What Makes Shanghai-VW Lavida the Most Popular Car in China?

Released in June 2008, the Lavida sedan from the joint venture of SAIC and Volkswagen became the No. 1 selling passenger car in China last year with 251,615 deliveries, and retained its lead in the first two months of 2011. In the hotly contested market of the compacts, it outsold an assortment of able competitors: the long-established Corolla and Civic; the fast ascending Elantra; the youth-appealing Focus, Fiesta, and Cruze; the extremely affordable copycat BYD F3.

The quick and huge success of Lavida mystifies many, for it seems to excel in nothing but being average–plain looking, not noticeably cheaper than its rivals, and a bit underpowered. What’s its cachet? First of all, where did it come from?

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VW China has routinely re-named and re-sold old models as new (in both the "Jetta"-Bora-Sagitar and Santana-"Passat"-Magotan families, for instance, three generations have evolved in parallel), but insisted that Lavida is of a different case. It is said to be the first locally developed product from Shanghai-VW, and not directly modeled upon or derived from any current or previous VW cars. However, many think otherwise, and a set of possible sources have been presented, which include the fourth generation Jetta, Skoda Octavia, and the Neeza concept.

Whatever its origins, Lavida is structurally most close to the New Bora (a facelifted fourth-generation Jetta from the other VW venture in China: FAW-VW), both built on the PQ34 platform, and seems to have benefited enormously from the long and ubiquitous presence of the Jetta family in China. In fact, many have come to view Lavida as a new face of that family, a latecomer that is visually more pleasing while equally reliable. Lavida provides a more exciting choice which is by no means adventurous.

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Shanghai-VW proudly attributes Lavida’s success to "local adaptation:" it is the No.1, it says, because it better suits the "Chinese needs and aesthetic tastes." But what exactly are those characteristically Chinese needs and tastes? In what ways does Lavida embody them? We venture to list four.

1. There is clearly a measured blandness in Lavida, interpreted by many as a sign of confidence, reliability, and openness. Its styling is prudent and mainstream, while not outmoded.

2. It looks bigger and more expensive than it is. It is a compact that seeks to look like a mid-size through having a longer body, more chrome, faux-wood trim, and leather wrappings.

3. While appearing more upscale than it is, Lavida is actually cheap and easy to maintain, as parts are widely available via the Jettas.

4. It offers better fuel economy at the cost of performance. Its main engine choice is a 1.6-liter that can put out no more than 77kW of power, and consumes no more than 6L of gasoline per 100km at 90km/h (the turbo 1.4L is a later addition, which is even more fuel-miserly).

Present these features under a VW logo, you get an affordable, mainstream car from a global brand that pretends to be something more. Pompous, to an outsider, it is still a dependable choice.

This is a clever strategy, but nothing original. To a large extent, the development of Lavida was inspired by its main target, the popular Buick Excelle from Shanghai-VW’s crosstown rival, Shanghai-GM. Derived from Daewoo Lacetti, the Excelle is dressed up like a smaller LaCrosse and the Buick branding is designed to convince the locals that it is above the Chevy class.

Practical but longing to be recognized as members of a higher group–that is the life (La Vida) of China’s middle class.