The Automotive Amanojaku

This is where you'll find news, random car-related thoughts and personal views from a rabid car nut. "Amanojaku" is Japanese slang that means "person who is deliberately contradictory". I've always found myself drawn to the less appreciated car makes - the "underdogs" if you will. Suzuki, Pontiac, GM Daewoo and Holden, are among my favorite brands to watch and comment on. Let me hear your thoughts!

Monday, January 15, 2007

GMI Goes to China: Ming's Trip and Observations

Wrote this last fall - see the original post with photos here:

GMI Goes to China: Ming's Trip and Observations

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to China for a few weeks. Although I was much too busy to take a trip to the local Buick, Chevrolet or Cadillac dealers there, I knew it would be a good chance to get more up close photos of cars like the Buick GL8 or Wuling vans that we usually only see in stock photos. With the intention of buying a new Chinese camera as soon as possible, I looked forward to the opportunity to catch a few shots for GMInsidenews and maybe find a magazine or two to rip scans from.

I arrived in Guangzhou, a large city along the Pearl River (also the name of a decent local beer), not far to the north of Hong Kong. Despite my screen name, I'm not Chinese. This wasn't a "back to roots" trip or something, but a trip for personal reasons. That said, I have lived in Asia in the past for a substantial part of my life (specifically Japan), but China did take me by surprise.

The stereotypical images of Mao Zedong portraits posted on buildings is far from the reality in Guangzhou. I didn't see a single one. No sign of Communism, control or censorship aside from the blacked out CNN report critical of Mao (blackout right after the narrator said "Critics say Mao Zedong was responsible for killing millions...") during the last day of my stay. Oh, and the occasional group of 6-10 marching troops not far from my hotel, who I never saw anywhere else in the city. Capitalism is in full swing in Guangzhou, which is constantly replacing old architecture with new Western-style buildings. Parts of the city look just like areas of Tokyo I'm familiar with, like Shibuya or Akihabara. Clean and fresh, with colorful advertisements covering the sides of buildings and Chinese pop music blaring from speakers or large screen videos.

There is plenty of old culture that survives, however, reminding you that you're in China. Restaurants with snakes, turtles and other creatures I couldn't identify in aquariums might have up to six young women standing outside, calling customers in, wearing colorful traditional Chinese dresses. Or small tea shops with stunningly beautiful teahouse waitresses in traditional clothing, serving umpteen varieties of flavorful tea in a very Chinese way (as opposed to the Japanese way I'm used to seeing). One sip and you'll never want to drink Lipton or Celestial Seasonings again.

Take a wrong turn and you'll find yourself in a narrow street with dilapidated buildings that look like they've been standing for at least 100 years, with crumbling traditional Chinese brickwork and old women cutting the heads off live chickens in the street.

The city of Guangzhou is a vibrant, bustling place, full of the hopes and dreams of small-time entrepreneurs and capitalists unleashed. But the air is terrible. A cloud of pollution hangs over the city like a morning mist that never leaves. Breathing it in the open for extended periods made me feel like I had food poisoning until I learned that it was the air, not the food or water that was making me sick. And that brings me (finally, some of you will say) to the transportation itself.

Motorcycles are on the way out in Guangzhou, soon to be banned from the city limits due to the emissions their 20-30 year old engines belch out. Bicycles, contrary to the stereotype, are not the main means of transport. Cars and Vans rule the streets of Guangzhou, and if they don't at the moment, they will as soon as the motorcycle ban is in place. Public transportation is similar to in parts of Japan, with a smooth-running, modern subway system, and buses.

And when I mention vans specifically, I don't say it lightly. Those of you who know me well on this site will know that I love small vans like the Nissan Elgrand or Vauxhall Vivaro. I just love vans in general, and if I could I'd have a 4-cylinder van for daily use, and a big GM van for the weekends. If I ever end up working / living in China, you can bet I'll be getting me a small boxy van. Its an illogical obsession of mine, I'll admit.

