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One Day, One Tester, Ten Cars Driven at Guangde Proving Ground

Welcome to Guangde Proving Ground in Anhui Province, China. It is considered Asia’s largest proving ground facility for automobiles in the sub-7.5 tonne range with an area of 5.67 square kilometres, over 60 kilometres of varying surfaces, and 70 test events. And here I am from small sunny Sri Lanka standing on its very grounds. Hallowed earth, some might say. For a car lover and automotive journalist like myself, a visit to a proving ground is a bucket list item to be ticked off. Ditto visiting a major Motor Show, which I also ticked off on this same journey to China. It is truly one of the best moments of my life and I cannot but take a few moments to close my eyes and breathe the air in which faint petrol fumes and whiffs of burnt rubber hang.

How did I get here? I have Micro Cars Ltd, and the huge Chinese company that they represent in Sri Lanka, SAIC Motor to thank for that. Micro Cars Ltd for wholeheartedly recommending me and Motor to SAIC as the chosen ones. It is easy to see why they call themselves Our National Pride, when they truly support 100% local enterprises like us. And then we have SAIC, China’s largest automaker. They shift millions of cars a year, locally assemble Volkswagen for their market and own the MG, Maxus (formerly LDV) and Roewe (formerly Rover) brands. Oh, and they also own this proving ground, in a joint venture with none other than General Motors. This is apparent by the road names at the facility. Buick Avenue, Cadillac Avenue. They are all there. Oh, and the outer high-speed bowl is just over 9 kilometres in length with a maximum safe speed of 280km/h. Today, that bowl is off limits to us, as they have prepared four other events for us to experience. A handling course, followed by a drive up their fearsome inclined Extended Bridge, a course to showcase vehicle comfort testing and finally a low traction simulation to showcase vehicle stability programmes and braking stability systems. I was extremely proud to be the only Sri Lankan, representing our little island in the group of 40+ journalists from five continents across the world.

You may ask, what is the relevance of this to Sri Lanka? Aren’t these Chinese vehicles? Well, yes they are in that they are made in China, but these are global brands. MG, Maxus and Roewe are sold in a variety of global markets outside China and it was interesting to hear from journalists hailing from other Asian countries, Australia, Europe, Middle East and even South America as to the mix of vehicles here that are offered in their countries. Proof, then, that any of these vehicles could indeed make it to Sri Lanka. Of course, we have the MG eZS already here, and I managed to get some seat time in that. The MG6 is another vehicle that was in Sri Lanka in previous generation guise and the second generation car driven here could very well deserve a debut in our market, in petrol or petrol-electric guise. The Roewe Marvel X is an impressive electric SUV that packs 300bhp, while its RX8 (no, it’s not a rotary) is a nice large SUV too.

Moving on to Maxus, the D90 is also a large SUV with comfortable Captain chairs in the second row, and the G50 is a semi-luxury MPV that targets the Innova segment but offers features reaching up to Alphard level. Oh, and let’s throw in a little curveball in the shape of the Maxus EV30 panel van. This little fellow packed a surprising punch and would appeal well to the light delivery segment. Want to know about all these vehicles? Read on!

 

THE HANDLING COURSE

MG 5 and MG 6 driven

The first event is a handling course marked out by cones on the 300m by 310m Vehicle Dynamics Area which is paved asphalt. The handling course is said to be the one that all vehicle testers undergo upon joining the facility, and features quite a nice mix of events. Right off the bat you accelerate at full throttle into a long sweeping left-hander and straight into a left-right-left-right slalom that requires a good rhythm. From here, it’s through a tighter sequence of corners into a lane-change exercise, thereafter some more corners of varying tightness, a small straight where you can nail the throttle again before a long 180-degree corner that is tighter on entry than it looks.

My first time driving a left-hand-drive car saw me spear off into the cones in a flurry of understeer at this final corner. Embarassed, I apologized to the instructor who accompanied each driver, but he laughed it off upon hearing that it was my first time in a left-hooker and assured me to try again. And try again I did. No more cone kissing happened as I got used to “driving on the wrong side” and began to feel the car better.

The MG5 is actually a rebadged Roewe and packs a 1.5L naturally aspirated 120bhp engine driving the front wheels through a CVT gearbox. While the suspension set-up coped reasonably well with the handling course with only some body roll, the power-train combo frustrated me at times. I’d enter a corner on left-foot braking and bury the throttle on exit, only to have the CVT present a small delay while it got into its stride. This was a mild annoyance that was shared by other journalists too. Sporty driving isn’t really the MG5’s forte and it shows.

