Yes, Volkswagen no longer rules China. The title for the No.1 selling car in the world’s No.1 car market no longer belongs to a Volkswagen Santana or a Lavida, but a Nissan Sylphy, which is also sold in the US as the Nissan Sentra.
As of August 2020, Nissan shifted 308,145 units of the Sylphy, putting it well ahead of the Volkswagen Lavida (252,106 units), and Toyota Corolla (207,327 units). The Toyota Corolla’s Levin twin sold by Toyota’s other Chinese joint venture is at 9th place, with 131,864 units.
The Honda Civic, which is the No.1 selling C-segment sedan in Malaysia, is at 7th place, with 146,083 units.
The numbers however, are inclusive of both current and previous-generation models of the Sylphy, Lavida and Corolla. In China, it’s normal for both the new and previous generation models to be sold alongside each other. Their market is big enough (about 26 million units) to support it.
The question is, why are Chinese consumers so in love with the Sylphy, when that same car struggles to garner to same level of interest here against the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla Altis?
In China, the Sylphy is available with two engine options, a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated engine paired to a CVT, or a full electric drivetrain borrowed from the Nissan Leaf.
The Toyota Corolla comes with either a 1.2-litre turbocharged direct injection four-cylinder or a 1.8-litre hybrid, both borrowed from the C-HR.
The Volkswagen Lavida comes with a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated engine paired to either a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic. There’s also a 1.2-litre and a 1.4-litre TSI turbocharged engine, both paired to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The Honda Civic comes with either a 1.0-litre VTEC Turbo or a 1.5-litre VTEC Turbo, both paired to either a 6-speed manual transmission or a CVT-type automatic.
Despite having a rather mediocre drivetrain compared to its peers, Chinese consumers found the Nissan Sylphy to be a better fit for their needs, especially the fully electric variant.
China has adopted very strict Euro-style emission standards, fuel prices are high so power is less of a priority. Fuel economy is. The fully electric Sylphy also benefits from generous tax incentives (depending on region) so buying one over its regular combustion engine is an easy decision for many Chinese families.
The Sylphy also offers the longest front legroom in its class, and Chinese buyers see the Sylphy as a more spacious, more practical car than the Honda Civic – its next closest rival in terms of cabin space.
Closer to home, Thailand, which supplies the parts for most of locally-assembled Nissan models, has since announced that it will be dropping the Sylphy from their local line-up, which implies that the Sylphy won’t be re-introduced back in Malaysia.
Tan Chong have previously announced that there is a possibility of the Sylphy making a local comeback but the latest revelation by Nissan implies that this is no longer possible. We should also emphasize that Nissan Motor Thailand's performance is actually worse than Edaran Tan Chong Motor's.
The latest generation Sylphy is not sold in Japan (they are still selling the previous B17 generation model, the Sylphy we last had), so importing CKD kits from Japan is ruled out. Declining sales of C-segment sedans in Japan also mean that Nissan is unlikely to replace the model there. Remember that Honda too has discontinued the Civic sedan in Japan.