The vans in China are work-type vans, but I'd say they are a full third of what I saw on the road at any given time, not counting the Volkswagen taxis. The most common type of van is very similar to the Wuling van pictured below. SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile is a joint-venture between General Motors and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. OK, let me restate that. The van below in a stripper form is what I saw most commonly. I got a kick out of a fully pimped-out Wuling van, though (above). I want one!

The other side of Guanzhou is the cars, so many of which are luxury cars. An alarming number. Outside my rather pricey (for Chinese standards) hotel were BMWs, Mercedes, Lexuses, Nissans and a few Chinese Buick LaCrosse sedans. Many had window curtains and deeply tinted windows. A man in Guangzhou who speaks English told me: "20 years ago, to get 3 beautiful women, you needed to have a motorcycle. Today, you need a BMW."

Buick has a strong presence in China, as anyone who follows the global auto trends knows. I saw it up close and personal. I must say that overall, the Buick cars in China have a richer appeal than the ones in the U.S. that look more like they belong in a rental fleet. Even the lowly GM Daewoo built Buicks have an air of luxury around them in the details. Where the Suzuki Forenza or Chevrolet Optra might look a bit mid-pack mainstream, the Buick Excelle appears to use the right combination of chrome, more detailed body panels, and attractive paint to achieve an overall impression of "money". The Excelle wagon revived my interest in wagons, and I again lament that I can't buy an inexpensive, Euro-styled, 4-cylinder wagon like this one from a traditional GM brand that lets me use my GM card earnings.

One of my favorite Chinese Buicks, was the GL8 Minivan. The Terraza should have been designed to look like this. Not like an Uplander with a gaping mouth of black plastic slats and an ugly, protruding shnoz. It doesn't try to look like an SUV, and I wonder if it wouldn't have been cheaper (and more effective) if GM North America had just restyled the front end of the old Venture/Montana to look more like this Chinese model. I looked inside one and it had the new CSV interior, and a fancy nav system that looked better than what I recall seeing here in the U.S.

But the car that just says what is right with Buick of China and what is wrong with Detroit's version is the LaCrosse. What a stunning design. I regret that I was unable to take a photo of the car, and I don't have a full front shot, so I'll use a stock photo for the front, and those I scanned from a Chinese magazine for the rest.

Chevrolet and Cadillac cars were harder to spot, but I did see some very attractive dealerships for both brands on the outskirts of the city. Unfortunately I was not able to stop in and take photos. The Aveo is heavily advertised in China, and I saw a few new Gentra-style Aveos in the streets. The Aveo TV ads were fun and just as fresh and "young" as the Toyota Yaris ads here in the States. Several of the ads I saw for the different GM brands struck me as better than the "lets rehash another song from the 1960's" ads for the U.S. brands.

All in all, China opened my eyes to the possibility of Buick as a potentially desireable brand in the U.S. But the product portfolio will need to change drastically to make that happen. No more W-bodies. No more 3800 chugger. No more Chevies with swapped out grilles like the Terraza. The Enclave is a good start, and actually resembles the Chinese LaCrosse in its styling cues.

China's car market and the potential for imported cars from China also made me hopeful that someday my dream for a small 4-cylinder van that isn't shaped like a spaceship or a wedge - but a fully utilitarian box with a good sized cargo area - might be realized someday. A GM-Wuling for my garage? Well, I can always dream...

See the photos here:

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  • At 30 March, 2007 21:19 , Anonymous The Car Geek said...

    It seems that you had a great time in traveling china... It reminds when I had my first step in that country... I have to rent a buick to travel to every place and it was really amazing when I had a problem GM EGR valves that I have to make an overnight stay on a house in the town of that country... The people are really hospitable and provided me with everything I need until my rented car was fix. I even saw their culture... Hope I could return this summer...

  • At 10 April, 2007 11:10 , Blogger michitakem said...

    I did indeed. Now if it weren't for the fact of the food/air/water poisoning I was miserable with most of the time...! Sad but true.


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