Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Tito F. Hermoso | posted July 14, 2009 18:57
Build it and they will build it
Are you OC enough to be jealous about anyone else knowing more than you when it comes to cars? Well try challenging anyone of the thousands of the billion or so Chinese to a "name that car/brand/model" at the Shanghai Auto show.
You can impress the lads down at the pub, as you casually throw off model names like SAIC VW's Lavida Langyi and Passat Lingyu. Or FAW-VW's Mangotan and Sagitar? If a Skoda Octavia is not exotic enough for you, how about the Octavia Mingrui? It gets better. There is such a thing as a Geely Emgrand EC718 and a Riich M1by Chery, which shows that not only are the Chinese capable of stretching wheelbases and female legs, it can also shorten a QQ into a QQm. Rolls Royce aspirations? How about a Geely GE - Geely Elegance. Lover of Italian curves? There's a Geely Tiger or GT for short.
Auto Shanghai 2009 - the Art of Innovation. The naughty would misconstrue "Innovation" as to be synonymous to "copyright" meaning the democratic People's right to copy. But the Chinese Auto industry is serious. Surpassing 10 million units this year with a capacity to export another 8 million, China is destined to be the biggest selling and fastest growing car market in a shrinking global one. China isn't going to achieve a band-aid spike in sales by scrappage incentives like cash for clunker programs similar to some car making western countries. Instead, it offers tax breaks for cleaner and energy efficient technology. This way, China's relatively young car fleet upgrades and modernizes without introducing a big fiscal deficit that future Chinese will have to pay for in the form of higher taxes. China is so big and prosperous, that financially independent, Shanghai-GM, a complete copy of GM North America transplanted here, shrugs off the malaise afflicting GM Detroit.
Casuistry and punditry, art forms in forums [fora] and tabloids of outrage journalism, nevertheless, cannot dispute the facts. To wit; 918 cars on display, 316 foreign, 602 domestic, 11 giant Halls, 13 international model debuts. And its about scale; VW, the most senior and perennial top notcher had a 6,500 sq. display area. This does not include its Joint venture partners - SAIC and FAW - their own giant stands. GM, having been in China only since 1999, and VW's rival for Number One, had a 5,000 sq. set, unveiling the Cruze and Camaro out of 37 vehicles, one concept, one international debut and 5 Asia Pacific debuts.
Global perspective? Nissan, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Ferrari, Land Rover, Porsche and Rolls Royce were not at the NAIAS or Detroit Motor show. GM, Ford, Chrysler, VW, BMW and Mercedes Benz were reportedly skipping the Tokyo Motor Show this October. Yet all of them were at Auto Shanghai 2009.
In terms of number of brands, Shanghai may just beat them all. Its due to the fact that most car companies here are joint ventures with state owned investment companies at the provincial and regional level. For example, SAIC or Shanghai Automotive is a JV partner of VW, GM, Suzuki and many more. If VW wants to sell in Guangdong, it will have to partner with a local company, say FAW in Guangdong. That's why one will find different kinds of VW models on the VW stand, the FAW stand and the SAIC stand. GM is a partner of SAIC, but when it wanted to sell in Wuling's home province, it had to partner with Wuling AND SAIC. This has the happy consequence of being able to tap several levels of financing and credit guarantees.
If one gets over the weird names and the even weirder concept cars of the home grown brands, the Chinese car market can be characterized in 3 categories. 1.) Global brands that adopt their cars looks, names and features to local tastes. Examples are the China market only stretched business sedans and plush [as opposed to sporty] versions of their mainstream sedans 2. )Joint Venture brands that slap their own name to foreign designs revised to local tastes and change some features to partially distinguish them from the original global designs. Examples are the DongFeng sedan versions of the Peugeot 307 and 207. 3. ) Companies that supply parts modules to the main car companies, uniting together to make their own car family line up. Examples in this category, are strange looking Honda CR-Vs with Toyota or Mitsubishi parts - amalgams of parts integrators. Ironically, these latter brands are early adaptors to new technology as they are the principal component suppliers. In fact these brands are first to market with alternative fuel technologies and hybrids, beating the top volume sellers. One of these companies was a very amusing brand called BYD - which stands for "Build Your Dream". Which happens to be a global supplier of lithium ion - cell phone type - batteries for hybrid cars.
