Lotus tuned suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, 93Kw 1.6-litre engine, good-looking SUV looks and less than $20,000. Surely the Chery J11 would be a top contender for our $20K Challenge?

I had high hopes for the Chery. Could the Chinese build a car to rival the other sub-$20K offerings from the Europeans and the Japanese?

First Impressions

There’s no doubt – the Chery J11 is one good-looking compact SUV. Just the right proportioning, nice lines, clean looks. I prefer it over the Suzuki Jimny, which is also in our $20K Challenge (but yet to be tested). The shape reminds me of an earlier model Vitara or even a RAV4, and all of the comments I got on the car were about its looks. It may have an SUV body, but keep in mind the J11 is 2WD only, or a “pretender” SUV as Subaru would like it to be known.

This is a nice looking, small car
This is a nice looking small car

The next pleasant surprise is when you open the rear door. Man, there is some usable space in there. This is one wide and deep boot. Strangely, Chery does not give the seats-up storage figure, only seats down, it would have been nice to see the numbers here. The added bonus with the J11 is that the rear door goes right down and under the car, so the loading height is the lowest I think I’ve ever seen. It’s quite weird to look at, as the boot finishes and then there’s nothing there. No lip, just the end of the floor and then air. Fantastic design, Chery.

2015-chery-j11-autoclique-9
Love the practical design touch here, no lip!

When you open a door of the J11, first impressions are of a bright, airy interior. After a few darker interiors lately (I’m looking at you, Suzuki Swift), the J11 was a breath of fresh air.

Then, your hopes fade a little. The plastics used are…cheap. Cheap looking and cheap feeling. The interior reminds me of the early Daewoos, and I don’t mean that kindly.

My first thought of a Chinese car is that it will be cheap to buy and yet well-equipped. The J11 struggles on both of these fronts. Sure it has cruise control (CVT only), front and rear fog lamps, hill start assist, leather trimmed seats, steering wheel controls for audio, height-adjustable driver’s seat, 17” alloy wheels, reversing sensors and USB input for audio.

2015-chery-j11-autoclique-13

But it doesn’t quite pull most of these things off. The “leather trimmed seats” (please use your fingers for air quotes here) feel like vinyl. I thought maybe the “leather trimmed” part wasn’t the sides of the seat, but only the centre. But one of the worst parts of the car is the centre panel in the front seats. It’s perforated so it sort of looks like leather, but it’s like resting your back against a piece of hard cardboard. After 30 minutes driving, my back was aching. Every Single Time (my emphasis).

The USB input, instead of being a standard USB port where you can chuck a USB ‘stick’ in and play your music, is a Micro-USB port. I’m struggling to think how you would make that work.  And the steering wheel controls for the stereo only do the input source and track up/down – not volume.

It's a USB port Jim, but not as we know it.
It’s a USB port Jim, but not as we know it (or would like it to be)

Then there’s the perceived cheap price because it’s from China. The J11 manual retails at $17,990 and the auto (as per our test car) at $19,990. You can see from other $20K Challenge cars that you can now get quality, a fun drive and great equipment for less than $20K. Price advantage? Not here. Many of our other cars in the $20K Challenge have the equipment the J11 does, and some of them more.

And that’s not even discussing the J11’s safety rating. I had some memory that it was a lowly 3-star ANCAP car, but it turns out that is for the Chery J3 (sedan). The J11 is rated at 2 stars, which is the lowest of our $20K Challenge cars. Does this concern you, the potential buyer? That’s your call, but keep in mind the Suzuki Swift and Skoda Fabia are both 5-star ANCAP cars and are the same price as the J11.

At this point, I started to look longingly at the mechanical specifications. Mmmmmm. Lotus tuned suspension, 93kw 1.6-litre engine, 7-speed CVT transmission (huh?), multi-link rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes. The saving grace for the J11 has got to be its drivetrain and chassis, right?

2015-chery-j11-autoclique-12

What’s it like to live with?

“The vehicle chassis has been finely tuned by England’s LOTUS and ensures ample mobility whilst maintaining a high level of comfort.” I’m not sure who it was Chery used at Lotus to tune the suspension, but something got lost in the translation. While it’s not that bad, it’s just not very good. You would think with Lotus tinkering with the suspension, it would be something to write about. It’s a bit wallowy, the ride is pretty darn hard and the steering reminded me of an English car from the 70’s. You can move the steering wheel left and right a bit while driving, and nothing happens – it’s pretty vague. The steering is also far too light. Perhaps ‘ample mobility’ means something else other than a good ride and handling to go with it.

But – and I hate to continue to be negative here – the engine and transmission are also a let-down. While it puts out 93kw, the J11 is gutless. You really struggle to get forward motion easily, and it feels like you are having to use more throttle than you should (all the time!) to keep up with traffic. Uphill is a chore, and the transmission doesn’t help. Like the steering, it’s all a bit vague.

