A Deep-Dive Into The First-Generation Of Chinese Sports Cars. Which Came Out In The 2000s. And Which You’ve Never Heard Of.

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The Chinese car industry is best known for affordable family cars, extremely expensive state limousines, and, increasingly, highly advanced electric cars. One thing Chinese car makers are not known for is sports cars. But here’s the thing: China has made some awesome sports cars. You just have probably never heard of them. Let’s fix that.

Recently the auto industry has been seeing lots of small Low Speed Electric Vehicle makers coming up with crazy 15 hp sportmachines, like Mr. Torchinsky’s Changli, but with a Ferrari body, plus various Chinese car makers have been developing and even launching mainstream electric sports cars. And while these are interesting, today we’re going back to the 2000’s and early 2010’s when then-emerging Chinese carmakers seemingly simultaneously launched fascinating sports cars to draw attention to their brands.

These cars were barely noted elsewhere in the world, but in China they were a big thing, as they proved that the Chinese car industry was getting stronger, and that it was able to design exciting cars and bring them to the market quickly. Not every carmaker followed the same path, as we will see, but regardless, this was an exciting time for cars in China.

Let’s get into it by starting with the Geely Meirenbao, China’s first mass-produced sports car. 

Geely Meirenbao & Successors

Geely Meirenbao

The Geely Meirenbao (Meirenbao (美人豹) means “Beauty Leopard”) is probably the best known Chinese sports car. Staying with this beauty-theme, the Meirenbao — like Jason Torchinsky’s Changli — had English-language “Fashion” badges on the doors. Unveiled in 2003, it was actually hailed as “China’s first sports car”. This was not entirely correct, but it sure was China’s first mass produced sports car and that was super cool at the time. 

I lived in China in 2003 and remember the media frenzy very well. Even serious publications like ChinaDaily wrote about Geely’s Meirenbao. I once drove one at a wedding, of all occasions, and liked it a lot. Steering was super direct and it felt fast enough. The Meirenbao was developed as a halo-car for the Geely brand, which, at the time, only made a bunch of tiny super cheap econoboxes. Creating a two-door sports car was thus a big and daring step for Geely, although the company had done some strange two-door stuff before.

The design was nice, especially given that this was Geely’s very first sporty car. It was original too, probably a bit inspired by the Hyundai Coupe and Toyota Celica and MR2, but certainly not a copy. It had a long and low bonnet, a compact cabin, a sloping rear window, and a tall rear deck that abruptly ended. The wing, five-spoke wheels, and dual exhaust pipe added even more racy vibes. 

[Editor’s Note: Those aren’t Toyota Supra “pool ball” taillights, but they’re damn close. I checked. – JT]

The Meirenbao launched on the Chinese car market in 2004, a year after it was unveiled. Power came from a 1.3 and 1.5 liter four-cylinder petrol engine. These were originally Toyota engines, part of Toyota’s A Series. The engines were manufactured in China by Tianjin FAW Toyota Engine, a joint venture between Tianjin FAW and Toyota. They were used to power cars made by Tianjin FAW Xiali, which produced a licensed version of the Daihatsu Charade. Later, they also sat under the bonnet of cars made by Tianjin FAW Toyota, technically a different joint venture that made various Toyotas for the Chinese market.  

Tianjin FAW Toyota Engine also sold them to other Chinese automakers. The engines thus ended up in all sorts of cars, ranging from vans to small trucks, from hatchbacks to sedans to Geely’s little Meirenbao. Production of descendants of the A Series in China continues to this day.

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The 1.3 under the bonnet of the Meirenbao.

The original Toyota designation of the 1.3 was “8A-FE.” At Geely, the engine got a new designation: MR479Q. (Many Chinese automakers buy their engines off the shelf, and they usually give them new designations and names). Output of the 1.3 (1342 mL) was 86 hp and 110 Nm. Power went to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual gearbox. Top speed was 170 km/h and 0-100 (about 0 to 62 mph) took a relaxing 12.8 seconds. The 1.5 liter engine (1498 mL) had an output of 94 hp and 128 Nm. It was marginally faster, getting the 2,200 pound car ot a top speed of 175 km/h and to 100 km/h in 12 seconds

Base price in 2004 for the 1.3 was 99.900 yuan (roughly $12,000) — this later dropped for 2005; the 1.5 started at 118.800 yuan (just over 14 grand). Again, as we saw with the Hyundai Elantra’s, there are lots of eights and nines in the pricing, as both are lucky numbers in Chinese culture. (Eight is associated with prosperity and nine with longevity). 

