Ten things we learned at the 2012 Beijing motor show

Published: 24 April 2012

1) The Chinese market is the answer to western companies woes
The longest established western brands in China are the ones whose cash tills are ringing loudest. Market leaders VW and GM saw China's potential early and are now reaping the benefit, and still latecomers are scrambling into the Orient. Volkswagen's runt of the litter, Seat, is the latest arrival - Leons going on sale this week. A brief look at the numbers confirms why. In the first quarter of 2012, 29% of Volkswagen group sales worldwide were in China. GM sold 2,547,171 vehicles in China last year. You simply can't afford to miss out if you need volume to keep factories busy. And that's everybody.

2) China now dictates the cars we buy in Europe
Recoil in shock all you like at horrors like the goggle-eyed Bentley EXP9 F and Lambo's Urus, but these supersized SUVs are blatantly aimed at the emerging markets like China's. Most premium car makers now offer cars targeting affluent new money (it's why Jag launched the £123,000 XJ Ultimate at Beijing) and even more modest offerings can do well here; VW sells more Sciroccos in China than anywhere else. Expect more adventurism soon. Around 43% of China's potential new car buyers were born after 1980 - so car makers are planning more daring products aimed at youthful, digital-savvy buyers. The average age of a Lamborghini customer here is 28!

3) The Chinese aren't ready to take over Europe just yet
A wander around the throbbing halls of the Beijing motor show confirms this is still a split market, divided into importers and domestic producers. Western products built in or adapted for China predominate, but the homegrown stuff manufactured here still falls short of European expectations. Take the preposterously unoriginal JAC Heyue SC we stumbled upon, a baffling pastiche of a Mustang and a Ferrari California, right down to a shameless clone of Maranello spec rear lights. But we're beginning to see more convincing new products too, like the presentable Roewe 950 - powered by GM's Buick LaCrosse. The rate of progress is such that it surely won't be long before Chinese cars are credible for sale in Western markets without relying on pricing alone. They're hurtling through the same evolutionary process we witnessed in South Korea at breakneck speed.

4) Chinese identity is still being formed
Most of the rows of Geelys, Cherys, SAIC and other domestic products are rather anonymous identikit three-box saloons. It's hard to pick out designs western eyes will find attractive. Large grille graphics predominate but the skill to adapt metalwork and form consistent design languages is still largely absent - and the arrival of bling headlamp jewellery fails to spice up flair-free shapes. Most show stands at Beijing have the odd horror and a Euro clone or two - like Brilliance's V5, a gobsmacking slice of BMW X1, right down to the metallic brown sludge paint. It's not just the Chinese at it; Korean neighbours Ssangyong's Chairman amounts to a nearly actionable C-class tribute act.

5) Space is the ultimate luxury in China
Long wheelbase stretch models such as the Audi A6L, BMW 5-series LWB and Skoda Superb are popular in China - it's all about rear seat space. The Geely Emgrand GE took this to the max with a single throne in the rear for a Toad to lord it up. Motoring journalists here assess rear legroom by repeatedly folding their legs in the bac; if they can do so without clipping the front seats, it's a success.

6) Three-box saloons still rule
The streets - and motor show stands - of Beijing are still mobbed with sedans. Crossovers and monoboxes are a rare sight, though becoming more popular - and most experts predict that the Chinese market will wake up to further possibilities soon. Citroen's head of advanced design Carlo Bonzanigo said the Numero 9 concept was deliberately toying with a new bodystyle to test Chinese reaction. 'It's not technically a shooting brake (it's a four-door and the traditional English shooting brake should have only two doors) but it it's close and we think the China market will diversify soon. We get feedback on concept cars pretty quickly these days; we will know within three to four months how successful the Numero 9 has been at its Chinese debut.'

7) Congestion is a major problem in the new megacities
The huge growth in China's car market is great news from an industrial standpoint, but the burgeoning car parc is inundating the infrastructure. In an older city like Beijing this causes gridlock everywhere. Almost irrespective of the time of day, the roads in downtown Beijing are crowded and often crawling at a snail's pace. It's a far cry from the mass cycling movement that used to keep the city moving. Ironically, a motor show only rams this point home - we had to abandon our bus and walk the last mile to the show. Which makes you worry for the future. Factor in the horrific pollution around Beijing and you have an impending societal catastrophe.

8) It's a car spotter's paradise
China's roads are endlessly fascinating, with badges, shapes and brands you'll never have heard of. And the pace of change and international alliances mean the pace of change won't let up: there are now 476 different models on sale in China, 120 more than in the US. Weiming Soh, the head of Volkswagen China, forecasts that 81 new models will join the ranks this year. That would be a nightmare for CAR's GBU pages!

9) Everything here is vast!
China's potential is dictated by its scale. The population of 1.343 billion is three times the size of the European Union's - and it's largely untapped today. Average car ownership in China stands at 50 vehicles per 1000 of population. To put that in perspective, the European average is 500. That's one large pool of potential customers, most of whom will in future lie west of the more affluent east coast urban areas.

10) A nascent car enthusiasts market
Presented with identikit faceless saloons and chronic congestion (in Beijing at least), it's tricky to see what excites Chinese motorists, apart from their endless appetite for established western luxury brand names. Will the locals start manufacturing sports cars of their own? Probably, one day. Daimler and BYD's new Denza brand made more of its concept's scatter cushions and comfy interior than any performance claims. But performance cars are a rarefied game here for fiscal reasons too. Blame punitive 243% import duties on supercars - enough to push the price of a Veyron to 38 million yuan, or nearly £4m. Yet Lamborghini sold 342 cars in China last year and CAR China editor Wang Honghao confirms a small but growing band of motorists switching on to cars as a hobby and an emerging fan base. We can't wait to see what the Chinese car manufacturers develop next.

>> 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 Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet