Beijing Auto Show and China’s Auto Industry: Life in Fast-Forward

By Michelle Krebs April 21, 2008

By Michelle Krebs

BEIJING – No more models dressed in cheesy mermaid costumes. Not a pink fur-covered Hello Kitty car in sight. Beijing’s auto show, like China’s auto industry and the country itself, has grown up and gained sophistication rivaling other global entities –almost.

And it has happened fast, as life does in China – life lived in fast-forward, as one expatriate auto company executive described it. Entrance_1

The Beijing auto show is an analogy to the China auto industry – and Chinese economy generally: spectacular progress and phenomenal growth in the blink of an eye, but still a tad off in the final bit of refinement necessary to be considered world-class – a level assured to be achieved at some point.

The Show: World Class – Almost

Only two years ago, the Beijing auto show took place in a dingy, cramped facility in Beijing’s city center. Beijing’s show, which alternates annually with Shanghai’s show, held its single press day on Sunday; it opens to the increasingly car-savvy public later this week for a six-day run.

And Auto China 2008 is the first major event to use the spanking-new New International Exhibition Centre, said to be one of the world’s largest. Beijing_new_international_exhibitio

Only a few weeks ago, scouts for the automakers said it looked as if construction on the convention center had barely begun; they feared it wouldn’t be ready. Similarly, a quick driving tour around the famous bird-nest stadium, Water Cube and other facilities being constructed for the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics reveal more than finishing touches are needed before the games begin in August.

But this is China, where buildings seem to rise practically overnight. And so, the convention center, indeed, was ready for the world’s auto industry -- almost.

Inside, the massive and impressive structures, with vast expanses of glass surrounding peaceful courtyards, virtually every major global automaker was there in force – from Mini to Maybach. Automakers have been spending heavily for their presence at Chinese auto shows, even diverting budget from Tokyo to China, where the return on investment is more likely. They brought with them large and modern exhibits -- one could have imagined themselves at any major auto show in the world – Frankfurt, Geneva, Tokyo.

The map of the center, which looked like a blueprint for top-secret computer circuitry, wound up to be needlessly daunting, as maneuvering through the multiple exhibit halls proved logical and simple with clear English signs hung everywhere.

International models wore evening gowns instead of skimpy outfits from past China (or even Tokyo) auto shows. Yes, a few satin and vinyl hot-pant getups remained at the stands of mostly small, local companies.

Vehicle unveilings included world-class showmanship by Chinese acrobats dangling from jungle gyms dropped from the ceiling, the ballet dancer who balanced by one toe atop her partner’s head and Chinese drummers who launched into hip-hop numbers.
But spectacular as it appeared, the convention center still lacked the last 10 percent to be completely ready for prime time.

Located far from central Beijing, no hotels have yet been built nearby, nor has the subway yet been extended to the facility. So getting to the center required two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic on an early Sunday morning that otherwise could have been a straight 30-minute shot.

Once near the convention center, the congestion, managed by no traffic signals or police, worsened. Intersections were clogged by cars, trucks and buses going every direction at once, horns blaring, tempers flaring – worse than the typical intersection snarls in Beijing. Anxious cab drivers hopped the curb and took the sidewalks instead of the streets. Impatient bus passengers disembarked and hiked the rest of the way.

At least one exasperated driver slammed her car into park in the middle of the street and walked. Bus passengers who remained onboard muttered “Chinese fire drill” and questioned how Beijing could possibly handle the exponentially heavier traffic volumes of the upcoming Olympics. Even General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner arrived – by police escort, as most auto company executives do in Beijing – only a minute before he took the stage.

The constant, day-long rain leaked through the convention center’s new roof, forcing exhibitors to shuffle cars away from the drips and workers to place buckets or continually mop puddles. Instead of carpet, thin felt covered what felt like unfinished floors beneath. Hand dryers had been hurriedly affixed to restroom walls, but their plugs didn’t reach the electrical outlets.

One can be assured these kinks will be worked out by Auto China 2010.

The Cars: Ready for Export – Almost

What a difference four or even two years make in the life of Chinese auto manufacturers. Their growth is well documented: China has gone from virtually no auto industry a decade ago to annual sales of more than 10 million vehicles.

China surpassed Japan as No. 2 in sales, with expectations that it will capture the No. 1 spot from the U.S. by as early as 2014 – or no later than 2020. Auto executives attending the Beijing auto show said they see no slowdown in the China’s rapid growth in the foreseeable future. Roewe5501_2

The butt of jokes for their immature displays and shoddily-built vehicles in years past, Chinese automakers are now serious contenders. In China, local manufacturers with no foreign partners have gone from miniscule presence to capturing a respectable chunk of market share, causing the larger Chinese companies and their foreign partners to take notice. Many of the smaller local companies have bold international aspirations that now seem possible to eventually achieve.

At the Beijing auto show only two years ago, local manufacturer Chery – which has since negotiated a partnership with Chrysler, appeared at other international shows and been vocal about its global intentions – displayed a silly model of its top-volume QQ small car (a knock off of Chevrolet’s Spark) covered in pink fur. Clearly intending to be taken seriously this year, Chery put on a display on par with any of its international competitors.

Another local company with no foreign partner but a now-familiar name, Geely, unveiled a concept car, obviously developed on its own, that drew crowds and generated buzz. The Geely GT is an almost cartoonish-looking luxury coupe, but no less an authority than Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of design, said the car is worthy of attention. The Geely GT and other vehicles, Welburn noted, show the first hints of an emerging Chinese design language. Geely_tiger_2  

Welburn said Chinese designers are becoming among the world’s best in developing interiors, though they remain weak on exterior design. Indeed, GM’s designers in China are playing a key role in all of GM’s global designs, including the stunning Buick Invicta concept (near identical to the next-generation Lucerne), with its luscious interior unveiled in Beijing.

Because of cars like the Geely Tiger GT, Welburn said this year’s Beijing show was the most interesting, significant and enjoyable one he’d attended in the past four to five years.

Still, in the land infamous for brand-name fakes ranging from Louis Vuitton handbags to Tommy Bahama Hawaiin-print shirts, knockoffs were evident.

Copies of the Toyota Corolla, small SUVs made by Hyundai, Kia, Honda and BMW, as well as Mercedes-style convertibles, abounded. The smart forFour knockoff that created a ruckus at last fall’s Frankfurt motor show – developer Mercedes-Benz protested its presence – also was unabashedly on display here.

GM execs were shocked and amused to see a near-perfect copy of the Chevrolet Colorado – the compact pickup GM does not sell in China and doesn’t even sell very well in the U.S. – with only the badge distinguishing the fake from the genuine article. Byd_e6_2

Make no mistake: Chinese domestic automakers displayed some vehicles with wide and inconsistent gaps between exterior body panels, ragged interior plastic trim pieces and ill-fitting gloveboxes – all items for which Chinese manufacturers were famous a few years ago. But they were more the exception than the rule.

Local and virtually unknown-to-outsiders Lifan quietly displayed what looked like an old-generation Toyota Corolla. But inside, it featured a meticulously crafted interior with fine-grade materials and precise fits for trim pieces.

One can imagine several Chinese automakers will achieve world-class levels of design and quality by the time Auto China again rolls around in 2010.

Photos:

1. Auto China 2008 is nation's first auto show in new Exposition Center (Ed Hellwig)

2. Beijing's New International Exposition Center (Ed Hellwig)

3. Roewe 550 sedan

4. Geely Tiger GT (Ed Hellwig)

5. BYD's e6 hatchback

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