Getting out of the 5 and into the turbocharged 2019 MG6, this feels more like it. The engine puts out around 170bhp and 250Nm, and sounds the part too. It revs cleanly and the 7-speed DCT snaps ratios well. There are paddles but as I was just getting used to this left hand driving gig, I decided to let the gearbox to the shifting, which it did quite well. The 6 grips well and resolves into understeer if you are too enthusiastic but you can feel the limits quite well and know when it’s going to give. The body is much flatter under cornering than the 5, and the braking is enthusiastic without being grabby. If you left-foot brake, you need to adjust accordingly.

I had so much fun in the 6 on the course, I had three turns in it in fact. I asked if they had a 6-speed manual variant on hand too (as was launched at the Motor Show a day before) but alas they did not. Would have been great to see how it would fare, given that my examination of the model at the Motor Show yielded a fairly short-throw gearshift with nice quality and pedals well-spaced for heel-and-toe. The new 6 comes with some nice creature comforts too, like dual-zone climate control, 12-inch touchscreen controlled infotainment system and BOSE sound system.

 

THE EXTENDED BRIDGE

MG5, Roewe RX8, Maxus T60 and Maxus D90 put through paces

The extended bridge is a distinctive feature of the facility that can be seen from nearly anywhere within the property. It is 1,200 metres long and rises to 50 metres high at its tallest point. It provides input for power-train developments and testing of vehicle durability. You accelerate up a long gradient which is used to test drive-train flexibility and grading ability. Once at the top, you have a brief patch of level asphalt before beginning the descent to the bottom which is a good test of engine braking. At the bottom, you have a roundabout to turn around before beginning the ascent again.

Oh, there’s a surprise this time around. The surface is not smooth. In fact it features normal and staggered bumps that literally shake the air out of your lungs if you take it at a high enough speed in a firmly sprung vehicle. A pickup truck would be quite uncomfortable here, and we did have a pickup truck among the list in the shape of the Maxus T60. It was also the only diesel vehicle.

First off, I take the MG5, to see if this car can redeem itself from the disappointment in the previous test. Accelerating up the slope, the CVT pegs the engine at around 4,000rpm but we make decent progress. Descent is uneventful too. On the uneven surface, I speed up to around 60-70km/h on a surface that wouldn’t be out of place in Yala. The MG5 soaks up the bumps quite well I must say. Yes, it’s bumping around but my instructor doesn’t appear perturbed as I gently ease the speed up to 80km/h, giving the poor little car quite a shakedown. Maybe that’s what the 5 is all about then. Comfort rather than outright sportiness. I took a backseat ride too and wasn’t jostled about much.

Next up, the Roewe RX8 which is a large SUV. Despite that, its 228bhp 350Nm 2.0L turbo engine does light work of accelerating it up the slope to 100km/h, while offering a decent bout of engine braking on the way down. The RX8 is all wheel drive and has several modes including Auto, Sport, Snow, Off Road, etc… We keep it in Off Road for the ride back up on the un-even surface but the ride is quite firm. My back seat passenger who is another journalist comments on this, and when I take a passenger ride with him driving I feel the same.  Nevertheless it’s well-appointed on the inside with heated and cooled seats (I used the cooled seats on every test vehicle I checked out), good sound systems and wood trim.

The Maxus T60 is the only pickup truck and diesel vehicle here, with a 2.0L turbo diesel that puts out 160bhp and 375Nm. It makes light work of the climb too, with a diesel note that is less apparent in the cabin that other Japanese diesel pickups that I have recently tested. A journalist in the back remarked he didn’t really hear the engine from there when I wound it all the way to its 3,750rpm redline. However on the bumpy part back up it was very uncomfortable thanks to its leaf springs at the rear and unladen condition. The journalist in the back really got jostled and I wound the speed back to 30km/h eventually. I did not take a backseat ride in this, as I desired to keep my meals in my stomach.

That leaves the Maxus D90. The D90 is also a large SUV but comes with Captain’s Chairs in the second row. It also has a similar engine to the Roewe RX8 (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same) and moves in a similar manner. Up the slope it went with plenty of urge, and was much more comfortable on the bumpy stuff too – in fact I preferred the second row ride here, as I found the seat massager button!

 

COMFORT EVALUATION CIRCUIT
We check out MG eZS, MG HS, Roewe Marvel X, Maxus T60 and Maxus EV30

The comfort evaluation circuit is used for evaluating the ride comfort on vehicles across various sections of tarmac, concrete roads, etc…as well as how vehicle suspensions cope with sudden jolts, bumps and dips, sine wave bumps and sudden bumps in the middle of a curve, to give you a taste of what it’s like. It’s got a few corners framed by two long straights. There are speed limits – the tighter first corner has a limit of 50km/h, the longer sweeping corners have a limit of 80km/h and the straights are open for business up to 120km/h.

