Guangzhou Automotive Corporation is clearly serious about entering the U.S. market, which it said Monday it hopes to do in the fourth quarter of 2019. That was evident from its news conference at the Detroit Auto Show, where it invited no less than Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to the stage for photos following its presentation and announced it's building new facilities in both Los Angeles and Detroit, adding to an R&D center it opened in Silicon Valley last year.
Whether it can hit that goal is another question entirely.
It's the fourth year that GAC Motor has displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The company showed off a battery-electric compact crossover called the Enverge that curiously lacks glass — or transparent materials of any kind — in the side windows, plus the brand-new GA4 compact sedan, which it says it will start selling in China later this month.
Selling Chinese-built automobiles in the United States isn't new, of course. Cars like the Volvo S60 and Cadillac CT6 are both built there, but by brands long available stateside (even if Volvo is owned by Chinese automaker Geely). But Chinese brands haven't been able to crack the U.S. market, and not for lack of trying, with brands taking to the NAIAS floor consistently for at least a decade now.
Tom Libby, an auto analyst with IHS Markit, said GAC pulled off a more sophisticated press conference and reveal than in previous years, but he said Chinese automakers face an uphill battle to entering the U.S. due to a combination of federal safety regulations, a lack of retail networks and competitive products, and lack of an image.
"There's no bad vehicles or bad brands" in the U.S., Libby said. "It's a cutthroat market. For a new company to come in, it's a huge challenge."
The company is on a growth trajectory, having sold more than 2 million vehicles in 2017, up from 1.3 million in 2015, and 37-percent year-over-year sales growth in its home market. The company also said it plans to attend the National Automobile Dealers Association conference for the first time in March in Las Vegas.
In Detroit, it's also displaying the GA8, GM8 and the GS8 (that's the one sold as the Trumpchi in China). Its two-door Enverge was designed for the North American market and, aside from the curious lack of transparent side windows, features gullwing doors, a detachable front fog light that doubles as a torch (for camping or breakdown purposes, we presume), and an interior that feels like a floating space capsule. It features a 71 kWh battery that will take you 240 miles and can recharge in 10 minutes, including wirelessly.
GAC plans to release a gasoline-powered SUV as its first U.S. vehicle, said Zhang Fan, vice president of engineering. A battery-powered SUV would then follow in 2020 or 2021. "Hopefully we will successfully bring our products to here, fulfill all the regulations but still give American customers very good value of using the product with a deeper kind of design, very original design, with good quality, with very good (resale) value," Zhang said. "Hopefully American customers will love our product."