I nipped over to Shanghai last week (spending less than 48 hours on the ground) to attend a big technical and branding exposition for Qoros, the new Chinese-Israeli start-up brand.
It’s a fascinating company and I reckon Qoros could become a case study in future on how to make money from selling cars mass-market cars. The company has developed an all-new platform and a new range of engines, has a shiny new factory and is on the verge of launching a smart new (Volkswagen Jetta-sized) '3' saloon, with a hatchback, crossover and SUV on the way. In China, the cars will be priced at "15 per cent less than a Jetta, with 15 per cent more equipment by value".
Chairman Guo Qian assured me that Qoros’s owners – Chinese car maker Chery and investment fund Israeli Corporation – have so far spent just over £500 million. For established car makers, that sort of money might buy you a heavy makeover of an existing model. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
Well, the Qoros venture has a number of advantages. The company was born in 2007 with just a handful of employees. Qoros then hired experienced operatives from the European car industry to guide engineering work that was farmed out to consultancies. They include Klaus Schmidt, an ex-BMW M division boss who is in charge of powertrains and suspension; Roger Malksusson, formerly of Saab, who led on safety design, and design boss Gert Hildebrand, who joined Qoros straight from a decade reinventing Mini at BMW.
The platform was engineered to Qoros demands by Magna in Austria and many of the components have been bought off the the shelf from Tier 1 suppliers – a technique the post-GM Saab was using to develop the ill-fated Phoenix platform. True, Qoros had the advantage of using Chery engines as the base for a major re-engineering by AVL of Austria – rather cheaper than buying in units from an existing engine maker.
Qoros’s approach with its new models is also to keep things simple, making a good-quality car without going overboard on expensive materials and trim. The styling of the 3 family is subtle and carefully honed and shouldn’t date. The interior is also VW-simple and is dominated by a large touchscreen that is 3G-connected at Qoros’s expense and is designed to be used with owners' smartphones. The company reckons that connectivity is more important to young Chinese than such premium flash as aluminium bezel instruments and button-laden consoles. Much work has been expended on refinement and ride quality, benchmarking the best European rival models.
The new platform has been designed to stretch from a Golf-sized vehicle up to a large executive car and a seven-seat SUV, so there should be no major platform expenditure in the longer term. It's also expected that a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating will be announced, which should negate any concerns about safety. The engine range is a 1.6-litre petrol in naturally aspirated and turbocharged forms, but there's no diesel. There will be two six-speed transmissions (manual and dual-clutch automatic) and hybrid drive will be offered by an electrically powered rear axle, originally developed by American Axle for Saab.
By keeping the teams small and not having huge engineering facilities to maintain, Qoros has kept costs very low. By the end of this year Qoros staff will number just 600, with around 1200 working in the new factory at Changshu. The majority of the workforce at the brand new factory (which will make 150,000 cars annually initially) are young people in their early 20s, being trained by more experienced workers from other established Chinese car factories.
Unlike many Western car makers, saddled with large workforces, pension schemes to fund and big development budgets, Qoros is much, much lighter on its feet. While it needs produce the new 3 hatchback, crossover and SUV models without increasing its white-collar workforce significantly, the company could be seeing annual revenues of around £1.5 billion on production of 150,000 vehicles per year.
Starting from scratch and farming out much of your engineering might turn out to be the only way to make good money in the mass market.