The Outlook for Chinese Cars at the 2014 NAIAS

Bold Ride

Chinese cars have been looming on the horizon for years now, after a substantial showing in 2006 by at least three Chinese brands. But the ensuing years haven’t been kind to the prospects of a Chinese brand selling under its own flag here in the United States. What looked like a tsunami has now materialized as a leaky faucet of specialty brands and takeovers.

Prognosticators an analysts were confident that a Chinese brand would be here. ““They are fast learners, fast movers and good implementers when they have accurate blueprints,” said George Petersen, industry analyst and president of AutoPacific in the New York Times. “But right now they are a generation away from having competitive vehicles, and it appears most of them understand that.”

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That looks to be more than a generation away now. New Jersey-based Chinese America Cooperative Automotive Inc. (CHAMCO) — the American distributor that was ostensibly set up to sell Hebei Zhongxing Automobiles, Geely and Changfeng cars here, and had a significant presence at 2006′s North American International Auto Show — imploded in spectacular fashion. Disenchanted board members stormed CEO Bill Pollack’s office and attempted to wrest control of the company in 2008.

In 2014, it’s a lot more quiet in Cobo Hall. Just two companies with Chinese roots — Volvo and VL Automotive — are displaying products in Detroit.

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Volvo S80

For the time being, the Volvo model seems to be the one that’s going to work for China: scoop up an existing brand with a US-based distributorship at fire-sale prices. In 1999, Ford paid $6 billion for the Swedish manufacturer, stuffing itself with premium brands from around the world. Eleven years later, Ford sold its interest in Volvo to the Chinese manufacturer Geely for $1.6 billion.

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The U.S. arm of Chinese auto parts manufacturer Wanxiang Group presented an initial bid of $24.725 million for nosediving electric car manufacturer Fisker, but Reuters reports that Fisker attacked the creditors’ proposal in a series of court filings yesterday, noting that after Wanxiang bought A123 Systems Inc, a battery maker, it cut Fisker’s supply of batteries, which led to its dire financial straits.

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Bob Lutz’s VL Automotive, which has a press conference scheduled on Tuesday, January 14th, is the only other auto manufacturer with Chinese roots on display at the Detroit Auto Show. VL Automotive is at the heart of this controversy, since the car is based on the Fisker Karma, but with a 6.2-liter V8 from the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1. Where Fisker’s troubles leave VL Automotive remains to be seen.

PHOTOS: Full Galleries of SR Automotive’s Fisker Karma

For the time being, Chinese cars are even further from viability here than they were eight years ago. As Korean manufacturer Daewoo, and Indian manufacturer Mahindra have learned, negotiating the choppy waters of the North American automotive market isn’t as easy as it might have appeared.

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