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Exclusive: Some Chinese cars ‘almost uninsurable’ as parts and repair support falters

Parts shortages and a lack of technical support are giving insurance underwriters the jitters when it comes to the new wave of Chinese cars hitting the UK

BYD Seal - front cornering

Serious shortcomings have been identified with the level of technical and parts support for new Chinese car brands in the UK, making certain electric cars almost uninsurable, and others much more expensive than they should be.

The BYD Seal is one example of a new Chinese model that is hard to get covered, with very few insurance companies prepared to underwrite it. We searched a leading comparison site and were offered just three very high quotes, compared with the dozens of competitive quotes one would expect for a mainstream rival. 

BYD told us it is aware that customers may be experiencing issues, and it held a recent event for insurers showcasing its UK parts and repairs strategy. “We are taking this matter very seriously and working with the relevant parties, including Thatcham Research, to find a long-term solution,” a company spokesperson said.

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The problem is not with Chinese cars themselves, but a lack of understanding about how Europe’s repair market works, and a failure to provide the correct parts and information that would allow cost-effective repairs to be carried out following accidents. Ben Townsend is head of automotive at insurance industry-funded risk intelligence company Thatcham Research: “There’s fundamentally nothing wrong with the cars they’re making,” he says. “They’re good products. BYD is the world’s largest battery manufacturer, the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, and makes half the world’s iPads.” But, says Townsend, companies do have insufficient knowledge about how the UK repair and insurance market works, because it’s not something they’ve previously needed to know. 

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That’s where the problems start. Martyn Rowley is executive director of the National Body Repair Association, and speaks for repair businesses across the country. He is forthright in his criticism of Chinese manufacturers, including GWM Ora, which markets the 03, a model formerly known as the Funky Cat. “We have repairers that have written that car off for stupid reasons, for something that would fly through a bodyshop if it were a Ford or a Vauxhall,” he says. “Unfortunately you just can’t get parts; they’re not available for that vehicle, which I think is ridiculous considering that these are multi-million-pound businesses.”

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We put that claim to a GWM ORA spokesperson, who told us: “We are aware that some of our customers are reporting restricted insurance options at the moment. We have taken a number of steps to improve this situation and we expect consumer insurance choice to improve very soon.” The company also says it has a parts department working with teams in Europe and China to ensure good availability of parts, and suggests unfamiliarity with a brand that’s new to market can lead to ‘third-party communications breakdowns’ that can exaggerate lead times for parts.

Repair information black hole

As well as parts difficulties with Chinese models, there are also issues around the provision of information. UK car insurance works on the premise that damage must be repaired to an approved manufacturer standard, but for many Chinese models relevant ‘how to’ repair information doesn’t exist, because the Chinese domestic market doesn’t need it. 

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According to Townsend, the fact that labour costs are “orders of magnitude” lower in China means expectations are very different. “To repair a complete body side on a car is normal in China; if you have a side impact, they will just repair the whole body side because labour is so cheap,” he says. “So they provide information to do a body-side repair in a UK bodyshop, but over here a body-side repair would end up writing the car off, because the labour cost makes it unviable.”

GWM Ora Funky Cat - front static

It’s clear that a fast learning curve is required. Yet with countless new EV brands springing up in China, India and even Vietnam, all hoping to profit from European sales, the prospect of a quick fix seems distant. Especially as the issues are not limited to new brands you may barely have heard of, and affect established brands too. We’ve heard reports that basic information such as wheel-alignment measurements can be hard to find for MG models, and the brand has suffered parts shortages too.

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“MG Motor UK is already well established in our home market with a strong dealer network as well as our dedicated parts and service facility at Longbridge, Birmingham,” a company source told us. “Our present parts availability ensures we have a 10-month supply of parts and 91 per cent of vehicle parts for the entire MG range are immediately available here in the UK and accessible for our dealer network or insurance-accredited repairers”. He also confirmed the company is “in the process of further extending our existing partnership with Thatcham Research to ensure repairers have all the information they should require”.

That engagement with Thatcham is vital, says Townsend: “The message to Chinese organisations, and those in India and Vietnam, is don’t just bring a car to the UK market and think you can sell it. Come and talk to us, understand the market, understand the steps you need to take so that when you do bring it to market, you do have the right logistics in place. We do have an independent repair network that can support your vehicle and make it sustainable in the marketplace, driving down total cost of ownership and ensuring consumers get the choice they deserve.”

OMODA, which is launching its 5 SUV here imminently, says conversations with Thatcham have been productive. ‘We’ve been aware of the best practice for some time and are confident we’re well on our way to achieving that,” the company said. Resultant measures will include having replacement battery packs always in stock, and parts available within 48 hours at most. 

“Furthermore, we are well advanced in the other recommended areas, such as provision of information to assist with repair assessment, and a full manual to allow bodyshops to perform repairs. Our engineers in China are also working with Thatcham to integrate its further recommendations into future models,” the company says.

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Current affairs and features editor

Chris covers all aspects of motoring life for Auto Express. Over a long career he has contributed news and car reviews to brands such as Autocar, WhatCar?, PistonHeads, Goodwood and The Motor Trader.

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