The brakes don’t inspire confidence. They may be four-wheel discs, but the pedal feels like you are pushing on a piece of wood. Not much feeling there at all. Then there is the handbrake. It’s on the left of the gear lever, so your arm ends up at a weird angle to put it on or off. Not the end of the world, but another thing that wasn’t quite right on the J11.

The other bad bit is the engine noise. Cold running is worst, and when warm the engine drones on quite badly, especially up hills. Motorway running is better as far as noise goes, but it still struggles with performance. At times you put your foot down and nothing happens. Nothing. I was surprised by this as not a few months ago, I tested the Honda Jazz which also has a CVT transmission and 93Kw and that thing could move. Sure the J11 is heavier, but I still wonder what rating system they used to get a number of 93Kw. In all aspects of driving, it doesn’t feel anywhere near that.

I’ve got to declare though that the test Chery had only done 40km when I picked it up, so perhaps the performance would improve with lots more kilometres on the engine. It needs to improve quite badly.

No doubt the weight of the Chery is a factor here too. At 1375Kg, this is one heavy compact SUV. Looking around the car I struggle to see where all the weight is, but compared to the Jazz, that’s like carrying an extra three 100Kg people around with you all the time.

Visibility is good in the J11, big non-tinted windows and that higher SUV-stance helps in town traffic.

The audio sounds fine, although the four speakers sound like bargain-basement items. I did have issues with the volume knob – without any volume controls on the steering wheel, the knob is your only option. But it only barely sticks out from the dash, so you can only get the tips of your fingers around it. Not a biggie, but it’s one of those painful things that makes driving that little bit less enjoyable, and distracting.

2015-chery-j11-autoclique-7

There’s no Bluetooth in the J11, so you can’t pair your phone up with the car. It is a dealer option though, as are mats (the J11 doesn’t come with any).

There is however an interior mirror which displays your heading, has a barometer, and also has an ‘LTI’ reading in metres, and I have absolutely no idea what that is for. There was no manual to consult for this, although I am sure the J11 does come with a manual. Even Google didn’t help me here. My wife didn’t like the display on the mirror, she found it quite distracting but luckily you can turn it off.

2015-chery-j11-autoclique-15
LTI: Length To Impact?

According to the standard features there is a trip computer, but as far as I could tell all that does is give you an instantaneous fuel consumption readout. Hardly a trip computer, but still handy.

One thing I found a real throwback to the 1980s – there are intermittent wipers of course, but you can’t adjust the speed. There’s just intermittent, or not. According to the Chery New Zealand website, automatic rain-sensing wipers are standard. Well, they aren’t. Weird. There were things on the car which were either a bit strange or just not good. The heating controls are all round knobs, which is fine, but they are so hard to turn you feel like something is going to break. Not confidence inspiring. One day I was adjusting the exterior mirrors, and the knob fell into the door.

Spot the missing trim...
Spot the missing knob…

There is a sunglasses holder, which is handy, as well as adjustable headlights and the reversing sensors also have a readout on the dash of how far to go before you hit something. That’s a cool feature.

The J11 has some redeeming features. Just not enough to outweigh the poor design/build quality.

What it’s up against

As the J11 is in our $20K Challenge, you can compare it to other sub $20K cars here.

The good and the bad

ProsCons
Styling

Boot space

Light interior

Visibility

Engine performance

Engine noise

Seats

Suspension/steering

Brakes

Safety rating

Cheap feel and look of plastics

What do we think?

I so wanted this car to be good. I wanted it to show that the Chinese have made huge strides in car quality and driveability. They aren’t there yet – far from it.

I’ve mentioned before that my benchmark for the $20K Challenge is, would I be happy to jump in and drive whatever car it is from Wellington to Auckland (and back). So far – totally. Until the J11.

For a start, Chery should buy a Skoda Fabia or Suzuki Swift and see how a car that’s cheap to buy can be made to feel like quality, and drive brilliantly.

Chevron _2out5

 

 

 

Read more about the Chery J11 on the Chery New Zealand website.

Autoclique would like to thank Brendan Foot Motors in Lower Hutt, Wellington for supplying us with the review car.  Visit their website here.

We would not have been able to complete the $20K Challenge without Brendan Foot Motor’s kind assistance.

brendan-foot-motors-general

Vehicle Type2wd, compact Crossover
Starting Price$17,990
Tested Price$19,990
Engine1.6-litre 4-cylinder petrol DOHC with VVT
Transmission7-speed CVT
0 – 100 kphA while (official figure not given)
Kerb Weight1375Kg
Length x Width x Height4390x1765x1705
Cargo Capacity790L – seats down

(seat up figure not given)

Fuel Tank55 litres
NCAP Safety Ratings2 star
Warranty3 year/100,000km with roadside assistance.

 

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How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm also an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.

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