months, we may be able to discern the outline of a hint of a baseline and actually see how the world has changed. Globally, it seems manufacturers are getting hold of the bits and pieces they need to build cars.
July production figures show that India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, the UK and South Korea showed annual production growth of 7.7%, 31.5%, 59.1%, 33.4%, 10.5%, 9.1% and 10.1%, respectively. In Germany, July was the third month in a row production grew significantly year on year.
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In South Africa, Toyota’s vast Prospecton factory in Durban is recovering from severe flooding, and its lines of critical models – the HiAce “taxi”, Hilux and Corolla Cross – are back up to speed. At the same time, Ford’s Pretoria line for the new Ranger, another important and popular local model, is coming on-stream.
It’s tempting to extrapolate somewhat lazily from this that our sales charts will start to resemble something we recognise – along with foreign production starting to meet the demand for imported cars. Instinctively, though, I feel like we need to be careful. The world is a very different place from when everything was last running at full tilt, and South Africa is fundamentally different after two and a half years of economic and social trauma in which the middle class buyers of cars have been battered.
That brings me back to the Chery Tiggo 7. I quite liked a lot about it, not least its distinctive good looks and the fact that they put in a bog-standard buzzbox CVT gearbox like the Japanese do, and didn’t bother with the witless dual-clutch affair from the bigger car.
I liked that it comes with a raft of slightly clunky safety kit and that it was just absurdly easy to drive, spacious and genuinely comfortable. I liked the pliant but not boaty ride and the huge boot, and the clever camera systems. I thought the interior was really good and seemingly well made, and this aligned with a general sense of vastly improved quality of fit.
I can see the appeal of a 10-year, 1,000,000km warranty (for the first owner). I can see, in all seriousness, why they’ve sold so many of these things. At R410,000, it feels like a hell of a lot of car for the money.
But all of that does exist in a sales shadow of Toyota’s slightly smaller Corolla Cross, which, for R15,000 more, you can have with hybrid drive. Much may be good about the Chery, but its fuel consumption was genuinely poor, with its turbocharged 1.5l petrol engine drinking fuel in a decidedly old-fashioned way, all while delivering little more torque than a 1l Volkswagen engine. I drove a very new car, so to quote the figure for an engine not yet run in feels unfair, but I have to say it was verging on unacceptable.
In the real world, the Toyota Corolla Cross hybrid will use less than half the fuel of the Chery. I think that’s going to be a factor in sales figures in the future.
That being said, Chery is here now and isn’t going anywhere. Its tech-heavy offering, ease of use, premium interior, spaciousness and good looks will continue to attract fans and, as our market shifts towards alternative drivetrains, betting against Chery as a future contender is a fool’s errand.
Predicting car sales is silly. The world is changing fast around us and we’re seeing future players establishing footholds. History is written in the past tense and I get the feeling that, as in the global motor industry, in South Africa it hasn’t quite happened yet. Hold tight. DM/BM
Alexander Parker is a journalist, author and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.