Axon's Automotive Anorak: China's best-selling cars

19th April 2018
Gary Axon

One of the more popular Anorak pieces I wrote last year for the Goodwood Road & Racing site was about the world’s best-selling passenger car that you probably hadn’t heard of, the remarkably unremarkable Wuling Hongguang!


This forgettable Chinese-built people carrier has been the best-selling passenger car in the ever-expanding Chinese market for some years now, and sure enough, it retains its top slot once again for 2017 with more than 500,000 sold, based on the official new car registration figures that have only recently been released by the appropriate Chinese authorities. With a staggering 28 million new cars registered there last year, China is by far the largest passenger car market in the world, with the stars of the congested roads of Shanghai and Beijing being cars mostly unknown to us outside of the People’s Republic. 

With 28 million new cars registered in China in 2017, the world’s most powerful authoritarian state’s new car market is now over 12-times larger than the British car market, almost double the entire EU and EFTA markets combined in 2017, and ten million sales more than those made in the United States, the world’s second-largest new car market. China is now the real land of opportunity, the country most vehicle manufacturers have their sights firmly set on, especially post 2022 when China will end its present foreign ownership caps on local car companies by 2022, as well as removing restrictions on new-energy vehicle ventures this year; very good news for EV market leaders such as Tesla, Nissan and Jaguar. 

With such a significant sales potential, featuring in the Chinese top ten best sellers list is an important achievement, not to be sniffed at. So, what were the most popular new car models in the People's Republic in 2017? As already mentioned, the number one seller remained the Wuling Hongguang, with this economical seven-seater MPV occupying pole position since 2013. Second place went to a proven local Volkswagen saloon, the VW Lavida, built on the platform of Golf IV. Volkswagen is also the most popular German brand in China, with more than 3 million new vehicles finding new buyers there last year. 

As in Europe, SUVs continue to grow, with the local Haval H6 being the leader in the category, taking the third sales slot. The compact and inexpensive Baojun 510, sixth overall in 2017, as so far exceeding its rival more prestigious rivals in early 2018. Despite being priced at the higher ‘European’ levels, the Volkswagen Tiguan " occupied the seventh sales slot last year. Traditional three-box booted saloon (many offered uniquely for China in longer wheelbase format, with wealthy families often use a driver to chauffeur them around), remain very popular, with models such as the Buick Excelle (4th), Nissan Sylphy (5th) or Volkswagen Sagitar (10th) selling well, with more than 300,000 examples each finding new buyers each year. 

With Volkswagen in the lead overall, local manufacturers are growing and chasing. Customs duties currently remain high upon entry into China, resulting in imported cars being an ultra-minority. In order to penetrate the People's Republic, foreign brands must produce cars on the spot locally. For this, they are legally obliged to associate with a local partner, giving birth to unusual joint ventures, such as SAIC General Motors, Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroen, GAC Toyota, and so on. Volkswagen even works with different companies: SAIC and FAW make different models of the same brand... but sometimes comparable. 


The explosion of the Chinese market (+200 per cent growth since 2008) has been the buzzword of foreign manufacturers but has also given birth to a swarm of local brands. Behind Volkswagen or Honda, the nationalised automaker Changan sells more than a million vehicles a year. In the SIAC-GM group, Wuling is known for its MPVs, while Baojun (‘precious horse’ in English) targets young households with low-cost vehicles. In total last year, the SAIC Motor Corporation built staggering 6.2 million passenger cars, followed by Dongfeng (3.5m), FAW (3.1m), Changan (2.2m) and GAC (2.1m) 

This local success is now enabling more Chinese automotive groups to invest overseas, with Geely, for example, now owning Volvo and Lotus. Chinese giant GAC Trumpchi is shortly to launch in the lucrative USA market, and Haval has just established a base in Australia. Here are the 2017 Chinese top ten best selling cars; 

1st – Wuling Hongguang (532,394 registrations)

Not very sexy but very practical, this popular MPV is manufactured in Luizhou by a joint venture between the local giant SAIC and General Motors. It owes its popularity to its seven seats, its compactness (4.30m) and its affordable price of c.£7,500 (60,000 yuan).

2nd – Volkswagen Lavida (517 255 registrations)

Manufactured by the SAIC-VW joint venture, this traditional saloon is based on the platform of the VW Golf IV/first-generation Skoda Octavia. Its success is based on proven engines and its variations, the Gran Lavida and Cross Lavida.

3rd – Haval H6 (505 944 registrations)

Great Wall's 100 per cent SUV brand, Haval boasts spectacular H6 sales figures, with the stylish SUV being a tad smaller than a Nissan Qashqai.

4th – Buick Excelle (421,296 registrations)

The Buick Excelle saloon is the result of the collaboration between SAIC and General Motors, sharing its platform with the current Vauxhall Astra. 

5th – Nissan Sylphy (404,726 registrations)

Another mid-size saloon with classic lines, the Sylphy is the three-box cousin of the Nissan Pulsar sold here in the UK. Associated with Dongfeng, Nissan intends to become the third manufacturer on the Chinese market within five years (it currently occupies the 6th position). 

6th – Baojun 510 (358,877 registrations)

This affordable SUV targets young households with its practical looks and low local taxes (priced from c.£6,000). Baojun belongs to the SAIC-GM joint venture.

7th – Volkswagen Tiguan (340,032 registrations)

Already a strong seller in Europe, the Tiguan takes advantage of the SUV boom in China and has done particularly well to appear in the Top ten best seller list here, with its higher imported price positioning. The sever-seater L version (the equivalent of the new Tiguan Allspace here) is particularly popular.

8th – GAC Trumpchi GS4 (337,330 registrations)

Comparable to a Toyota RAV4, this SUV makes a fortune for this former specialist bike and minibus manufacturer The GAC brand intends to launch this SUV machine in the US market soon with ‘low cost’ prices ... but the name Trumpchi might just repel some buyers because of its proximity to the name of a certain President! 

9th – Toyota Corolla (336,763 registrations)

This Japanese model is the second best-selling car on the planet: a third of the Corollas being sold in the Chinese market. The hybrid version, manufactured locally in China since 2015, no longer suffers from customs duties and receives government aid as a ‘clean’ machine, helping to elevate its sales.

10th – Volkswagen Sagitar (327,062 registrations)

Unlike the VW Lavida or Tiguan, the Sagitar is manufactured by Volkswagen’s other Chinese joint venture of the German brand, founded with FAW, the oldest Chinese manufacturer. The Sagitar shares many parts with the American-built Jetta.

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