China doesn't talk about a Big Three [North America] or a Big 6 [European Union]; it speaks of the Big 10, some of which are fast gaining on many of its global rivals in the EU and the USA. Mind that this is from field of easily 50 firms, 15 of which are nibbling at the heels of the China Big Ten, which have the capability and the sales volume to shame smaller Western rivals. Thus, Auto Shanghai 2009 focuses not only on Green issues, but also on sustainability, styling and the quick application from desktop to the street. Copyright infringement? Almost all Joint venture covenants emphasize asymmetric transfer of technology, i.e. China deserves complete transfer of technology if global companies want to tap its huge domestic market. But since China is such a big and competitive market, the latest technology is a must to outsell one's rivals.
With its huge domestic market, the slight fall in exports have not changed the ways of the rich. Billionaires may have lost a billion or so, but they still have 5 or 6 billion left in the till. Thus Premium car makers are not going to give away their market share to any rival. Thus Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Maybach, Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Porsche were there in their full glory. Customization specialists from builders of stretch limos and luxury RVs were also big on the ground, and since China will soon have the world's biggest network of expressways, the connoisseurs of speed must have tuner specialists like ACSchnitzer and their ilk.
These luxury aspirations are not only evident in the standard polished burl wood, chrome and leather in more humble Chinese car market offerings. They extend to more officious business executive transport like China market only factory stretched limousines from VW Passat, Skoda Superb, Buick Park Avenue, Cadillac SLS, Audi A4 and A6, BMW 5, Volvo S80 and Mercedes Benz E-class. Toyota produces a very classy looking Toyota Crown only for this left hand drive market. Not to be left behind are the Japanese prestige marques of Lexus, Acura and Infiniti. Perhaps as an intended stab at the British sense of irony, Geely shows the Geely GE, its own aristocratic Rolls Royce Phantom version based on the LTI TX1, the London black cab, built under license. Not a bad menu for power brokers who, only 3 decades ago, had no choice but to ride in a Hongqi CA 72.
Porsche chose Shanghai to launch its Panamera 4-door coupe, while BMW wheeled out its grand new 760iL and the X5 M. Mercedes had the hybrid S400 with new detail upgrades. Audi showed the Q5 while Ferrari displayed the California cabrio. Bentley showed a stretch Arnage RL. On the other end of the spectrum, Kia showed its new Forte sedan and the pretty MINI-esque Soul hatchback, quite a darling in Europe now. The new 5-seat Sorento and the 7-seat Borrego, a cousin of the Hyundai Veracruz also showed.
The Mini Majority
All this stretching produces winners even further down the car model chain. The best selling mini-commercial vehicle in rural China is the GM Wuling, a stretched and expanded version of what can be mistaken to be a Suzuki Carry. In fact, mini-commercials in China are the workhorse transport of the giant Agricultural sector contributing to 40% of total car annual sales. From the most recent quarterly sales data at Show time, GM sold 130,000 compact cars vs. 240,000 Wulings as GM Wuling leads all mini-commercial vehicle sellers in China. No wonder, many of the Philippine importers of Chinese brands also ship in their rival versions of the GM Wuling. This segment will surely get a boost if the Philippines enters into a bilateral free trade agreement with China. As for the real MINI, it continues to be the darling of the car world as the motoring press and other exhibitors crowded the MINI stand for souvenirs and MINI bric-a-brac. Not only does Lifan do white top roof MINI look alike, but Skoda is offering Fabia hatchbacks with MINI-esque paint schemes.
Next to mini-commercial vehicles, the Chinese middle class, about the size of the working population of ASEAN and the 27 country European Union, are spoiled for choice. An impromptu street survey of Shanghai shows that of MPVs, derivatives of the Mitsubishi Space Gear and Hyundai Starex made by JAC and Brilliance Auto dominate. Jinbei-made versions of the 1999 Toyota HiAce, curiously called HIASE come a close second. Rely, another Chery brand like Riich, has a Super Grandia look alike called the H5 while its Starex look alike is called the V8. Just as popular are the Shanghai GM made Buick Firstland GL8 - Chevrolet Venture to us in the Philippine market.
This being Shanghai, the most popular sedan for taxi and Police work is the VW Santana, from the JV between SAIC and VW. Previous model Hyundai Santa Fe sport the Rein brand and X5 by Rely. There's a minivan called the BYD M6, which looks like an elder Previa. Asia, being a 3-box sedan market rather than a 2-box hatchback market, means that the China market version of popular hatchbacks in Europe grow a tail. Thus the DongFeng made Peugeot 207, 307, several SAIC-VW and Skoda models sold here grow rather elegant tails. Some older Corolla models and Smart look alikes can be found on both the street and in the Exhibition hall goes to show that with so much sales volume, it doesn't take much to invest in revised stamping dies to introduce slight changes to the sheet metal.
