The Changan CS55 is a five-seat SUV that could fire the first UK export shot from China’s third-biggest car maker.
The CS55 is the newest model in its range of 17 models, and was launched at the 2017 Shanghai motor show to compete in the fast-growing Chinese compact SUV segment.
Understanding the Changan CS55’s place
About the size of the Ford Kuga, the CS55 sits on an all-new front-wheel-drive platform that will serve as the base for a new saloon, which for the first time will see Changan develop multiple models off a new architecture.
The styling was developed with input from Changan’s Turin design studio and although to some eyes slightly derivative of Land Rover’s latest models, it seems to have a mostly homogenous look.
Power comes from a four-cylinder 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol with variable valve timing on both inlet and exhaust camshafts. This unit is mated in our test car to a six-speed Aisin Warner automatic gearbox. Maximum power is 154bhp at 5500rpm and peak torque comes at 165lb ft.
The suspension is struts at the front, a multi-link axle at the rear, anti-roll bars front and rear. The steering is electric power and the brakes are vented discs at the front, solid at the rear. A subframe carries the powerpack and front suspension, an engineering detail that usually delivers an extra edge of on-road refinement.
Safety is an issue that Chinese car makers have yet to convince is up to European standards, due to previous models badly failing the European NCAP barrier test, but Changan is keen to correct that impression. The CS55 has been tested to Chinese NCAP standards, which are claimed to be equal to Europe’s, and Changan's safety chief, Hui Zhao, expects a five-star rating.
Shod with Continental Cross-Contact rubber in 225/55 R18 size, made in China to European spec, the CS55 is largely put together from major modules made by European or Japanese suppliers at Chinese local plants.
The challenge, then, is to discover how well Changan’s engineers have put this cocktail of componentry together to make a credible SUV.
How does the CS55 perform dynamically?
The CS55 is a likeable and dynamically competent soft-roader, although that's a verdict delivered with the usual proviso that our experience was mostly on the company's test track. This is where the CS55’s chassis has been honed, under the watchful eye of ex-Ford handling guru Gordon Cook, a Briton who has worked on multiple generations of Ford models in Europe and China, including the recently retired Fiesta.
But our assessment also has to be tempered by an unfortunate rollover accident experienced by another journalist in a staged lane-change test at around 37mph. With the ESP turned off against the advice of Changan, the exact cause has still not been determined.
In more steady-state conditions, the CS55 steers faithfully through a series of bends and changes direction with good agility, albeit with accompanying body roll.
Weighting of the steering can be adjusted through three modes, which give a wide-spread of weightings, the heaviest of which is Sports, although we found the mid-setting to be the best compromise.
Cook and his engineering colleague Dave Cox, Changan’s brakes engineer, would like to exploit the CS55’s chassis with a flatter cornering attitude, but the reality of coping with China’s often rutted and potholed roads means the chassis settings have to allow for wheel travel and bushing compliance.
As the CS55 settles into a corner, understeer and roll builds, although your line can be tightened tidily with a gentle lift of the throttle. At higher speeds on Changan’s handling track, the CS55 is harnessed by gentle intervention of the ESP, which retards the throttle and applies the rear brakes in tighter corners.
It’s not an exciting car to drive, but it does provide the keen driver with some raw material to enjoy a reasonably spirited drive, while retaining much-needed compliance in more relaxed driving.
The 1.5-litre turbo engine provides enough shove to keep the CS55 buzzing along, although it needs to be worked hard to maintain progress on motorways against the erratically driven other traffic.
We suspect that performance might be perked up by a few tweaks to the Aisin ‘box, though. It slurs changes smoothly but feels lazy when you pressing on, and its Sport mode — selected by pushing the lever across the gate — doesn’t have much effect either.
The changing face of the CS55’s interior
The latest generations of Chinese cars are rapidly catching up with Western standards in terms of interior quality. About ten years ago, Chinese brand models wreaked of cheap plastics and were unremittingly dreary in design; the CS55 is a good example of the latest, near-Western standards.
There’s a mix of textures in the dashboard, the switchgear is logically laid out and the weightings of the stalks, controls and buttons have a pleasing solidity about them.
Highlights are delivered with delicately-proportioned metallic trim, and contrast red stitching lifts the ambience.
While the upholstery looks like leather, it's actually high-grade ‘pleather’ vinyl trim. More significantly, in press-on driving, the seats lack side support.
There’s a good amount of knee room in the CS55's rear seats, and there's enough room to accommodate three adults for a short period of time.
Changan remains very coy about its European sales ambitions, so it may be a long time yet before Brits get the chance to buy one of the company's model.
One conservative suggestion placed 2028 as the first date for European sales – about two generations of models. But our feeling is that the next-generation model in 4-5 years time is more realistic.
In China, the priciest CS55 costs the equivalent of £15,638, including an eight percent sales tax, while the cheapest costs less than £10,000 – the price point occupied in the UK by Dacia’s highly successful Duster.
The CS55 is more sophisticated than the Ssangyong Korando, which retails for £16,745, and the entry-level Dacia Duster, which costs from £8645.
There’s also the question of the brand; who in the UK will shell out for an unknown Chinese brand name when there’s buckets of European, Japanese and Korean choice in the SUV market?
In that regard, Changan will have to follow the path of the Japanese car makers 30 years ago and the Koreans 20 years ago: offering a keen price and high standard equipment level to overcome the unknown brand name.
So, if tomorrow Changan could sell a CS55 in our test car's spec in the UK within the £15k price band, we think buyers would come, attracted by the combination of interior quality, practicality and all-round usability.