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Chinese cars are coming to British showrooms

Coming to a car showroom near you: the Florid, the Hover 5, the Cool Bear, the Phenom i7 and the Wingle. Official imports of the first Chinese-branded cars to be sold in Britain have already begun, and these models – made by Great Wall Motors – will be in showrooms by the end of March.

And their value-for-money is bound to challenge established market leaders Ford and Vauxhall, as well as more budget-oriented marques such as Kia, Hyundai and Skoda.

In time, the arrival of Great Wall and others from China and India will be as revolutionary as the advent of the Japanese players. Once upon a time Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Daihatsu and Datsun/Nissan were also regarded as curiosities with comical, unpronounceable names.

A spokeswoman for IM Group, Great Wall's Birmingham-based importers, confirmed that the launch of the cars is "on track" for the first quarter of 2011 and that the Chinese cars had been made available to traders. Kate Bishop added: "We've been recruiting dealers and they were able to drive the cars at the Motor Trader Open Points Roadshow last month."

One dealer, Chathams of Edinburgh, has announced that it will be retailing Great Wall models next year. Campbell Chatham, managing director, told Motor Trader that his group was in advanced negotiations with Great Wall: "We're the preferred supplier for Edinburgh. We saw the cars and shook hands." He added: "We started with Honda in the 1960s when there was a reluctance to buy Japanese. We then started to sell Skodas. With Great Wall we'll do it again, only this time there's no negative image."

However, the general image of Chinese cars is that they are blatant "knock-offs" of Western designs and have poor safety standards. In one notorious German crash test, the Jiangling Landwind performed terribly and its styling bore a remarkable resemblance to a 1980s Vauxhall Frontera SUV. Fiat has even taken Great Wall to court over the similarity between the Great Wall Perry and the Fiat Panda and other Chinese makes have been involved in wrangles with American, European, Japanese and Korean companies.

Chinese cars also tend to suffer from the use of lower-grade plastics and inferior fit and finish. But while Chinese-branded cars are a novelty here, many of the world's largest car manufacturers have a substantial presence in China, which is now the world's biggest car market and its largest car producer – 14 million units last year – 10 times the UK output.

Volkswagen, General Motors, Peugeot-Citroen and others have been involved in China for years. Honda manufactures its small Jazz hatch there and, until production went to Swindon last year, some Chinese-built Jazz models were sold in Britain.

But in a further indication of how globalised the car industry is, some of the Great Wall cars to be sold in the UK may actually be built in Bulgaria.

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