China has become the world's largest automotive market, with 13.6 million vehicles sold in the country last year and rapid growth so far in 2010. But for all the vastness of the country's vehicle industry, it has yet to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with globally. In fact, last year, on the back of the global recession, China's car exports dropped 46 per cent to 369,600 units. Part of the problem has been the history of the cars' safety. Indeed, for many overseas motorists, perceptions are coloured by bad publicity Chinese vehicles have received in the past for their crash test results.
Four years ago, the Chinese auto manufacturer Brilliance suspended exports of its BS6 saloon to western Europe when the car achieved a disappointing one out of five stars in crash tests. Jiangling Motors, another Chinese car maker, saw its export ambitions suffered a similar fate the previous year when its Landwind SUV crumpled in a crash test, showing the kind of damage expected only in western-built cars a generation old.
But those tests were back in the mid 2000s, and since then many Chinese manufacturers appear to have put safety much higher on their agenda. Starting in 2006, crash tests have been carried out in China by C-NCAP, the Chinese version of the New Car Assessment Programme that has organisations in Europe, Australia and Japan that carry out crash tests and publish the results for all to see. It is a development that car buyers in the Gulf may want to take note of, given that more manufacturers from the world's most populous nation are keen to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Chery and Haima by exporting their vehicles to the Middle East.
According to Wu Wei, the executive vice president of C-NCAP, at the time of the "Brilliance scandal", Chinese cars "lagged behind" their counterparts from Japan, Europe and North America in terms of safety. "Our technology wasn't as advanced as theirs at that time, that's for sure," he said at the organisation's headquarters in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Since then, however, he said there had been "concrete achievements" in terms of safety improvements.
"In 2006, when we bought some cars and did crash tests, only eight per cent could pass our assessment standard for five stars," he said. "But in 2009, over 50 per cent passed our assessment standard. So that's big progress." The test regime in China is similar, but not identical, to that followed by other versions of NCAP. The first test involves cars hitting a rigid barrier head-on at 50kph. A second vehicle is then crashed into an offset deformable barrier at 56kph, simulating the effect of a real crash with a vehicle of similar size. Europe does not carry out the head-on crash, while its offset crash is run at 64kph. The third test in China involves a deformable barrier, attached to a trolley, smashing into the side of the test vehicle at 50kph, the same speed used in the side impact test in Europe.
The effects of the impacts on crash test dummies are assessed by engineers who also check for potential hazards to the driver and passengers from interior parts. The results of the three tests are combined with additional points given for the likes of seatbelt reminders, side airbags, curtain air bags and attachment points for child safety seats, and converted into a star rating. If a vehicle scores less than 15 points it is awarded one star, 15 to 30 equates to two, 30 to 40 is represented by three stars, 40 to 45 by four and 45 to 50 by five. Vehicles that score above 50 have a "five plus" rating, shown by the outline of a sixth star in their result. C-NCAP plans to introduce an additional rear-end collision when it analyses vehicles, as this can assess, for example, the whiplash effects of being shunted from behind.
Cars tested are standard production vehicles bought by C-NCAP from high-street dealers. Most are made in China, although among these are many foreign models produced by joint ventures between Chinese companies and overseas manufacturers. C-NCAP, which was launched by the China Automotive Technology and Research Centre, a government-funded operation that also carries out crash tests on a contract basis on behalf of manufacturers, is not shy about releasing its results.
Every three months it announces the findings of its latest crash tests and displays the crashed vehicles for the assembled media. If a vehicle has done badly and been severely deformed in the tests, there is nowhere to hide. John Zeng, a senior market analyst with the Asian Automotive Forecast Service of IHS Global Insight, said it was not just the joint ventures between the Chinese and foreign manufacturers that are taking safety more seriously. Car models from the indigenous manufacturers, among them Geely, Chery and Great Wall, are also performing better in crash tests, he said, helped along by sophisticated crash-test facilities that some manufacturers have built themselves.
"They have put a lot of resources into crash tests and the safety has been improving on a large scale," he said. Dr Frank Zhao, head of Geely's research and development operation, said it is "not terribly difficult" to build safer cars. The challenge, he said at a presentation in Beijing earlier this year, was to build a car that was safe but also affordable. "All our cars will be [at least] four-star rated. Eighty per cent will be five-star. We're working on some [that will be] six-star," he added.
C-NCAP's test results indicate the progress made by Geely, which recently bought Volvo, the Swedish manufacturer that has long emphasised its vehicles' safety credentials. Geely's tiny Panda car, which is not related to the Fiat Panda, achieved five stars when C-NCAP crash-tested it last year. Rival manufacturer Chery achieved a creditable four stars for its similarly pint-sized Ruiqi vehicle. However, the improvements in the industry have not been across the board and there are still vehicles being released in China that underperform when it comes to crash tests.
Also last year, a small MPV called the MP-X Midi, made by the manufacturer Foton, achieved only 22.2 points on the C-NCAP tests, giving it just two stars. It is no surprise then that Wu said Chinese manufacturers, while tending to make much safer vehicles than before, are still not up there with the world's best in terms of crash protection. "I think there's still a distance between the Chinese products and the best products in the world because the Chinese manufacturers do not have so much experience and enough advanced technology. But it's just a matter of time," he said.
"In just four years, the Chinese manufacturers have gone from [mostly] two stars to four stars or five stars. They can do everything in the near future." Zeng also predicts further improvements. Car buyers in China, he said, are paying ever closer attention to crash-test results, so cars that do poorly would inevitably be weeded out of the market. "I think it's very difficult for these manufacturers to survive," he said. "If the crash test results are bad, they will have trouble to sell these cars, even in the domestic market."