PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

SCMP, 27 April 2010
 

BUMPER CROP

BY PAUL MOONEY

There was a definite buzz at the Beijing Auto Show, which opened last Friday in Beijing, as international auto executives milled around what is now one of the most important auto shows in the world.

China is rapidly developing an obsession with cars. On the first two days of the show, reserved for the media and industry representatives, hundreds gathered outside the entrance to the show, which was held at the China International Exhibition Centre. 

Last year, the mainland overtook the United States to become the world's leading auto market, with sales increasing 45 per cent for the year, fuelled by a mix of tax cuts and rapidly expanding wealth. And hopes are high for this year, with sales leaping 72 per cent in the first quarter. 

It's no surprise, then, that major manufacturers arrived with their best and most expensive models, as well as cars designed specifically for local buyers with increasingly deep pockets. Of the 89 new models introduced this year, 14 are from international manufacturers, double that of last year.

The accent this year is on luxury. According to a report released over the weekend by JD Power, an international consulting firm, while spending on luxury vehicles has fallen around the world, the mainland's wealthy are obsessed with high-end vehicles. The dearer the better. 

The Lamborghini Murcielago LP 670-4 SuperVeloce is a special China edition, with plans for just 10 vehicles to be produced. The car, which features a grey paint job marked with a striking orange stripe that symbolises an erupting volcano, sells for a walloping 7.68 million yuan (HK$8.73 million). Ferrari launched its 599 GTO at the show - its fastest model - for about US$400,000.

JD Power says Lamborghini sold 66 cars in the mainland last year, 13 more than the previous year, while in Europe sales fell from 697 in 2008 to 565 in 2009. Meanwhile, the 106 Rolls-Royces shipped to the mainland last year accounted for half of its sales in the Asia-Pacific region.

The show was full of sleek cars complemented by chic Chinese models in long gowns - who were as big an attraction with photographers as were the cars - a trend that seems to be disappearing from politically correct car shows in the West.

Large crowds made movement around the show difficult, especially around the newer vehicles. 

Dozens of ticket scalpers weaved in and out of the crowd outside. They approached foreigners saying, 'Let's go!' The same scalpers approached people exiting the show, asking to buy the passes that still hung around their necks. 

The importance of the show was reflected by the line of new vehicles. 'Mercedes-Benz will have its largest exhibition ever at this year's Auto China - seven premieres and 38 models,' says Trevor Hale, head of communications for Daimler Northeast Asia. Hale says the company will have three premieres: the ultra-luxury Maybach saloon, equipped with optional Swarovski crystal decorations on the seats and wireless internet routers, the new long version of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the 'shooting break' design concept vehicle.

The big carmakers are launching new models to target local consumers. BMW and Mercedes-Benz wheeled out models designed for wealthy Chinese who are used to being chauffeured. Mercedes introduced its extended-wheelbase E-Class which is expected to be popular when it hits the showrooms in June. The Chinese-made five-seater offers 14cm more rear seat leg room and more entertainment features. It is the first Mercedes designed for the mainland and will only be available there.

'Developing the Long E-Class exclusively for China reflects Daimler's commitment to this market,' says Hale, who referred to the best-selling vehicle as the company's 'bread and butter'.

Hale says one S300 model was designed for China. 'It's a three-litre version, which is the smallest engine available in the S-Class,' he says. 'As China is the biggest market for S-Class sales in the world, we wanted to make more vehicles accessible.'

Mercedes-Benz sold 23,600 units in the first quarter, a 112 per cent rise year on year, making it the fastest-growing luxury car brand in the mainland. BMW showed its extended 5-Series, the only car in its line built for a specific market, also only in the mainland. Audi, which offers three extended sedans in China, introduced a new and longer A8 at the show.

Bentley Motors unveiled two unique Continental models which have been engineered and designed exclusively for mainland customers. One hundred will be created at Bentley's Crewe (England) headquarters. The centrepiece of each Design Series China car is the three-tone interior. These are the first Bentleys to feature orange and magenta as accent colours. The ultra-high-end Rolls-Royce snipped 98mm off its Phantom Extended Wheelbase to meet changes in mainland car regulations, which resulted in restricted usage of cars over 6m in length in certain urban areas.

Ford displayed its Fiesta, 'reinvented for China' for a 'new generation of Chinese who grew up with internet and mobile phones', says Whitney Foard Small, regional director of communications for Asia Pacific and Africa.

'The younger generation here is open minded, trendy and savvy, and they like cars that reflect that,' says Chelsia Lau, chief designer for the China/Asean Programmes, Ford Motor Asia Pacific and Africa. 

'In China, we're listening to the customers' preferences to understand their lifestyle,' says Lau, a Hong Kong native and award-winning car designer who has worked for Ford for 17 years. Lau says Ford's research showed that the mainland market wanted a four-door and five-door sedan 'with an Asian aesthetic'. 

She says the sporty-looking five-door will appeal to younger buyers and women, while businesspeople will go for the stylish, but more conservative four-door Fiesta. The car also includes a sunroof.

A lot of attention was paid to the interior, which 'comes up high among young Chinese', says Small. The speedometer and tachometer are framed by binocular-shaped, short tunnels which offer high readability day and night. The large HMI screen has been configured to display Chinese language. 

'Now China is influencing the world,' Lau says. 'It can work either way.'

The Ford Edge SUV, meanwhile, comes with Ford Sync, a computer system developed with Microsoft. The voice control - which runs the music system and mobile phone calls - can all be done in Putonghua.