BEIJING - Packed crowds, cars burnished to high sheen – at first glance, the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition may appear no different than other major auto shows in Detroit, Geneva and Frankfurt.
But the importance of this particular show to international automakers is unique, and can be measured by facts like this: in the huge country that is China, more than one million cars are registered every month. This means that winning or losing just 0.1% of the market can mean selling (or not selling) more than 10,000 additional vehicles per year.
So competition at "Auto China 2012" between the big fish with huge market share and the wannabes, both domestic and foreign, is fierce. And, as they do on the streets of central Beijing, the German brands play a particularly heady role – because the car models that widen the eyes of China’s fast-multiplying, upwardly mobile middle class are to be found at the large and consummately professional-looking stands of the German manufacturers.
Volkswagen, Mercedes and Germany’s other top automakers have long understood this, and accord the Chinese show a commensurate amount of importance. They even present special, made for China “stretch” models of familiar models that they don’t show anywhere else. Audi, for example, is showing a slightly stretched A6 for the first time, and BMW offers the 3 Series with an additional 11 cm (4.3 in) on the wheelbase. The star feature of the Mercedes stand is its so-called “concept style coupé” – a sporty four-door model based on the new A-Class – that can be expected to be manufactured pretty much as presented, although the company is being cagey about whether the car will ultimately be baptized CLA or not.
By comparison to the CLA, the Denza (a Mercedes/BYD Chinese brand) electric car based on the old B-Class, looks austere, even boring, although that doesn’t apply to what’s under the hood. The car hits the market next year.
It’s hardly a surprise that Porsche scheduled the world launch of the Cayenne GTS for the Beijing show: on the one hand, the timeframe was ideal in terms of the company’s product planning, and for another the derivative of the luxury SUV is ideal for China – in no other market on the planet does Porsche sell so many Cayennes as it does here.
Other VW brands didn’t offer any particular novelties, except for the Urus design produced by VW subsidiary Lamborghini. Also presented as a concept car, the Urus is sure to go into production and Lambo boss Stefan Winkelmann is already saying they’re aiming to sell 3,000 of the SUV per year.
French cars weren’t getting a lot of buzz at the show, and what attention they were getting was going to Citroen. Its futuristic Shooting Brake DS9 appeals to a market where expensive models cannot be big or conspicuous enough.
One of the big stars of the Beijing show was without a doubt the Jaguar F, presented in a coupé version. The F will presumably hit the market in 2013, at prices above 50,000 euros.
And the Chinese carmakers? They keep on learning, and this year markedly better quality and a much more professional finish characterized their new models. For Europeans, however, the problem with Chinese cars is the design -- particularly smaller models, where Chinese manufacturers tend to lean to forms and lines seen a decade ago in Korean cars. The larger the car, the more Baroque the lines – Chinese brands like BYD, Geely, Brillance, and Roewe really need to work on forging their own, authentic looks before they stand any kind of chance on the European market.