The interior of the Meirenbao was flashy. It had red-black faux-leather seats, red door trim, and red trim around the gear lever and on the parking brake. The gear lever knob and parking brake handle were finished in metal. The central armrest was notably high, and there was a huge storage space below it. The steering wheel was sporty and large. The instrument panel had white dials, including a rev counter. 

But the biggest eye catcher was the factory standard Meirenbao-branded infotainment system. It could play DVD-R, VC-D, CD-R, and MP3 music and video. And yes, the video worked while driving. In the early 2000’s this kind of infotainment system was surprisingly common in affordable Chinese cars. 

 

Geely Meirenbao Leading
  

Chinese automakers are always quick to update their cars. The Meirenbao hit the market in 2004, and just two years later it was updated with a whole new design. The naming situation got a tad more confusing. The car was still called Meirenbao, but the updated version got an additional type name: Lijing (雳靓), translated into English as Leading. The front totally changed, with new headlights and a new bumper. The grille between the headlights was gone, replaced with a larger grille in the bumper. 

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The rear got a similar treatment: new and much larger lights, a new spoiler, and new exhaust pipe tips. Geely also added an ‘aerodynamic’ piece of plastic in front of the rear wheel arches. Happily, the ‘Fashion’ badge on the door remained.  

A quick note: The usage of ‘China’ in front of brand names was very common in China in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was a nationalistic thing, celebrating the Chineseness of the car, as opposed to a foreign-brand car. Back then, mass produced Chinese brands were still rare, so companies and consumers were quite proud about it. Nowadays, ‘China’ badging is very rare, Hongqi is probably the only brand that still does this.

The interior was redesigned as well. The dashboard was all-new with a more comprehensive design. Sadly, the cool infotainment system was replaced by a conventional radio-CD unit. Early cars had a 3-spoke steering wheel, later one got a modern wheel with a yellow MYBO badge. 

The Leading got a new engine, too: a 1.8 liter designated JL481Q. This motor was no longer sourced from Tianjin FAW Toyota but developed and built in-house by Geely. It had an output of 114 hp and 157 Nm, and the gearbox was still the 5-speed manual. Top speed went up to 190 km/h and 0-100 went down to 10 seconds flat. The 1.5 remained as well, but only mated to a new 4-speed automatic gearbox. Price for the 1.8 started at 79.800 yuan (~9,500), exactly the same as Geely asked for the 1.3 in 2005! Price for the 1.5 automatic started at 76.800 yuan. 

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The Leading was marketed abroad as well. There, it was simply called Geely Coupe. 

 

Geely China Dragon 

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The 2009 China Dragon (中国龙) was the successor of the Meirenbao. It wasn’t a completely new car, as it was still based on the same platform, but every bit of body work was redesigned. It still had the Mybo badging but Meirenbao was no longer a part of its name. The China Dragon was certainly the best looking Geely sports car so far.

Where the Meirenbao’s design was a bit messy in places, the China Dragon just worked; a clean design with subtle creases and widened wheel arches. The rear wing was gone and it had new five-spoke wheels. The back had some interesting design details, like the lights that continued over the top of the rear fenders and the cutouts in the bumper for the pipes.


Sadly, all this prettiness was let down a little by the odd looking nose. It was designed to mimic a dragon’s nose, with the lights for eyes and a nose section in the middle, complete with two black nostrils. And right in the center of the dragon’s nose sat a logo with a leopard.  

The engines of the Meirenbao Leading continued in the China Dragon with slightly different numbers: the 1.8 with 113 hp and 156 Nm and the 1.5 with 95 hp and 128 Nm. Both engines were mated to a 5-speed manual gearbox; the automatic was canceled. Prices went up this time, 88.800 yuan for the 1.8 and 86.800 for the 1.5. Did I mention 8 was a lucky number..? Guess I did. It’s a cultural thing, you know. 

Production ended in 2011 — cycles were short in those years. The Meirenbao/China Dragon can be considered a success. The car surely got Geely lots of attention and it sold in decent numbers. Strangely, there was no successor and there still hasn’t been one yet, no matter the dozens of sporty concept cars that Geely has unveiled over the years. But there is hope. Geely owns Lotus now, so they can rebdage the Evija. That would be a worthy successor of the Meirenbao.

