Big hitters behind The Wall
BEIJING // The tagline for the 2010 Beijing International Automotive Exhibition may have been "For a Greener Tomorrow", so it was no surprise that hybrids and all-electric cars were there by the dozen.
There were sleek sports cars, frumpy mid-sized saloons and cute hatchbacks that had one thing in common - they ran on more than just an internal combustion engine filled up at the fuel pumps. But with nearly 1,000 vehicles at the show, which finished on Tuesday, amid the worthy cutting-edge eco-friendlier cars were also super-sized gas-guzzlers by the dozen. Such is China's importance now as a high-end car market that some premium car makers chose Beijing to unveil their new models.
Maybach gave its updated 57S and 62 models their worldwide premiere; Ferrari showed off its 599 GTO for the first time; Audi previewed a lengthened version of the new-model A8 saloon; and Infiniti had its new GX56 on display. The updated GX56 is based on the Patrol made by Infiniti's Nissan stablemate, unlike the outgoing model, which was a reskinned version of the Nissan Armada. The GX56 is likely to be a favourite in the SUV-loving Gulf, although success in the Chinese market is less assured, according to the company. "There's a very small group of people who can afford this kind of full-size SUV," said David Dai from the Japanese manufacturer. He added that it was "very hard to say" if it would become a hit in China.
"The Chinese government calls on people to save energy and use low-output cars," he said. For those for whom money is no object, and standard production vehicles are not enough, the show had customised cars by the skip load. For example, Peter Lorinser, a German Mercedes dealer, was showing stretched versions of the Mercedes G-Wagon and Mercedes S-Class. Interest in luxury cars in China is, according to Lorinser, "exploding".
Last year, Lorinser said his company sold about 350 customised Mercedes in China. However, such is the growth in demand, he is looking to shift 2,000 vehicles in the next three years, even though in China they retail for up to 2.3 million yuan (Dh1.2m) once import taxes are included. "[The demand is] something really special," he said. "We have [customers] aged 30 to 70." There was one car that made almost everything else at the show look either small or cheap, and in most cases both. A stretched version of the Rolls-Royce Phantom, displayed on the stand of Shanghai-based Star Custom Auto, had to be seen to be believed. With a 3.7m section added to the middle, this car measured 8.8m in length - and its price, at 20 million yuan (Dh10.7m), was equally large.
"A rich man will buy this style of vehicle in China," said Chen Jiantao, Star Custom's chief technology officer. Retailing for about half as much, stretched versions of other premium vehicles, such as the Lincoln Town Car, the Lincoln Navigator and the Range Rover, were also on show. The interior of the Range Rover, with its cream and purple leather seats, drinks cabinet and deep-pile carpet, would not be considered tasteful by everyone, but it was certainly luxurious. But there were vehicles that eclipsed even the stretched Phantoms, Range Rovers and Lincoln Continentals for sheer enormity, if not price: trucks. One in particular, with its heavily sculpted front end, was attracting plenty of attention. The International Lone Star, equipped with a 15.0L Caterpillar engine, is a vehicle that takes no prisoners. "I think it's mostly [sold as] a working vehicle, but definitely you have to be a big truck fan to buy this, although you can use it for work," said Degas Yu, a project manager for the local importer, who admitted the mega-sized truck was "not really for the Chinese market".
If there was one thing bigger in Beijing than the trucks, it was the ambition of the Chinese manufacturers. Of the 89 models making their global debut at the show, 75 were from local car makers, a group that has plenty of reason for cheer. Not only are car and van sales in China growing faster than anywhere else in the world - they rose more than 45 per cent to 13.64 million last year - the native manufacturers are grabbing an increasing share of that huge market, now above 40 per cent.
Of course the show displayed plenty of rip-offs of popular western and Japanese models - echoes of the Toyota Yaris and Fiat Panda, for example, were obvious among the locally made cars - and reheated versions of discontinued models now being built in China under licence. But there were plenty of all-new cars from local manufacturers increasingly ambitious to sell their vehicles outside the Middle Kingdom.
Typical of these is Hawtai, a company founded as recently as 2000 and that, through a collaboration with Hyundai, makes SUVs based on the Terracan and the old-generation Sante Fe models. More notable than the SUVs in Beijing, however, were the stylish and all-new B11 and B21 saloons unveiled for the first time. The B11, said Mr Kang, is the size of a Toyota Camry but, with a price tag of between 68,000 yuan and 82,000 yuan (Dh36,557 - Dh44,076), around half the cost.
Currently, Hawtai mostly exports to Africa, South America and selected Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan and Iraq, but Kang said the company was keen to sell the B11 and B21 in GCC countries, including the UAE. "Camry [quality] is good. We are not at [the] Camry's quality, but we try our best to do what we can. For every market we start sales, we have after-sales service and spare parts," he said, adding that the saloon's selling point was the level of quality it offered at its price.
Slightly further down the road of internationalisation, thanks to its recent purchase of Volvo, is Geely. While the company has announced ambitious plans to make Volvos in China, this will not be at the expense of introducing its own new models. In fact, in a presentation at the show, Geely's head of research and development, Dr Frank Zhao, announced plans to launch about 30 new models by 2015, based on five platforms.
"The whole idea is to build more products with low investment and high speed," he said. He insisted Geely was working with international design houses and engine producers, for example, and not simply "buying technology". "We only try to master the core technology - engines, transmissions, chassis technology safety - but we're not trying to reinvent the wheel," he said. "We buy components that might have a technology [element], so we don't need to spend to develop it."
Zhao said he had 1,400 engineers working for him. At Chrysler, where he used to work, he said there were 10,000 engineers. "I thought: 'How can we compete with them?' That's what we're doing. I don't think China is out of date. We are as advanced as others, but we're at a much reduced cost," he said. email@example.com
Published: May 1, 2010 04:00 AM