Dream, dream, dream
There were many concept cars from the homegrown Chinese brands too. Besides the tall perma-smile photogenic models, one usually notice a tall Caucasian male, usually European, hanging about, ready to deliver a spiel about the concept car's global design legitimacy. BYD had an interesting 2-door convertible which looked like a Mercedes CLK. How about the Honda Linian concept convertible and FAW's Red Flag SUV? If MINI can show its electric MINI E, so can Great Wall with its GWKulla. SAIC, being into rescuing ailing heritage brands [Chrysler, anyone?] had the reborn MG TF to show alongside very convincing resurrections of Rover 215's called the MG 3SW. A new hatchback called the MG 6 was bang up to date. SAIC's Rover 75 based Roewe N1 even had cameras in lieu of side view mirrors. Technology for green and speed purposes were taken for granted as half the stands had EV's and hybrid power ready for the street.
As for making Shanghai, alternating with Beijing, as indispensable a stop like Geneva in the bi-annual motor show circus, its significance lay in the Halls that had the components makers. Not merely devoted to aftermarket and race tuners, the component makers present were there to display forward technology that are not getting the intense attention that they should get in the cash strapped West. But in growing China, eager to be early adapters to anything that will push them ahead of the competition, these component makers are there ready to manufacture. Thyssen-Krupp, BEHR, FAG, ZF, Siemens VDO, Bilstein and Bosch were showing the unseen parts and parts making machines of tomorrow's private transport, from Wuling to Wiesmann. There were hybrid transmission systems, multi function HVACs, rim mount induction motors and active suspension makers. All of them ready to mass produce at Euro 5 and Euro 6 levels of acceptance.
Among the established suppliers are Mitsubishi engines and Lotus suspension tuning specialists, which has several on going projects with many indigenous car makers. Just to prove that its not all copies and derivatives, Stile Bertone, the eponymous Italian coach-builder/designer was there with a preview of their Corvette ZR-1 based Mantide. The full running prototype of the Mantide debuts at the Villa d'Este Concours in Italy so Bertone's presence in Shanghai is intended as an eye catching business card for Chinese automakers seeking international design expertise from Stile Bertone.
Theme and weather wise, all Shanghai needs to do is to grow out of timidity. Take the official name of the show: The 13th Auto Industry Exhibition. With so many global manufacturers trimming their shows to just their home country, and even canceling some major ones, Shanghai should be promising the motoring public that it has the will, the capacity and the skill to take over where Tokyo and Frankfurt might leave of.
Shanghai lives and thrives with crowds, as it prepares for 2010. With its blue mascot which looks like a height challenged Gumby, Expo Shanghai 2010's motto, "Better City, better life" ushers in the global paradigm shift of urban living; 55% of the world's population live in cities. GM is a major sponsor of the Expo as it prepares an EPCOT center like pavilion of this Expo.
Like China, Shanghai is about scale, beyond imagination. Mass housing, mass transit, mass education. Massive construction and a dense network of expressways, communication towers and power pylons. 20 years ago, in this crowded city of over ten million bicycles, showed no sign that it will be overwhelmed by the corrupting pot-pot-pot of the motorcycle anytime soon. Today, there are surely less bicycles, but Shanghai seemed to have jumped the scooter stage of economic development as street sounds are not dominated by the shrill 2-stroke engine, although constant pall of grey haze this springtime might make you think otherwise. Instead, you hear the rumble of tires and the impatient blow of fanfare horns, as Shanghai-made cars crowd the streets. And all those bicycles? The Shanghainese who still do not yet have a car, have been tootling around in battery powered bikes.
Shanghai has a knack of being many things at once; the West's peephole into the Middle Kingdom, a toehold of the West into the decadence of the Orient, the source code of Hong Kong's wealth and the vain indulgence that money buys. China's showcase to the world, and the model of China's modern cities. All three-hundred of them. You get the feeling that it is moving so fast that if you don't act now, you'll get left behind. And considering the number of globally significant events that Shanghai seems to host, sometimes, it seems to say "No Sweat". It is a city in simultaneous realtime and virtual motion. Enough to make anyone turn OC.