I first settle into the eZS, eager to see how it fares. The eZS after all is a MG model that we can buy right now in Sri Lanka as it had just arrived barely a week before I left for China. First off, it feels like a regular ZS on the inside until you look at the meter panel and dashboard. While I didn’t have enough time to give it a full shakedown, it’s got a 148bhp 350Nm electric motor pushing it along, and an F1-style “KERS” energy recovery system that can be adjusted together with different driving modes. I leave it in default settings for now. A gentle prod and we are on our way. First impressions are that it’s extremely smooth, quiet and we reach the 50km/h limit of the first corner very easily.

Once past that, I give the throttle more input and the eZS powers along. It has more than enough oomph for its size and no fuss getting near 120km/h. The ride is smooth too, not much different from the regular ZS but the extra weight makes itself felt on long and fast sweepers. You will feel the tendency of the nose to wash wide but a little extra steering coupled with fine throttle control keeps things good. The regenerative systems are intuitive and you will quickly become connected to the car, knowing when to back off and kill just enough speed without needing to tap the brakes.

Taking a back seat ride in the eZS is equally smooth, even when the journalist driving hammers it over the sine wave bumps and broken concrete at 100km/h. The only noises heard are wind and a slight bit of tyre noise as they slap over the bumps. I am also told that under regular driving, the eZS can be expected to give 350+km of driving range.

Next up, I choose the Roewe Marvel X. This is Roewe’s premium SUV and you can see the styling influences from similar Western products too. It’s got 300bhp and all-wheel drive, Alcantara seats, Arkamys sound system, 19 inch touch screen for the infotainment system and other creature comforts. It’s also got some trick electric air vents that need you to use the touch screen to adjust as opposed to the regular way of using your finger muscle.

The Marvel X has got some urge and I relish the instant torque (665Nm) each time I prod the throttle, doing so just for the heck of it. The 120km/h speed limit on the straights seems childishly low as it is all too easy to exceed it in the Marvel X if you are not careful. It’s also supremely quiet inside, comfortable and a back seat ride is a relaxed one. The flip side is that despite the taut and sporty looks, the Marvel X rolls a bit when you corner it enthusiastically and generally gives the idea that it’s meant to be a swift and smooth cruiser rather than a focused track weapon.

I see the Maxus T60 pickup truck here as well, but choose to focus my attention on the oddball that SAIC have wheeled out for us; the Maxus EV30 light panel van. It looks so out of place in the company of the SUVs, and I climb aboard to see what the fuss is all about. It’s an electric panel van with an 85kW (approx. 110bhp) electric motor that puts out 255Nm of torque. It’s rated for 855kg of payload, offers 5 cubic metres of space and a range of approximately 200km. Delivery vehicle, it is then. Setting off, I give it full throttle and am surprised by how much urge it has. Getting to 50km/h from rest feels quite nippy. No doubt it will be blunted a bit when you load 800kg (or given that this is Sri Lanka, 1500kg), but it will still beat the trishaws, Nanos and dawdling eco-freak hybrid drivers from the lights, aided by that electric torque from zero rpm. Of course it rolls a bit when cornered hard, but as driver your ride is smooth, vibration free and eco-friendly. It’s also got a touchscreen infotainment system, air conditioning, and parking assistance radar. The literature says it can top out at 125km/h but the variant we got at the track was limited to 96km/h or 60mph, a speed at which it slammed into the limiter quite enthusiastically hinting at more performance in reserve.

 

SIMULATED LOW TRACTION DRIVING

In the MG 6 and Maxus G50

This course was designed to showcase how the stability and anti-lock braking systems help vehicle control and stopping during low-traction events. Designed to simulate driving on sheet ice, it consists of a tiled course that is constantly fed a level of water through shoulder-high water jets. The aim here is to keep traction as low as possible, and showcase how the electronics help the driver accelerate from rest, maintain a relatively straight trajectory and smoothly come to a halt. Of course these systems are no match for stupidity; you can’t just drive like you would on regular asphalt and expect them to do the work. The laws of physics do have their limits after all. ABS, ESP and other electronic nannies are just that, nannies. They will try to help you while tut-tutting, but they have their limits. So bear that in mind when you are on the E01 in pouring rain, in a vehicle with all the latest systems and still think that 100km/h is still a safe speed. Don’t be an idiot. Slow down.

The vehicles showcased here were the MG 6 and the six-seat minivan Maxus G50. The course is relatively simple. Proceed to the start of the ‘ice’ section and accelerate up to 50km/h on its slippery surface whilst maintaining a forward trajectory. Once you enter the braking area (which is more slippery), brake to almost a rest and coast off the surface back on to the high grip asphalt. Do a U-turn and a full-bore acceleration, followed by a full-bore ABS stop to rest. Sounds fun?