Brilliance Coupe

The Brilliance Coupe was a pretty coupe launched in 2007. There is always a lot of name-confusion around this brand and around this car. Let’s get that out of the way first: In China, the company that owns the brand is called Brilliance Auto (华晨汽车, Huachen Qiche). This company owns several brands and runs several joint ventures, including Brilliance-BMW. 

Its main passenger car brand is Zhonghua (中华), best translated as “Relating to China.” The term is used for many cultural and traditional subjects in China. As a brand name, it is kind of nationalistic, like American Motors. When Brilliance Auto started exporting cars it didn’t think the Zhonghua would be as catchy abroad as it was in China. So it went for the name Brilliance. Hence, for example, the Zhonghua BS4 became the Brilliance BS4 abroad.

The car has some naming issues too: the Chinese name is 酷宝 (Kubao), best translated as Cool Treasure, and a transliteration of the word “coupe.” However, when the car was first unveiled in China it was called the M3. When it was unveiled in Europe it was called the BC3. Other names, depending on the export country, are: Kouper, Coupe, and BC3 GT. In China, the English name was “Coupe,” so that’s the one I use here. 

This sort of naming mess is very normal among Chinese automakers and it was even worse in the 2000’s when exports just started. I could write a book about names, but I won’t. Because I’d go mad.

The Brilliance Coupe was a beautiful car with a classic liftback coupe-shape: a long bonnet, a set back cabin, and a sloping roofline. The Coupe was designed by none other than Pininfarina.

The famous Italian design studio and Brilliance Auto had been working together for a while. Pininfarina designed the Brilliance BS4 & the pretty BS4 Wagon. The Italian was a popular chap in China at the time; Pininfarina also worked for, among others, Chinese carmakers Chery and Hafei.

There was more foreign involvement in the development of the Brilliance Coupe. Porsche Engineering helped with the chassis, and FEV, a lesser known German engineering firm, helped to develop the 1.8 turbo engine. 

The Coupe was a front-wheel drive car. Brilliance offered two four-cylinder petrol engines: a 1.8 (1834mL) and 1.8 (1793mL) turbo. Although similar in displacement the two engines were rather different. The 1.8 was sourced from the Shenyang Aerospace Mitsubishi Motors Engine Manufacturing Corporation, better known as ‘Shenyang Mitsubishi’, a long-running engine-making joint venture that sells engines to numerous Chinese automakers. The 1.8 turbo was developed in-house by Brilliance, with assistance by FEV. This engine has been used to power almost every Brilliance-branded car since then, and its descendants are still in production today.  

The 1.8 had 136 hp and 165 Nm on tap, good for a 196 km/h top speed and a 0-100 in 10.3 seconds. The 1.8 turbo came with 170 hp and 235 Nm. It needed 9 seconds to sprint to 100 and topped out at 220 km/h, which made it the fastest Chinese road car ever produced. 

The 1.8 was mated to a 5-speed manual, the 1.8 turbo to a six-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. The Brilliance Coupe was pricier than the Meirenbao. The base 1.8 started at 129.800 yuan (~$17,000) and the top-end 1.8 turbo went for 169.500 yuan (~$22,000).

The interior was almost as exciting as the exterior, and practical too, as it could seat four and a baby, with ample space in the boot. It had a 3-spoke steering wheel, big round dials, and racy perforated pedals. The interior color matched the exterior, which was most fantastic in red.

Brilliance Coupe GT

In 2008, Brilliance launched the Coupe GT. It was a sportier variant with a rear spoiler,  redesigned bumpers, and extra plastic bits behind the front wheel and in front of the rear wheel. Mechanically nothing changed and specifications were all the same. It was a little more expensive with a 172.800 base price (~$25,000). Probably worth the money as the sporty additions make it look quite a bit more serious and speedy. 

The GT has super cool headrests with a silhouette of the car, complete with the rear wing!

