2018 Lynk & Co 01 review: Prototype drive

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There’s a depressingly familiar script when it comes to the attempts of China’s native carmakers to expand sales beyond their own borders: big promises, poor delivery and – frequently – a speedy withdrawal to lick wounds.

So if your first instinct is to see the Lynk & Co 01 as another no-hoper, that’s understandable. With its generic mid-sized SUV looks and unknown branding, it could be the epitome of the optimistic Chinese start up; then there’s the grammatical offence caused by that ampersand.

Yet the reality is considerably more serious. The 01 has been engineered in Gothenburg and sits on a platform jointly developed by Geely and its Swedish subsidiary Volvo to underpin both the Swedish maker’s smaller cars (XC40 to start with) and the Lynk & Co range.

Lynk’s models will be powered by in China by the same three- and four-cylinder engines as their Volvo cousins, although export markets will only get hybrids and EV versions as per the current plan.

Sales of the 01 have just begin in China where the first allocation of 6000 cars sold out in under two minutes when ordering opened. The plan is to hit the European market in late 2019 and launch in the US by early 2020. According to execs, the 01 will come to Australia and other right-hook markets shortly afterwards.

This definitely isn’t a definitive test. It’s soon clear that driving isn’t a big part of Chinese car launches and, because I didn’t have a local licence, I was only allowed to experience it in the unlikely environment of a race track, in this case Geely’ own 4.2km Ningbo circuit, which is built to FIA standards and sees semi-regular motorsport use. It coped with the improbable challenge about as well as you’d expect a mid-sized SUV to, but it’s fair to say the 01 was a fair way outside its comfort zone.

First impressions are positive. The frontal styling won’t be to all tastes; apparently Chinese buyers like a car that makes a grand entrance, with the elongated lights on the tops of the front wings bringing the Nissan Juke and Kia Sportage to mind (or a more angular Porsche Macan) They are just the running lights; the real headlights are projector units mounted lower down.

The view from the side and rear is more generic with hints of Lexus and what seems to be a straight lift of the “shark fin” detail from the DS3 hatchback.

The cabin sticks to the same script, classy at first but less expensive on longer acquaintance. Design is good, although the bulbous shape of the front dashboard knocks knee room for the front passenger, with all versions getting a central 10.2-inch touchscreen as standard, as well as a digital instrument pack.

It’s reasonably roomy in the front, but more spacious than the segment standard in the rear (still a key demand in China). Materials look posh, but many turn out to be pretty humble when you start to actually run your fingers over them: what looks like a stitched leather dashtop is a moulding, and most of the shinier surfaces are plastic rather than real metal.

In China the car is going on sale with the choice of two turbocharged petrol engines, both from Volvo’s self-developed modular Drive-E family: a 1.5-litre three-pot with 110kW and a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 140kW. Confusingly there will be three transmission options from launch – a basic manual and two autos, with the front- drive 2.0-litre version getting a six-speed torque converter and the AWD version having a new seven-speed twin-clutch box.

I got to drive the 2.0-litre in both front-drive and all-paw configurations. The relevance of all that is limited by the fact the current plan is for Lynk & Co to launch outside China as an electric brand, firstly with Volvo’s innovative new hybrid powerplant and shortly afterwards with a full EV version.

The hybrid will use the twin-clutch gearbox to combine the efforts of the three-cylinder engine with an electric motor, each side of the powertrain turning one of the shafts of the tranny.

But that’s not here, so I have to just whale on the 2.0-litre instead. The front-drive version is predictably allergic to apexes, indeed at a full complement of tenths it pretty much turned into a parade float at the festival of understeer.

But backing things off to a synthesised fast-world-pace proved the basics are pretty decent: nicely weighted, accurate steering, albeit devoid of feel, well-controlled body motions under braking and cornering loads (although with plenty of lean from softish springs) and a good turn of speed.

The engine isn’t the most melodious when pushed hard - something that’s also true of its Volvo applications - but gives plenty of low-down torque and has a relaxed character that suits the car well.

The automatic gearbox is the weak link. The engineering team admit the slusher is a stop-gap measure, and it struggled to keep its composure on track, sometimes refusing to deliver kickdowns, sometimes banging them in when they weren’t needed. The all-wheel drive version was far better not so much for any noticeable increase in traction, but because the seven-speeder switches ratios crisply and intelligently.

Apart from the occasional stripy kerb, the freshly laid track surface provided precisely no bumps to assess ride on, but as Lynk says that export versions will have firmed suspension settings it probably wouldn’t have told much. It’s no track star – and the brakes were pretty much on fire after a couple of quick-ish laps – but it’s no disaster either.

Outside China the more interesting news is the novel way that Lynk & Co is planning to move metal. In Europe and the US, it will be possible to buy cars directly for cash in the old-fashioned way, but Lynk reckons that around 70 percent of its volume will come from what it’s describing as a subscription model, basically all-inclusive leasing but with the twist of limited month-by- month commitment.

“We want to do Spotify or Netflix for cars,” is how brand boss Alain Visser explains it. To achieve that, the number of variants will be severely limited to enable retailers to carry stock.

Standard equipment will be comprehensive and there will be no options; the current plan is that there will be between six and eight variants of each model, that number including colour options.

If you’re thinking this is a car aimed squarely at commitment-averse millennials, you’d be entirely right. It’s too soon to say how the brand will work in Australia; sales are at least two years away. But on first impressions, the product seems pretty decent.

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