Chinese cars are now on sale in Europe, so we go for broke and try one at top speed on a German autobahn. BY NICK KURCZEWSKI, July 2007 Yes, Chinese cars are coming to the U.S. The catch is that no one, not even the Chinese car manufacturers themselves, can provide a clear answer as to when and how. But we wanted to see how a Chinese car fares on real roads—and we wanted to know right now. The opportunity came courtesy of Brilliance Auto, a car manufacturer based in the northeastern Chinese town of Shenyang. If the name Brilliance rings a bell, it’s probably because the company has been licensed by BMW to build and sell 3- and 5-series sedans for the Chinese market since late 2003. Our test drive would not be in some Brilliance-built Bimmer, but in the company’s own BS6 sedan (known as the Zhonghua in China). To put the car through its paces, we hit a hectic mix of city streets, country roads, and arrow-straight autobahns in and near Berlin, Germany. Why Berlin? Because Brilliance is the first Chinese manufacturer to take a serious stab at Western auto markets, and distributor HSO Motors Europe has chosen Germany to start its European distribution of the BS6. The smaller BS4 sedan and BC3 coupe arrive later this year; a compact car, dubbed the BS2, and an SUV are in the works, part of a plan to meet an annual sales target of 75,000 cars in Europe by 2010. Arriving early in the morning at Berlin-Schönefeld airport, we were fortunately met by an HSO representative. That’s because the BS6 is the poster child for anonymous styling—finding it in the airport lot would have taken us ages despite the fact that the BS6’s lines were penned in the studios of Italdesign-Giugiaro. Our guess is that the job was finished before the morning espresso had gone cold. At 192.1 inches long, the BS6 is about the size of a Toyota Camry. Get ready for a shock, because the price is darn close to a Camry’s, too. The BS6 is far from the cut-rate economy car many expected to spearhead China’s entry into demanding Western automotive markets. The base 2.0-liter BS6, in Comfort trim, starts at about $26,600 (€20,000). The 2.4-liter Deluxe model we tested has an estimated price of $31,000. Yikes. Trying to remain unbiased by the high price, we jump behind the wheel and right into a sea of shiny, cheap-looking plastic. The steering wheel feels oily, and the column-mounted stalks brittle. The radio looks as though it had been time-warped from 1985. Being fair, we'd say the ergonomic layout of dials and switches is intuitive and easy to learn. Even the fake wood isn’t bad (for fake wood). Twist the key, and the Mitsubishi-sourced 2.4-liter four-cylinder sounds harsh and raspy. Thankfully, once on the move, it loses its asthmatic edge. Initial driving impressions are surprising. The BS6 is a comfortable car in urban traffic. The multilink suspension absorbs bumps nicely, and the cabin is quiet. But with just 127 horsepower and 144 pound-feet of torque—and get this, it requires premium fuel—forget about stoplight heroics. Brilliance quotes a leisurely 0-to-60-mph time of 12.5 seconds for the 2.4-liter BS6. With the standard 121-hp, 2.0-liter four, the BS6 takes a glacial 13.8 seconds. Some quick rowing of the rubbery five-speed manual transmission at least kept us ahead of most tour buses and garbage trucks. At low speeds the steering feels heavy, even if there is very little real feedback. It’s as if the engineers got most of the way there, but final steering feel was decided in a boardroom and not on a test track. Regardless, when it comes to ride, handling, and engine power, the BS6 doesn’t fall on its face. On the autobahn, running at top speed (just over 120 mph), the BS6 tracked straight and true—even if the rev needle was snug against the 6000-rpm redline. The fact that the BS6 didn’t wilt at that speed proves that Brilliance at least did its homework regarding chassis and suspension setup. Unfortunately, Brilliance has a huge list of quality issues that overshadow the car’s driving traits. The stereo sounds terrible, with bass that rattles the doors as if someone were banging a basketball against them. That ugly glob of black rubber—otherwise known as the shifter—felt sticky and nasty after about an hour of use. The one-touch power windows didn’t go down with the as-promised one touch. Even the trunk didn’t open smoothly. It took three tugs to get it completely open. Another problem facing the BS6, especially in Europe, is the car’s lack of a diesel engine. That will be fixed in 2008, when an as-yet-unnamed diesel engine becomes optional. Of greater concern is the car’s lack of safety equipment. There is no traction or stability control or curtain airbags. The BS6 has anti-lock brakes and dual front airbags, and that’s about it. The BS6 received horrible crash-test ratings by Euro NCAP, with side-impact protection deemed to be especially bad. These factors could easily scare off automotive bargain hunters who might have otherwise given this bland-looking but relatively well-mannered newcomer a chance. Chinese cars have made it halfway to the U.S., but Brilliance should make use of this extended European layover to improve its quality and substantially beef up the list of safety features.