The high price and the relatively unknown Brilliance brand led to poor sales of the Coupe, which is kind of sad, as it was a great looking car with decent power, especially with the 1.8 turbo under the bonnet. Production stopped in 2011, and today the Coupe is a rather rare car on the road. There was some export, to Germany and even to Egypt, but the numbers were low. Brilliance never developed a successor for the Coupe, and the whole brand was killed-off in 2020, due to poor sales and a lack of electric cars. But in China you never know, and a new Brilliance may arise at any time.   

 

BYD S8

The BYD S8 is probably the most controversial car of the four we’re discussing today. It is also the rarest. The main controversy was about its looks — clearly too much inspired by the contemporary Mercedes-Benz CLK. At the time, BYD wasn’t the innovative PHEV/EV maker it is today. Instead, it was a tiny Chinese automaker known for cloning Toyotas. BYD was indeed so small that nobody really cared, including early investors Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who once cheered on a Previa copy.

Still, the BYD S8 was a big and daring step for BYD, who made only dreary sedans and MPVs at the time. The S8 was its first attempt at a sports car and BYD didn’t make it easy on itself. A coupe wasn’t enough — BYD went for a convertible-coupe body with a steel roof, and it reportedly took the team a lot of time to make the roof mechanism work. It was the first convertible-coupe ever made by a Chinese car company, and it holds that title to this day.  

The S8 was first shown in 2006, when it was still called the F8 (see below). The red car on the 2008 press photo above had the original BYD logo on the grille.

In 2008 BYD showed an updated version, with the new BYD logo and a hood ornament. But it was only in 2009 that the car finally hit the market, renamed to BYD S8.

The roof mechanism consisted of two parts, and folded neatly into the rear compartment. When we forget, just for a moment, the copy-paste situation, the BYD S8 is actually not a bad looking car. One may even call it somewhat attractive, especially in red. Design was relatively clean for an early BYD; the only oddity was the fake air vent (similar to the one on the Mercedes SL’s front fenders) on the rear fender. Otherwise, it was all very civilized, with a modest 3-bar grille and gray alloy wheels. 

The BYD S8 was powered by a self-developed 2.0 liter (1.991mL) four-cylinder gasoline engine. Output was 200 hp and 186 Nm, good for a 180 km/h top speed. The engine was mated to a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. The latter was rather special, as most Chinese automakers only fitted 4 or 5 speed automatic gearboxes. But the S8 got a six-speed. Price was high; the base manual model sold for 165.800 yuan (~$24,000) and the top-spec automatic for 206.800 yuan (over $30 grand). But hey, if you want the first Chinese convertible coupe, you have to pay up.

The interior was nice, featuring large leather seats, semi-classy materials, and a 2+2 layout. There were some interesting details, like the handbrake lever and the sporty ‘BYD Auto’ dials. The center stack had an infotainment system that could play DVDs and CDs, it had a six-disc changer in the back. 

Sadly for BYD, the S8 proved to be a sales disaster, mainly due to price and persistent issues with the roof mechanism. Over two years of production, only some 100 cars were ever sold, making it one of the rarest Chinese cars of the modern age. There has been no successor. Over the years BYD has shown many sporty concept cars but so far no production, although a BYD platform underpins the crazy Songsan SS Dolphin, a retro Corvette clone.  

Nanjing MG TF

In 2005, the once mighty MG Rover went bust. Two Chinese companies got away with the crown jewels: SAIC with the rights to the Rover 75 and Nanjing Automobile with the rights to the MG brand and several MG cars including the MG ZT and the sporty TF roadster. SAIC didn’t have the rights to the Rover name and created the Roewe brand for their Rover-based offerings. In 2007, SAIC purchased Nanjing Automobile, bringing Rover and MG under one roof once again. 

Nanjing Automobile wasn’t a big player in the passenger car market. The only car it produced was the Seat Ibiza-based Nanjing Yuejin Encore, which was kind of weird in a positive way but hopelessly outdated. So the MG brand was a big bet for the company. The coolest car in the old MG lineup was the TF, a speedy little mid-engined roadster with sharp handling and a bad reputation for build-quality. Naturally, Nanjing Automobile saw the TF as a perfect image-builder to relaunch MG in China. 

The Chinese shipped the production line for the TF to Nanjing City, hometown of Nanjing Automobile. With assistance of former MG-Rover employees, the company managed to restart production in late 2007, just after the takeover by SAIC. The Chinese-made MG TF was basically the same as the UK-built car, except it had Nanjing badging. Somewhat confusingly, Nanjing Automobile then began to assemble the MG TF in Longbridge again, using China-made CKD kits. Only a 1,000 cars were made there. For this story we focus on the China-spec car. (Nanjing Automobile also acquired the rights to the MG TF GT coupe, but they didn’t produce it).