First off, the MG6. The instructor tells me to simply focus on steering, give a decent throttle input (never mind if the wheels spin) and let the systems showcase their prowess. That I do. The front wheels spin, kicking up water but the ESP system applies and cuts power so smoothly that I barely notice it and I get up to 50km/h with minimal steering inputs to maintain straight and true. The instructor tells me that this is the ESP system braking individual wheels to keep me straight as well. Braking is an easy affair too, with the ABS effect felt through the pedal as it pulsates slowly and brings me to a near halt. I do the U-turn, slip the transmission into Sport and gun it. The MG6’s nose rises as the engine growls away, accelerating us quite rapidly. At the brake point, I give it full braking and feel the ABS’ quick pulses. “It’s different, isn’t it? Says the instructor. “This is how the ESP system is tuned, to dynamically recognize and adapt to the grip situation” he summarizes.

Next up, I hop into the D50, curious to see how it fares. The heavier weight of the D50 helps it with traction in the first stage, and under braking it sheds speed almost as well as the MG6. Full-bore acceleration time and of course it’s not as rapid as the 6, but still acquits itself well. Under heavy braking, the tyres squeal more than those in the 6 did, but the G50 pulls up quickly. Being a luxury MPV with Captain’s Chairs in the second row, I opt for a passenger ride here, and have to report that it was very comfortable. You don’t get an Alphard-style cooled reclining seat, but you do get a nice padded leather chair with arm rests on both sides. A tray table is an option too, and you get your own climate zone for the rear with line AC vents. I didn’t feel much from outside except for the full-braking stop which anyone will feel.

As a final test to myself, I hop aboard the MG6 once again and with the instructor’s permission, turn off all the ESP, traction control and electronic aids. Cautiously entering the acceleration zone, I feather the throttle and manage to reach 50km/h without much wheel spin. Steering corrections are required as the tail constantly wonders about on the low-grip surface but I manage to keep the nose pointing ahead. Under braking too, I cautiously breathe on the pedal and bring the car to a halt well before the end of the braking area.

At the acceleration zone, I floor it from a dead stop in Sport and am impressed that even with all systems off, the 6 can find enough traction (granted, high grip surface but I also can have a right foot like Jeremy Clarkson when I choose to) to smartly jump off the line with nary a wisp of wheel spin. I give it the full braking treatment at the end and while the skidding is more, the 6 still pulls up before the final cone.

 

MY THOUGHTS ON CHINESE CARS

Chinese-made cars have come a long long way since we saw three-wheeled efforts with doors and roofs two decades ago. From the moment I landed in the country I paid close attention to the cars on the roads. Many Volkswagens were there (no surprise as they are locally assembled), including Chinese specific modes like the Lavida, and the Phaeton-inspired Phideon. Chinese brands like Warren Buffett-backed BYD were present too. New brand NIO had an impressive electric SUV that I checked out at a hotel car park. I also saw some “Trumpchi” cars, among other Chinese brands that I couldn’t read because the names were, well, in Chinese. A smattering of Japanese cars were present too; the Toyota Corolla is badged Levin here, some Nissans and Mazda’s were present too. American brands like Cadillac and Buick too, but small to medium-sized sedans mostly. Then you have the German premium brands Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. I even caught sight of a Volvo S90 once. I did not see Rolls Royce or Bentley and asked a Chinese journalist why this was. He replied that these brands are perceived as the toys of the new rich, the posers, and that a more typical car for a top-level executive or rich businessperson would be a Mercedes-Benz S class or BMW 7 series. Of course, long wheelbase is compulsory as the Chinese value rear passenger space. I saw Audi offering the A4 in ‘L’ guise, as well as the A6L and A8L.

Having driven ten cars in one day from three brands, I feel that the Chinese have indeed come a long way, and their cars can really be taken seriously in a global context. The rough edges that we are used to seeking for whenever we get into a Chinese (or Indian, for that matter) car are long gone. I kept touching dashboards, seams and large panels and more often than not, my fingers felt leather or other soft-touch materials. Of course, durability is a question and I did see some marks and scuffs on the test cars interiors. But these cars were just that; test cars meant to lead tough lives, dedicating their existence towards making the model better and better. These cars are also chock-full of features (OK, the Marvel X’s electric air vents are a tad too much for me) and have gotten the NVH factors to admirably low levels now.

Coming back to Sri Lanka, I eagerly await the chance to test the eZS on Sri Lankan roads, and maybe in the near future see some of these tested models grace our shores. I certainly would like to see the latest MG6 make it here, with extra brownie points if a manual comes.