Geely packs quality with a little added fun in Emgrand

Chinese auto major stands out from the rest of the pack with its high-riding family car

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 10:53pm

In Europe in the 1980s, hot hatches were all the rage. There was the Ford Escort XR3i, VW Golf GTI and the tiny Peugeot 209 GTI. These pocket rockets offered enough performance to rattle a supercar at the traffic lights while based on an otherwise mundane small family hatchback.

China, of course, missed out on all the fun, and until recently performance models were strictly import only. Geely had a go at producing a sports car with the Beauty Leopard, in 2003, but didn’t have an engine to match the looks. Brilliance had a more coherent attempt with its Coupe, but it was ahead of its time. It wasn’t until Volkswagen started producing the Golf GTI locally that they started to gain more acceptance.

Chinese brands today usually offer small displacement turbo engines in their models, but none are all-out sports models. As such, on the face of it, the Geely Emgrand GS and GL are typical. Essentially they are non-identical twins. The GS, which was launched first, is a crossover; the GL is the production version of the Emgrand concept saloon shown at the 2015 Shanghai Auto Show. Following on from the GC9 and Boyue, they are products of Geely’s reinvigorated design studios, headed up by former Volvo design chief Peter Horbury.

Unfortunately, the GC9’s good looks have not been carried over to the GL. The resultant car, while far from ugly, is generic and could have greatly benefited from the muscular haunches of the GC9. Luckily the GS suffers from no such problems, and is youthful plus reasonably distinctive.

As we have come to expect from Geely, build quality both inside and out is on a par with international standards. Internally the GS and GL are near identical. While the materials are not as good as the GC9 or Boyue, this can be expected given the cars cheaper price points. There is an attempt at a more premium feel, with a brushed aluminium look on the dash and leather inserts in the doors on the top of the range’s Aesthetic trim GS. Cut-outs at the base of the dash give the impression that it floats into the centre tunnel, making for a distinctive feature.

Where the cars really excel is with equipment levels. Whereas the more expensive Ford Escort, for example, has only a mount for a cellphone on the dash, the Geely twins get an 8-inch infotainment system that touts Apple CarPlay and Geely G Link (similar to General Motor’s OnStar) along with the more usual functions. There is an additional LCD screen between the speedometer and rev counter. This packs features normally associated with much more luxurious cars, such as temperature and pressure gauges for each tyre.

Both cars are available with 1.8-litre or 1.3 turbo engines coupled to a choice of six-speed-manual or dual-clutch transmissions. Despite the similar power output of the engines – 98kW for the 1.8 versus 95kW for the 1.3T – the turbo unit is the more expensive option and a better bet. We drove the 1.8-litre version of the GL in Elite trim (top for the 1.8 engine). The GS has two versions, an Elegance and Sport version, and we drove the latter in the top of the range 1.3T Aesthetic trim. The Sport version, despite the name, gets only cosmetic difference to the Elegance version, with sportier bumpers, a spoiler and red brake calipers, metal pedals and an all important GS badge under the rear passenger doors of the 360-degree black cladding.

Manual seat adjustment in the Elite trim is clunky and it is not easy to get a decent position. On the other hand, the Aesthetic gains electric control, making it much easier, plus the electric sunroof is replaced by a non opening panoramic roof, giving a much airier feeling cabin. Rear head and leg room in both cars is reasonable and they have solid feeling boots.

Although the 1.8-litre seems adequate, delivering a reasonable burst of acceleration when needed, swap to the 1.3 turbo and you will see why this is the engine of choice. Not only does it drop quoted fuel consumption by a whole litre, to 5.9 litres per 100km, but the engine screams like an angry beast. Both our test cars came with the dual-clutch units and featured Sport and Eco modes along with a manual override. Unusually, manual use of the gears is done by slipping the selector over to the left rather than the right, and this takes a little getting used to.

When in manual the 1.3T happily nearly red lines before automatically changing up at around 5,500 rpm. With the engine snarling you can throw the car around at speed and the chassis follows through. Geely’s FE platform was developed with assistance from Volvo and handling is excellent for a Chinese brand. The only let down is the steering, which is on the light side. Both trim levels come with cruise control, and in the case of the Aesthetic this is adaptive, meaning it will match the speed of the vehicle in front.

Back in the ‘80s an Escort XR3i was a car to be reckoned with. Today’s Escort in China is a bland exercise in old Ford hand-me-down technology riding on the previous Focus platform, and driven by a Fiesta engine with equipment levels that wouldn’t look out of place in an ‘80s car. At a similar price point, the Geely GL and GS offer a full suite of technology in an exciting package.

It might not quite be a GTI but it is a lot of fun to drive, and the only thing it could really do with is paddle shifts. Geely says the FE platform will form the basis of more cars. A hatchback seems an obvious route and, if the company is really daring, an estate.