What do you get if you cross Blade Runner with Carry On Motoring? You get the Shanghai auto show ladies and gentlemen, where CAR is embedded today.
Read on to see hilarious clones of the Mini and the Rolls Phantom, hear key news from British car manufacturers including Jaguar and Rolls-Royce and to gain a little insight into what’s going down in China’s car market, now the world’s biggest.
Monday 20 April 2009, Shanghai motor show
MG Roewe’s is the first significant press conference, at least for us Brits who want to see what Longbridge’s emigré brands did next. There’s the MG6, which strangely suggests a Lexus 1-series (blame that rear pillar). Designed in Britain by a team led by Tony Williams, the MG6 is a thinly disguised production hatch. ‘We’re showing off a new sporty face for MG,’ said the design director. ‘It has a thin upper grille and a bigger lower aperture, which is pretty aggressive for the Chinese market.’
The 4.6m-long car is based on the Roewe 550’s underpinnings, the first all-new Rover produced under Chinese stewardship. Williams says the year-old car is selling well in China (5-6000 units a month), but MG Roewe is not a big player – it’s not even in the top 20 manufacturers in the country.
Brilliance does squeak in at number 20, and I find myself gazing at its Cross. A car that would certainly make Toyota cross, having stolen the old Avensis’s chrome gate of a grille and slapped it on an inflated Rover Streetwise. This is a mild offence compared with some of the rip offs coming up.
Better is Brilliance’s EV concept: it’s modern if a little reminisicent of the iQ, has four suicide doors that swing out on pantograph hinges and packs masses of space into a Focus-sized car, thanks to the compact electric powertrain hidden beneath the flat floor.
Image: Brilliance EV concept
Wandering through hall W2, I find Audi, keeping company with Peugeot-Citroen and Skoda. It’s a world premiere for the Q7 facelift, which is hard to spot except for new glossy sludge paint. Volkswagen’s party piece is the Golf Mk6, and something called the Passat New Lingyu. It’s the lovechild of a previous generation Passat and Toyota’s Crown Vic. Never have I seen so much chrome – every grille, sill, glasshouse, number plate and boot section is caked in the stuff. I’m getting out of here – the monsoon rain of yesterday has given way to a smoggy heat making this hall unbearable.
It’s not just the looks of cars that are ripped off, but badges and nameplates. BYD has an M6 on its stand – a Toyota Previa-style MPV. Baiting BMW from across one hall is an M3 as you’ve never seen it before, the handiwork of a Great Wall brand called Hover. But the piece de resistance is a faux Bentley badge, for a Chery brand called ‘Riich’. The cars make you feel anything but a million dollars – they’re drab saloons with four cylinders rather than W12s. I take a photo to show Bentley…
Image: BYD M6
Here’s the Shanghai show’s biggest event: the premiere – finally – of the Porsche Panamera.It’s a bit of anticlimax after last night’s final press preview, where a Panamera was winched up the elevator shaft to the Shanghai Financial Centre’s 94th floor. It is striking and desirable if not beautiful, although you’d best choose dark paint else the bluff rear end looks really heavy. Someone lets slip that a vile bronze paintjob had flies swarming round it at another preview.
You don’t see many Fords on Chinese roads – Volkswagen and GM are the big hitters, in combination with their indigenous manufacturing partners. But the new Fiesta looks good beside China’s answer to Emma Peel, even with a fussy new silver plastic and honeycomb grille. On the car that is.
Image: Ford's Chinese version of the Fiesta
Best concept by miles is this Suzuki X-Head (first shown at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show), which reminds me of the Tonka toys I used to love as a kid. This tiny, 4wd pick up measures just 3.7m-long, and runs a 1. 4-litre engine.
Image: Suzuki X-Head concept
Waiting for the Jaguar press conference, I chat to Bentley R&D supremo Uli Eichhorn and show him the ‘Riich’ badge. He admits there’s nothing Bentley’s lawyers could do, because the logo is sufficiently different not to infringe copyright. He then points to the PCM stand opposite, which is nigh on identical to Bentley’s with its square clubhouse, identical wooden barriers and decking forecourt. The clubhouse was originally a carboncopy green, until Bentley went Rolling Stones on them and demanded they paint it black.
