Gavin Green reviews the 2012 Beijing motor show

Published: 23 April 2012

In Beijing, the smog is appalling and the traffic dreadful. Outside, we are ringed by coal-burning power stations, trying to fuel the city’s insatiable appetite for energy. The air is so bad you can taste it and feel it when you breathe.

China’s newly enriched middle class also has an insatiable appetite for personal mobility, and you can’t blame them for that. Nor can you blame the world’s motor industry – brow beaten and bloodied from ongoing battles in newly impoverished Europe and North America – for queuing up to supply them with cars.

Niceties like sustainability and eco responsibility are subservient to the opportunity for heady profit. And what money there is to be made! This is now the Auto El Dorado, the single most profitable market in the world. ‘The global winners and losers in the auto business will be decided here in China,’ the observant Ralf Speth, boss of Jaguar Land Rover, told me in Beijing.

European and Japanese car companies rule in China

The local makers are surprisingly weak and their market share is dropping. Volkswagen is brand leader, Nissan second, Toyota third. The biggest indigenous brand is Chery at number eight. But these statistics mislead. All the big Western and Japanese brands have local manufacturing partners to share the profits if not the technical credit. Thus makers like SAIC, FAW and Dongfeng are rather more successful than their own-brand sales figures might suggest.

Wandering the halls of the Beijing show, what’s clear is how far the local makers are still behind. Think Korean cars of five to eight years ago, and you’ll get the picture. When – not if – they come to Europe they will appeal only on price. But that’s a formula that we know can work. It’s how Hyundai and Kia began, and look where they are now.

Where’s the flair?

Chinese makers also do not show the technical or design flair, or the ‘think different’ mentality that makes Tata of India, for example, such a refreshing global player. There is no Chinese Tata Nano, no concept car as cute or as clever as Tata’s Pixel. Rather, we see a stream of me-too saloons, hatches and, increasingly, SUVs (sales of 4x4s rose 20% last year).

There are also a host of cringe-making copies of Western or Japanese cars, all flaunted quite shamelessly in a nation renowned for its liberal interpretation of copyright infringement. There is a Toyota Aygo copy by BYD (Build Your Dreams), a Mazda 3 by Chang’an (state owned, incidentally, by the same group that makes most of China’s military weapons), a BMW X3 by Brilliance, and others.

MG Icon stands out

There is little originality although the MG Icon SUV (complete with black and white publicity newsreel of dear old Cecil Kimber and historic footage of old roadsters) was the most novel locally developed exhibit. MG, despite the nostalgic codswallop, is now owned by state-run Shanghai-based SAIC, China’s biggest car maker (which has manufacturing arrangements with both GM and VW). Chery’s pod-like Ant was also unusual, the sort of crazy – but appealing – urban runaround you might have seen from Toyota at a Tokyo show back when it was flexing its muscles and its imagination.

Of course, China’s makers will improve fast. Chery’s offerings are getting there. Geely, now owner of Volvo (and of the people who make the London taxi) has a visionary and charismatic founder in Li Shufu – a sort of Chinese Richard Branson. It will learn fast from Volvo and from its new design boss Peter Horbury, ex-Volvo and ex-Ford, and one of the very best car designers in the world. Geely has already announced plans for UK sales, beginning in December 2012.

The Chinese makers also had a bevy of electric and plug-in hybrid concepts, most just PR puff rather than production ready. They are all clearly ill-suited to a country that gets the vast majority of its electricity from dirty coal stations, thus ensuring that EVs will offer no environmental benefit at all. EVs are encouraged in China, never mind that – as with Europe and America – few people are prepared to endure the compromises of ownership. Sales are way below expectation.

Mercedes stands out among Europeans

The Europeans were busy, of course, trying to court a nation in love with anything Western, premium and pricey. Lamborghini was the latest upmarket maker to jump on the SUV bandwagon. Its Urus looked svelte compared with the hideous Bentley SUV concept just across the aisle, but it still looked like a block of flats compared with the svelte Aventador supercar alongside. Like all so-called ‘high performance’ SUVs, it will be neither sporty nor utilitarian, just another daft sports futility vehicle. Porsche had an equally misguided GTS version of the Cayenne.

My favourite European car was the Mercedes CSC, a four-door mini CLS based on the A-class platform. Mercedes’ recent style has been rather hit or miss but this one looked sleek and desirable. A full production version, to be called the CSA, will be shown at the Paris show in the autumn.

No doubt, it will prove a hit in China.

>> Read individual articles on the 2012 Beijing motor show by clicking on the relevant links below:

Aston Martin DBS, V8 Vantage and Virage Dragon 88
Audi RS Q3 concept car
BMW i8 Spyder concept car
• Citroen Numero 9 concept car
• Ferrari's new HY-KERS hybrid supercar tech
• Jaguar XJ Ultimate and engine news for F-type, XF, XJ
• Lamborghini Urus SUV
• Mercedes Concept Style Coupe
• MG Icon concept car
• Porsche Cayenne GTS
• Toyota Yundong Shuangqing and Dear Qin
• Roewe 950
• Seat Ibiza Cupra concept car
• VW E-Bugster convertible

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience