Think big

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 July, 2008, 12:00am

On the face of it, the Brilliance BS6 seems like a lot of car for your yuan, but fleet managers might ask whether it really offers value for money and where it fits into the market. Sizewise, the car is up against the BMW 5 Series, the third-generation Ford Mondeo and the eighth-generation Honda Accord. But it's offered at a price that pitches it against cars in the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Sagitar class.

The BS6 has been around since 2003, and it's a fitting introduction to mainland cars. The saloon has been smartened up in a recent facelift, but it would seem unremarkable in a Hong Kong car park. Unmistakably Asian-looking, it could pass for a number of manufacturers' efforts. A raked bonnet and chrome outlined grille try to convey an aggressive stance, but it's hopelessly outclassed by even the new Mondeo. And from the side the car displays all the hallmarks of conservative design that so appeals to mainland buyers.

In China, Zhonghua, as Brilliance is known, is BMW's joint-venture partner, producing the 3 Series and 5 Series in the same factory compound in Shenyang. The finish suggests the mainland marque has learned a few lessons from its Bavarian buddies, with panels that fit together well and doors that close with reassuring thuds. Decked out in black, the test car seems respectfully poised.

The problems, however, start on the inside. Harsh plastics dominate the dashboard, which is in the two-tone charcoal and sand colour scheme that seems so popular on the mainland. Although the feel might not be significantly worse than the Toyota Reiz Mark X, it pales in comparison to most joint-venture cars and the Roewe 750 and MG7. Luckily the fake wood trim in older versions of the BS6 has been removed.

Buttons and stalks seem cheap and some give the impression of not being fitted particularly well. Their overall positioning and look is generic but functional. There are no controls mounted on the black leather-trimmed steering wheel, unlike in many new cars. The equipment is reasonably comprehensive and includes electric windows, mirrors, a sunroof, a CD player and air-conditioning. But one glaring omission in a car of such size is that sat-nav isn't available even as an option.

The front seats are firm in cream-coloured leather, but even though they're well stitched, they lack a luxury feel, and seat adjustment is manual. There's room for five adults reasonably comfortably, rear legroom is quite generous and only the tallest of passengers will have problems with headroom in the back.

But one problem typical of a Chinese car is the fitting of only a lapbelt for the middle passenger in the back. The boot has a large opening and is cavernous, but the rear seats do not fold down to accommodate long loads.

The car's European launch faltered after it received just one star in German motoring body Adac's Euro New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) style evaluations. Since then a modified version has received three stars. Yet the model for the China market has never even been China-NCAP tested, so fleet managers and families might question the safety of the car, which has only two airbags.

Initially the BS6 was sold with just two- and 2.4-litre Mitsubishi engines that Brilliance, like many mainland carmakers, bought off the shelf. They were old, thirsty, sluggish units. But since last year Brilliance has started to produce the first of its own power plants. Its 1.8T engine is the result of collaboration with Germany's FEV, and the turbo-charged unit, despite the smaller displacement, is currently the engine of choice. A 1.9-litre turbo diesel using a Bosch turbo on an internally developed oil burner could soon be added to the range.

In a straight line on the flat, even with an automatic, the BS6 feels brisk on Brilliance's Shenyang test track. It accelerates nicely and you feel there's plenty of power underfoot, although it remains to be seen how the relatively small engine will perform in such a large car anywhere a bit hilly, however reassuring peak torque of 235Nm may seem.

In European tests, the car's ride came in for criticism, but it seems well-suited to uneven Chinese road surfaces. And although the steering is light, it's precise. The car copes well with being thrown into corners at a fair clip and doesn't suffer from the body roll of its younger brother, the BS4. On the track it remains composed and feels well controlled. One problem, though, is that despite the tilt-adjustable steering column and adjustable seat, it's difficult to see the top of the speedometer.

It's a competent, if unremarkable, drive by Hong Kong standards, even though the 1.8T engine is a promising unit that lends a touch of excitement to a car that's rather dull overall.

In many ways the 1.8T is the best thing about the car. The BS6 is a large saloon whose interior is severely lacking in everything but space and, although its exterior is well put together, it's never going to stand out. And then there's the iffy safety rating and the question of reliability.

Earlier versions of the BS6 are already looking decidedly ropey. Let's hope this version stands up.

Brilliance BS6 1.8T

What drives it? A 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine produces 170bhp (125kW) with a four-speed automatic or six-speed manual.

How fast is it? A claimed top speed of 210km/h for the manual and 195km/h for the automatic. Acceleration - 0-100km/h is quoted at 10.1 seconds for the manual and 10.2 seconds for the automatic.

How safe is it? This is a big question with only two airbags fitted and no stability control.

How thirsty is it? The manual version gets through 6.5l/100km at 90km/h and 8.5l at 120km/h. The automatic at these speeds drinks 7.1 and 9 litres respectively.

How clean is it? The marque doesn't provide any CO2 emission figures but the engine does conform to Euro IV standards.

How much is it? The manual model sells for 149,800 yuan (HK$170,000) and the automatic for 165,800 yuan.