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Why a Chinese-made VW is still a German car

A tour of Volkswagen’s Shanghai factory

Published

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Gone are the days when Japanese cars were still built in Japan, German cars in Germany and British cars in the UK. These days, most Japanese cars are built in the ASEAN region, while some British cars are now built in China. German cars are now built in a variety of regions from the US, to Europe and even Asia. In fact, there was a time when German cars used to be built in the Philippines. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that large number of Volkswagen Philippines’ current lineup is now sourced from China.

Until recently, Volkswagen had trouble pricing their quality vehicles competitively. Majority of them were sourced from factories in Germany, and as such, subject to shipping costs and import duties. Thanks to a recent free trade agreement between ASEAN and China, vehicles produced in the People’s Republic can now be brought in at more competitive prices.

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Yet it’s not just favorable prices that have convinced Volkswagen Philippines to look to China’s inventory. The Chinese market has a lot of similarities to the Filipino market. For one, there’s the left-hand drive configuration. The Philippines is an odd-man-out in the ASEAN region thanks to our left-hand drive cars. In addition, there’s still a strong market preference for sedans, in spite of the broad availability of hatchbacks in a variety of segments. Finally, the buyers are no longer easily swayed by competitive prices, but also seek out quality equipment, tasteful design and space. All of these concerns are easily addressed by Volkswagen’s China-made lineup.

Any apprehension on the buyers’ part is understandable. After all, some Chinese-made and branded vehicles have proven rather underwhelming. Nonetheless, like the modern Apple iPhone, quality-built products can come from China with the right supervision. It’s this dedication to that consistent quality that Volkswagen hopes to highlight.

Volkswagen Philippines made sure we saw it for ourselves with a recent visit to its SAIC Volkswagen plant in Shanghai, China. Volkswagen’s factory in Anting, Shanghai is a joint venture between Volkswagen and SAIC. Under this partnership, Volkswagen produced the Santana, Lavida, Lamando and Tiguan models to meet the needs of the Chinese market. The Chinese market is also quite unique in that vehicles are taxed by engine size but not body size, resulting in vehicles that are exceptionally spacious for their segment, yet propelled by frugal yet powerful engines. Being unique to the Chinese market, and now Philippine market, these vehicles had to be built in China.

Considering China is now the world’s largest auto market, now eclipsing the US in terms of sales, a small and simple factory wouldn’t do.

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VW’s Shanghai factory is one of the largest in the Volkswagen family. It’s composed of several production lines dedicated to the unique Chinese models. The Lavida — a model only recently introduced here — was the best-selling car in China in 2018, with over 500,000 units sold. Every single one of them was produced at just one of the factory’s production lines.

Despite the size and volume, Volkswagen’s Shanghai plant is able to ensure consistently high quality thanks to the automation of much of the assembly process. Unlike most factories in Asia, the Antin plant uses robots in the welding, assembly, and painting processes. This results in more precise construction of the vehicles, fewer errors, and a high standard of quality.

Of course, there are still processes that require a human touch. These involve installing various delicate components like wiring harnesses, interior fittings, even seats. After all these are done, the vehicles still go through a thorough inspection, particularly for water leaks, paint blemishes, and poorly fit parts. Even mechanicals are tested wherein the cars are put on a rolling road and everything from its engine response, emissions, and indicator lights are checked by computer. A technician simply needs to operate the vehicle and follow instructions.

It’s only after passing all these that a Volkswagen at that factory receives its badge, serving as a mark of quality that it passed the same stringent standards that Volkswagen employs in all its factories around the world.

The current line-up of Volkswagen vehicles may be made in China, but they’re built to the same German precision and quality the brand has come to be known for.

By Iñigo S. Roces

 

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