Eichhorn’s measured explanation is that copying is a form of flattery in Asian culture. Once the scores of Chinese car makers consolidate and finish honing their expertise through copying, he reckons they’ll start creating original cars…
Jaguar shows off its new XFR and XKR, and flashes up an overhead view of the XJ, which we’ll see for the first time in July. Boss Mike O’Driscoll confirms that the chassis will be an evolution of today’s aluminium structure, which should yield class-leading emissions and consumption thanks to its lightweight and the new 3.0-diesel and V8 petrol engines. You can’t tell much from the image, which has Autocar editor Chas Hallett joking that he’ll struggle to make a cover out of an all-new Jaguar…
We Brits trudge into a Porsche meeting room, but the promised round table with the world’s hottest businessman, Wendelin Wiedeking, has been canceled on account of a surprise illness. Instead we get sales and marketing boss Klaus Berning who explains why Porsche reckons 10% of Panamera sales will be in China. ‘This concept is ideal for this region: people want to make a big statement with a luxury car. Initially we had quite a challenge with the 911, because it wasn’t perceived as big a luxury statement as a stretched S-class or 7-series.’
Image: Porsche marketing boss Klaus Berning, Dr Wolfgang Porsche and R&D boss Wolfgang Durheimer
Rolls-Royce boss Tom Purves finally announces the name of the new baby Rolls, after an agonising press conference dragged out by sequential translation. It’s a greater cliffhanger than the final scene in an episode of the soap opera Eastenders. Oh yeah, the name is Ghost, by the way…
Time for a one-to-one with former Vauxhall boss Kevin Wale, who’s now running GM China, just about the General’s only profitable division in 2008. I haven’t seen him since the 2005 Shanghai show, and he quickly gets me up to speed on the market’s big changes.
Back in 2005, Chinese car sales surpassed 5m, last year they had ballooned to 9.87m. GM’s best seller is a Buick Excelle, a rebadged old Daewoo Lacetti. Geeley and Chery are his big Chinese threats, because their ranges keep mushrooming. And the competition will get even more focused: ‘the government wants an orderly consolidation of car makers, which is right because they can’t survive on tiny volumes,’ says Wale.
GM’s sales are up 17% this year in a market up 7%. So while China’s phenomenal growth has slowed, it’s due to lower consumer confidence, Wale reckons. And government measures – slashing purchase tax in half on cheap microcars amd subsidising rural farmers to buy vehicles – can only help. ‘The government wants to encourage the Chinese to spend more on cars and consumer durables,’ he says.
I’m flagging badly on three hours sleep due to jet lag, but a quick tour of hall E2 (part of a massive wing that wasn’t there four years ago) with Auto Express’s Dan Strong gets my spirits soaring. It’s Attack of the Clones time. Geely – bless ‘em – has two absolute delights: a gullwinged GT (for Geely Tiger, grrrrrrrrr) that looks like a poor man’s Peugeot supercar, and a knock off Rolls-Royce serenaded by The Man With the Golden Gun’s NickNack on a piano. Also gracing this hall is Lifan Motors’ risible Mini clone.
Image: Geely Shanghai Englon GE
The day ends on a serious note. I interview Henry Li, the export manager of BYD Automotive, a lithium ion battery producer turned car maker. BYD is about to start selling plug-in hybrid versions of the F3, some two years ahead of GM with the Volt. It also plans to bring an all-electric crossover with a 100km range to market by the end of the year, along with a bigger plug-in hybrid saloon. BYD has made the F3 China's biggest selling car, and Li expects the company to mushroom from 180,000 sales in 2008 to 400,000 this year. And North American exports are planned for 2011.
The Shanghai show may be full of daft clones, but BYD’s claims reveal we should take Chinese car makers pretty seriously indeed…