Put one way, the design language of the BAIC A1 line of sub-compacts, flowing but still angular with the subtlest of tapering to the rear for a tear-drop airfoil profile, speaks assertively of a long-standing engineering tradition—very European with its reference to a deep technical heritage.
Put another, the BAIC A115 looks like the bigger Mercedes-Benz B-class and somewhat like the sportier looking A-class, and current stereotypes would depict this as a case of another state-owned Chinese manufacturer trampling all over intellectual property rights like a bull in a, well, in a China shop.
BUT, and this is a big “but,” the corporate moves by all the potential litigants in this case point to the contrary, showing them to have struck up an alliance deliberately and legitimately, although not overtly.
Under the hood, underneath it all
The BAIC A1 line-up features Mitsubishi 4A9-series MIVEC engines and, apparently, along with the engines, the China carmaker also acquired license to use the Z-platform for which these powerplants were developed. The engines and vehicle platform were developed jointly by DaimlerChrysler and Mitsubishi at the outset of their alliance which lasted 69 months. Early in 2000, just several years after DaimlerChrysler itself was formed from the merger of Daimler AG and Chrysler in 1998, the US-German automaker acquired controlling stake in Mitsubishi, seeking a gateway to the Asia market, but eventually divested itself of all interest in the Japanese carmaker by November 2005.
The 4A9 engine and Z-platform combination was first used in the Mitsubishi Colt in 2002, then in the Mitsubishi Colt Plus and in Daimler Chrysler’s Smart ForFour in 2004. The Smart ForFour stayed with Mitsubishi engines and on the Z-platform only until 2006 (ending soon after the Mistubishi-DaimlerChrysler alliance was dissolved), the Mitsubishi Colt was retired in 2012 (succeeded by the substantially smaller Mirage), and the Mitsubishi Colt Plus (the sub-compact Colt design and the same 2500mm wheelbase, but lengthened by 300mm for a deepened cargo bay) is now being sold only in Taiwan.
In 2012, BAIC introduced their A1 line (originally called the BAIC Motor E-Series then the D20 under their Senova brand in other markets), based on the same Z-platform with its 2500mm wheelbase and featuring either 1.3liter 4A90 or 1.5liter 4A91 Mitsubishi MIVEC engines. Interestingly enough, the Colt Plus which continues to be sold in Taiwan received a facelift soon after in 2013 which made it look similar to the BAIC A1 hatchbacks.
BAIC’s relationship with Mitsubishi seems to have evolved into a two-way thing: the Chinese carmaker acquires engines and builds on a vehicle platform from Mitsubishi, while the Japanese automaker seems to have access to BAIC’s coachwork design shop, if not its actual production line.
More interesting in its coincidence, 2013, the year an A1-looking Colt Plus facelift came out for Taiwan, was also when Daimler AG (the surviving entity after Chrysler pulled out in 2007) then acquired 12% stake in BAIC. Even after its separation with Mitsubishi in 2005, DaimlerChrysler AG, and then Daimler AG later on, continued to produce Mitsubishi 4A9 engines under exclusive license at MDC Power GmbH, their manufacturing subsidiary in Kölleda, Germany.
Daimler AG’s buying stake in BAIC had come soon after the German automaker got onto the supply chain of the Chinese carmaker through a lingering arrangement with Mitsubishi. In any case, by buying 12% stake in BAIC, Daimler had, in effect, given the Chinese automaker its imprimatur for referencing the design of their A and B-class models, albeit after the fact.
All told, the BAIC A1 line perpetuates the utility of the Z-platform and 4A9 engines developed by Daimler and Mitsubishi when they were still direct allies, while filling a niche that Mitsubishi abandoned when it retired the Colt sub-compact in favor of the Mirage micro, and that Daimler has to stay on the premium side of with it’s up-market Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
In short, the BAIC A1 from China presents a business-to-business revenue stream for both the German and Japanese carmakers while not competing directly with their own vehicle offerings.
The move seems to have been good enough for Daimler and Mitsubishi to scale things up and replicate it in the Haima 2, another Chinese make and model built with their Z-platform and 4A9-series of MIVEC engines. But the Haima angle is something for another story line altogether.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: See the related piece, The BAIC A115: family-sized city car, at home on the highway, our continuation of the BAIC A1 story where we describe its exceptional stability at both city and highway speeds, and the throttle work for reaching cruise on the top-spec A115 hatchback with its 4-speed automatic transmission that has a top-gear ratio even taller than on typical 5-speed gearboxes.