Friday, January 28, 2022
Jan. 28, 2022

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Chinese automakers using these U.S. brands to test out North American market


Car buyers will find few Chinese vehicles in U.S. showrooms, but they will in Mexico — under American brand names.

For the 2022 model year, Dodge has reintroduced the Journey nameplate in Mexico. The vehicle is based on the Trumpchi GS5 compact SUV from one of Stellantis NV’s Chinese joint venture partners, Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. Ltd., which is shipping these small crossovers across the Pacific Ocean.

The Journey is not alone. It joins the Chevrolet Captiva, introduced in March in Mexico. It is a variant of the Baojun 530 compact crossover from SAIC-GM-Wuling, one of General Motors Co.’s Chinese joint ventures.

Chinese automakers for years have sought to enter the lucrative, yet competitive North American auto market. The Trump administration’s enactment of 25% tariffs on vehicles made in China, however, halted or delayed many of those plans, and the Biden administration shows no signs of removing them. Instead, the Chinese automakers have found a way into Mexico with U.S. automakers willing to fill gaps in their lineups of small crossovers that aren’t the big SUVs and trucks Americans love.

“There’s efforts to get into the market whatever way possible,” said Michael Dunne, CEO of Hong Kong-based consulting firm ZoZo Go LLC. “In some cases, the big picture is they are confronting this tariff wall that they have never had to contend with before, and they are finding ways around it.”

But, Dunne said, automakers like GM and Stellantis in doing so may create confusion for customers and hurt their brand image: “What is the value of the brand if you can just put it on anything?”

It’s not the first time U.S. brands have lent their names to foreign models. The Detroit Three previously rebadged Japanese and Korean imports in the 1980s and 1990s, though those efforts weren’t long-lasting. GM’s defunct Geo brand launched in 1989 with rebadged vehicles built by Isuzu Motors Ltd., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. as the foreign makes chipped away at its U.S. market share. By 1997, however, sales had dropped 30% below their peak, and the brand was nixed.

Likewise, Chrysler Corp., a predecessor of Stellantis, filled out its Eagle brand lineup with rebadged Mitsubishi Motors Corp. vehicles built through the Diamond-Star Motors joint venture after acquiring the brand with Jeep in 1987 from American Motors Corp. The Eagle Talon hatchback was the brand’s final offering in 1998.

“Bringing these entry-level models is a tradition that goes on for decades,” said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions LLC. “Bringing those vehicles allows them to have entry-level models that don’t cost them any engineering resources.”

That’s important for a price-sensitive market like Mexico, Fiorani said. With the Journey, Stellantis is taking advantage of an existing alliance by providing a vehicle that fits the market needs and leverages a familiar model name, Stellantis spokesman Miguel Ceballos said. The Dodge Journey starts at about $27,100 (555,900 pesos). GAC did not return a request for comment.

“The type of product under the Stellantis portfolio, we don’t have anything like it,” Ceballos said. “It is an important segment here in Mexico. That is why we chose to replace the Dodge Journey. It’s something we have to offer.”

He noted it’s not the first time the automaker has used a donor car in the Mexican market. The Dodge Attitude subcompact sedan launched in 2006 was based off Hyundai Motor Co.’s Accent as the automaker sought to enter the Mexican market. Today, the Attitude borrows from a Mitsubishi sedan. The Journey previously had been built at the Toluca Assembly Plant in Mexico before being discontinued after the 2020 model year.

These small SUVs are difficult to bring to the United States and compete with used vehicles just two or three years old with less than 50,000 miles, Fiorani said. By bringing them to a market like Mexico, it gives new entrants a low-cost chance to learn without damaging their own brand or having a service or dealership network set up.

“They’re dipping a toe to see what they are competing against,” Fiorani said. “They can determine, ‘Our quality needs to be fixed here, service fixed there’ without tarnishing the brand and ruining any chance of expansion.”

An established automaker might be able to get a few thousand more sales from these partnerships by entering more mature markets, but that’s short-term thinking, Dunne said: “Imagine Toyota importing Chinese cars into Japan and slapping a Toyota logo on the front hood. Not a chance. … What am I buying? A Korean or Chinese brand? An American brand? It’s a little confusing for the customer.”

Chevrolet has sold 5,900 Captivas in Mexico since it was added to the lineup in March. GM’s global brand councils approve the use of nameplates.

“Our global manufacturing footprint allows us to source a more comprehensive vehicle portfolio across all of our brands in various international markets, while still adhering to GM’s common global quality and manufacturing processes,” Chevrolet spokesman Kevin Kelly said in a statement. “Some of the branding is used across various markets because those brands are recognizable and have strong heritage, which is preferred by our customers.”

GM does sell in the United States the Buick Envision, which is built with its SAIC-GM joint venture in China. In 2020, J.D. Power recognized the plant with the Platinum Plant Quality Award for producing vehicles with the fewest defects or malfunctions. The automaker previously attempted to obtain an exemption for the 25% tariff on the China-built compact SUVs, an effort that wasn’t successful. The automaker pays the levy on the vehicle, which starts at $31,500, Kelly said.

The tariffs led Ford Motor Co. in 2018 to halt its plans to ship Ford Focus Active crossovers to the United States from China. But tariffs aren’t preventing all Chinese brands from entering the U.S. market: This summer, Polestar said it will build its new Polestar 3 electric SUV starting next year at a Volvo plant in South Carolina. The Polestar 1 and 2 are made in China.

Domestic production “solves their problem,” Dunne said. “They are bearing the brunt as the transplants like the Japanese and Koreans have done.”