Fuzzy fact: when Nanjing Automobile acquired MG, it came up with a new meaning: Modern Gentleman. After lots of ridicule in China and abroad the company changed it back to the “Morris Garages” original. 

Check out the tall antenna and the Nanjing-MG (南京名爵) badge. 

The MG TF launched on the Chinese car market in 2008. It was the first China-made mid-engined car, a title that it holds to this day. The TF was powered by a 1.8 liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, produced in China and based on the Rover K-Series. There were two versions: the first had 136 hp and 165 Nm, and was mated to a five-speed manual. The second one had 120 hp and 160 Nm, and came with a CVT. The manual model went from 0 to 100 in 8.2 seconds and had a 215 km/h top speed. The CVT was a little slower with 9.7 and 200. 

Pricing was shocking. For the manual, you had to bring in 249.600 yuan (around $36 grand) and for the CVT 265.800 (roughly $38,000)! To put that into context: for one Nanjing MG TF you could also buy two Geely Meirenbao’s or a Meirenbao and a Brilliance Coupe.

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The interior design was unchanged from the European model as well, but the Nanjing-MG TF did have a new radio-CD player and some new buttons and switches.

Although the MG TF was already aging when Nanjing Automobile restarted production, it had aged well. The TF still looked pretty and there certainly was a niche market for a sporty roadster in China. However, the crazy pricing let it down and it never sold in great numbers. In 2010 it was all over and production ended for the final time. Again, there was no immediate successor. Over the years MG showed many sporty concept cars but nothing came of it. However, the brand is currently developing the production version of the cool Cyberster concept, set to launch in 2024

These were the Chinese sports cars of the 2000’s. All interesting cars, and all daring projects for the manufacturers — so daring indeed that none of these four brands has ever tried to launch a sporty vehicle again. 

Too bad, because with their current technology and production know-how they are surely able to produce a decent sports car. Happily, MG is coming up with an electric sports car, although it may take a while before it hits the market.

More Chinese sports cars in upcoming stories!

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32 Responses

  1. Looking at these cars I can’t help but feel like how I imagine people suffering from Alzheimer’s must feel. Like you’re looking at something that looks like it should be familiar to you but it’s simultaneously all wrong and you can’t quite understand why.

  2. I swear, somebody has a stash of unsold Brilliance Coupes that they are re-badging as Pontiac Sunbirds to sell to the yahoos Stateside. That’s the only reason I see so many of the things on the streets here.
    “But Steve–don’t you have photographic proof?”
    They’d be photos of Pontiacs.

  3. I’ve seen that MG TF in person (the non-Chinese market version) and it’s a good looking little roadster. No clue about how it drives but I’m not surprised it’s the most expensive of the list as it’s the only one that looks like a real car and not a Chang-li (sorry, Torch).

  4. Woof, I remember seeing some of these at the Frankfurt auto show in maybe 2003. Looked ok from 20 feet. Up close…so cheap, tires looked like hard plastic, tiny brakes, tiny suspension parts, huge panel gaps. Listening to German comments…priceless.

  5. “It was the first convertible-coupe ever made by a Chinese car company, and it holds that title to this day.” Well yeah, unless China builds a functional time machine I suspect it will keep that title for a long long time

  6. The Geely Meirenbao taillights are unashamedly taken from a Supra, which is bold:) the BYD S8 is a mashup of Benz front and Opel Astra Cabrio rear end – that is a mix only the Chinese could come up with;) Great article!

    1. I would say BYD bought ???? the 2002-2008 Renault megane CC production line. This is a megane cc dressing up as a Mercedes. Anyway handbrake handle is typically megane 2. Compare shut line of the cabrio roof cover and location of fuel filler cap. No doubt. I think.

    1. Also, it’s a facelifted/updated MGF from the mid 90s, with the Metro-derived suspension deleted, which was originally designed to meet American safety and emissions standards, until BMW decided it would cannibalize Z3 sales.

      As late as 2005, MG Rover were still adamant that the TF could be legally sold in the US with only minor changes, but they just never had the money for a launch

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