Road test: 2016 Geely Emgrand GT

The car, known as the Geely GC9 in its home market, was named the 2016 China Car of the Year. This was not only the first time that a Chinese car won the award, it was also the first time one had even entered.

The Geely Emgrand GT, the 2016 China Car of the Year, and the first Chinese car to win the award. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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I’m old enough to remember the wave of Eastern European cars flooding the European markets in the 1980s. The quality was terrible, and they became the butt of countless jokes. How do you double the price of a Skoda? Fill up the petrol tank. ­Skoda had the last laugh, however, and it’s a similar situation now with ­Chinese cars.

As little as 10 years ago, Geely epitomised all that was wrong with Chinese cars – poor build and production quality and designs that were heavily inspired by other manufacturers’ cars. Fast forward to today, and the Emgrand GT shows just how good they have become, while managing to retain a competitive price. It’s no accident that this car, known as the Geely GC9 in its home market, was named the 2016 China Car of the Year, pipping the Daimler Maybach S-Class and Jaguar XE. This was not only the first time that a Chinese car won the award, it was also the first time one had even entered.

Geely Auto’s parent company bought Volvo in 2010, and the Emgrand GT is an obvious example of how the company’s expertise has increased since. The GT was even designed by the former Volvo design boss Peter Horbury, who’s now in charge of Geely’s new wave of world-class products.

There’s a coupe-like look to the GT, and it’s the sloping back where the Volvo influence is most apparent. Overall, it’s a thoroughly modern-looking saloon with a sporty stance.

Interiors are usually the first let-down on Chinese cars, but the GT has upped the game. Materials and finish beat most of the Japanese and Korean competitors, and are on par with many European models. The equipment levels, however, put most luxury cars to shame. Not only does the “Flagship” trim model have all the electric toys you would expect, it also has a head-up display, and the rear right passenger can move their own seat, as well as the front passenger’s, electrically. There are signs of cost-cutting, though – the seats are PVC and leather, maybe not such a bad thing in the desert – but don’t fold down, and there’s only a ski hatch through the rear fold-down ­armrest.

In this market, only an older 2.4L and a new 3.5L V6 engine are being offered. Both are coupled to a six-speed dual-clutch system produced by Geely’s ­Australian DSI division. The V6 unit is definitely the engine of choice, but it’s the power-train that’s the weakest part of the package. Gear changes at lower speeds aren’t as smooth as they should be, and the engine could benefit from more power. While no slouch – unofficial figures put the sprint to 100kph at 8.8 seconds – an engine of this size should really achieve more, and without an automatic stop-start system, it’s also on the thirsty side.

Geely claims it benchmarked the GT against cars from BMW and Mercedes, and the result is impressive. During my test on winding mountainous roads in China, the GT displayed sure-footed road holding, despite hard acceleration and braking. The result is far better than should be expected from what is essentially a large family saloon, and makes for an engaging drive even if it’s not as rooted to the road as, say, a BMW 3 Series. Helping all this is a precision in steering absent from most Chinese cars.

Volvo’s influence on safety is apparent, and the Emgrand bristles with features designed to keep it out of harm’s way. Not only are there blind-spot indicators, signified by lights on the mirrors and an audible warning, but there’s also a lane-departure warning system. Parking is a cinch, thanks to a reverse camera coupled with a 360-degree view around the car on the display. And if these all fail, the “Flagship” trim adds side curtain and driver’s knee airbags, alongside the normal side and front ones.

A lot of thought has gone into making the cabin a pleasant environment. The steering wheel and seat move back for ease of egress when the engine is switched off. Rear passengers get air-conditioning controls, and there’s an air-quality management system for the car, which will help in the event of a sandstorm. To help combat the sun, the windows feature heat-insulated glass. The boot has plenty of space for luggage, and is sturdy.

In the UAE, the Emgrand GT is being positioned as a sporty saloon. While it looks the part, unfortunately the engine fails to deliver. What it really needs is more power and paddle shifts – currently the only manual override is via the drive selector.

This is by far the most convincing Chinese car yet to enter the market, and it’s overall a good package for its price. It has excellent equipment levels – an area Chinese cars usually excel in – but for once, this isn’t glued together with substandard materials and build quality.