BARCELONA, SPAIN — One of these days the Chinese car industry is finally going to realize that the quality has to go in before the name goes on, and at that point it will become a formidable international force. But, to put it mildly, that day has not yet arrived. My evidence? Two electric cars here at the big EVS 27 international car show.

The ZD is a cute enough car, supposedly styled in Italy. From what I’m told, it’s actually for sale there, and in Slovenia, too! I talked to the friendly international marketing person, Lily Cai, whose card proclaims the “City Mini EV” to be the product of the Shandong Xindayang Electric Vehicle Co., Ltd. She said Germany is next in the company's world-conquering enterprise.

Poor Europe. The ZD can be summed up in a single word: challenged. Everything about it looks and feels cheap, down to the lawn-furniture seating and bare-bones radio-only “entertainment center.” Controls were minimal and amenities few.

Just sitting in the ZD was bad enough, but then I got a chance to drive it. Among the roundabouts of Barcelona, the ZD was a handful. I was personally escorted by Sandro Perin, director of marketing and communications for Italy-based GreenGo, evidently the car’s importer. As I lurched forward, the car feeling (literally) like a barrel of rusty bolts ratting in a cage — Perin let forth a string of complaints about the car and the Chinese executives he deals with.

“They think if it has four wheels, it’s enough,” said Perin. “But the wheels all have to be the same size. They won’t listen. I’ve had three customers complain to me about problems with their cars.” It's amazing that GreenGo actually has three customers for this car.

It’s interesting that there seems to be a market for really cheap electric cars in Europe. People are buying them regardless of quality, because they can get around the growing prohibition against gas vehicles in central cities — and avoid congestion taxes. The hideous Indian-made Reva G-Wiz was a hit in England — thousands sold — for those reasons, despite the wags at "Top Gear" crashing one into a table (the table won).   

I’m not sure what price the ZD goes for — I asked — but even if it's rock bottom, there are better choices. Handling, braking, visibility, acceleration, all are sub-standard on this car. The ZD makes the Smart Car (which it superficially resembles) look like a Cadillac. But if the stats — zero to 50 kilometers in eight seconds, 160 kilometers of range, disc brakes, driver seat with four-direction adjustment, optional air conditioning — impress, then by all means make your move. According to the brochure, "ZD is a new EV car combining superior technical performance and efficient use of new energy resources so as to achieve maximum energy conservation….[It] will give every driver a new experience on the true meaning of green environment conservation." I had a new experience, all right.

Amazingly enough, the ZD was not the bottom of the barrel. China has hundreds of carmakers, none of them likely to give the West much quality competition. Also at the EVS 27 show I encountered another stand from Chinese Car Shanghai, aka GC Vehicle Technology Corporation.

GC electric car

The GC electric car (photo above) was a big step down from the ZD. It had exposed exterior door hinges, hugely crude construction quality, tiny lawnmower wheels, a radio mounted inaccessibly above the windshield header, and stamped aluminum catwalk flooring that looked borrowed from the kind of abandoned warehouse used to stage end-of-film showdowns in Sylvester Stallone films. It had absolutely the cheapest switchgear I’ve ever seen, with knobs borrowed from 1960s oscilloscopes. The seats came from a Soviet gulag waiting room.

Alas, no GC in the ride-and-drive, so I didn’t get to take a cruise, but a representative told me it was an ideal car for “old men and young people,” the latter of whom could use the car “to go to school — or just for fun.” I can’t imagine having fun in a GC, though I could imagine attaching a mower blade to it.

The GC is not for sale (yet) the representative said. But, once again, Europe  is the target. GC hopes to have the car in production next month. Even if it’s insanely cheap, I can’t imagine this car appealing to even the most parsimonious continental commuter. No price was available, but I’d rather go to work in a Trabant.

I’m afraid I don’t quite get the haplessness of the Chinese auto industry, either in producing credible electric cars or any export-quality vehicle. Don’t they make quality computers and really nice iPhones over there? Just because the domestic market is eager to grab up any car available, the cheaper the better — and safety standards barely there — doesn’t mean that concept will fly for export.

But even BYD, the Chinese company with the most momentum in the American market (it hopes to field E6 electric taxis, pictured above), seems to be stumbling in its efforts to get a car to market. Its small-scale electric bus production (in Los Angeles) appears troubled, and the company was fined $100,000 for failing to pay workers minimum wage. And this is the company Warren Buffett invested in and Bill Gates visited.

A recent J.D. Power study showed that Chinese domestic brands achieved “marked improvement” in vehicle quality in 2013, but you sure couldn’t prove that from the evidence in Barcelona.

I really do think that credible Chinese cars will eventually emerge out of Shanghai and Beijing. Maybe someday we’ll be admiring the shiny new GC or ZD in our neighbor’s driveway. That day has not yet arrived, but we should never say never. BYD’s Brendan Riley is optimistic. “It took a long time for Japanese and Korean automakers to gain the reputation they have here,” he said. “China is next. It might be only five years from the introduction of a Chinese vehicle to the acceptance of it as quality alternative.”

Here's a closer look at the ZD on video:

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