Beijing motor show: China means (auto) business

Published: 22 April 2008

Only a fool wandering around this week's Beijing motor show would still dismiss China as some also-ran automotive market full of rip-off designs and outdated ‘new’ cars based on old Western designs.

While all of those clichés were still in evidence at the Chinese auto show, the copycat mentality is much less obvious than even a year ago at last year's Shanghai show. And every western car exec CAR spoke to was in awe of the upward sales trajectory that means China is still the place to do business in 2008.

Yes, there are still some odd automotive fish, usually small ‘three-box’ saloon in shape such as the Chinese market only Citroen C-Elysee and the VW Lavida (a Jetta/Bora Plus car with less style). But the market’s scarcely credible growth cannot be denied.

The world’s second biggest market

Inside ten years, China has gone from having almost no private car market at all to becoming the second biggest in the world in 2006 by overtaking Japan.

In 2007, total cars sales were 5.5 million plus three million commercial vehicles. The 2008 Beijing motor show reflects this. No major manufacturer was absent and numerous global unveils were made. Mercedes’ production GLK launch was the firm’s first ever Chinese global unveil while Audi launched its Q5 compact SUV.

Few will be surprised to hear that China became Audi’s second biggest market in 2007 after Germany, pipping the UK and the USA in the process.

Click 'Next' to find out what the domestic car makers are up to at Beijing

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Chinese brands on the rise

And it wasn’t just foreign brands making an impact. Aside from the many joint ventures that dominate the Chinese market, teaming the likes of FAW with VW and SAIC with GM, some Chinese brands genuinely seem to be trying to develop their own identity.

One big player, Geely, showed a GT concept that would easily pass muster in any western auto show. Despite the lack of a concept interior its exterior was that of a very modern sports car.

Chery is another domestic player with massive ambitions well beyond its borders. It showed dozens of new vehicles including a sharply styled QQ Sport city car with definite Chinese references like curved bamboo sword sheath-style interior door grab handles. It has repeatedly stated its desire to move into overseas markets like Europe and the US by 2010.

Out of the Rover ashes…

Elsewhere, start-up brand Roewe – born through parent company SAIC’s necessity to invent a new marque for the Rover car engineering it bought but whose brand it did not own – showed the highly competent 550 to slot under the 750 (the old Rover 75).

The ‘Rover 45 replacement we never had’ offers near VW Bora levels of interior refinement and a decent exterior overseen by British design director Tony Williams. The 550 will join the line-up in late 2008. There’s even talk of the cars coming back to Europe – including the UK.

'Growing by a million a year'

While Chinese cars will inevitably make it to European dealers in some numbers (today only a trickle are sold in the EU), the industry is mainly geared up to supply the rocketing demand at home. Only a tiny proportion of the 1.3 billion Chinese population can currently afford a car but according to JD Power and Associates, the market is due to grow by a whopping one million vehicles every year until 2015.

It’s only a matter of time before the US relinquishes its number one sales spot. Watch this space…

Frankfurt? Detroit? Beijing? Which is the world's most influential motor show? Click 'Add you comment' and sound off

By Guy Bird

Contributor, cultural curator, design commentator