If you want an idea of which way the balance of automotive power in the Far East is tipping, take a look at this list of car manufacturers: Ford, Ferrari, General Motors, Hyundai, Kia, Lamborghini, Bentley, Fiat, Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin. These are just some of the manufacturers exhibiting at the Beijing motor show this week who chose to skip the Tokyo motor show back in November.
While Tokyo diminishes in size and apparent importance, by rather stark contrast, Beijing (and its Shanghai sister with which it alternates each year) now seems an indelible event on the calendar of the industry’s biggest hitters as Frankfurt or Geneva.
And you don’t need much time in the sprawling halls to know why. Time was when Beijing was most notable for its comical homegrown caricatures of established European product. No longer. While the occasional grotesque could still be found, the show’s focus has been sharpened, pulled around and now falls upon important cars from the mainstream European manufacturers.
Finding a star was not difficult. It doesn’t really matter whether you look at the Mercedes CSC in terms of its visual impact as a concept car on a show stand or its rather more important role as a near production ready compact premium four door coupe, it’s real significance is that it is a completely new design from a mainstream manufacturer that mere mortals are likely to be able to afford. And it was launched in Beijing.
Even more convincing in flesh than photograph, the word from Mercedes top brass is that the production version is changed in detail alone. Price positioned below the C-class as it will be, the CLA seems likely to create an entirely new class of car now, in much the same way its inspiration, the CLS, did in 2004.
But this being China, a place with potholes that can swallow a car whole, SUVs were very much the order of the day and large ones at that. In addition to the now familiar Maserati Kubang, a new Porsche Cayenne GTS and Bentley’s endlessly controversial EXP 9F, Lamborghini unveiled its Urus SUV concept to collective gasps from the crowd. Despite its size and likely weight, even grizzled hacks appeared disinclined to take against it, the general view being that its projected 3000 units sales represented revenue Lamborghini could scarcely pass by on principle and that if it had to make an SUV, it was as well it looked like that. Somewhat cruelly it was unveiled within easy sight of the Bentley and if Crewe had come to China hoping its SUV might look slightly less out of place than it had in Geneva, the proximity of VW’s other super premium SUV might have come as something of a blow.
Over at Land Rover there were no such problems. Its gamble to drive the 1 millionth Discovery from Birmingham to Beijing went so smoothly it must have kicked itself for going to the expense of taking three back up cars. It duly rolled onto the stand, a heroically filthy mess after 50 days on what was rarely recognisable as road. It struck a pleasing contrast to the limited edition Range Rover Evoque with remarkably tasteful paint and interior design by Mrs David Beckham intended primarily for the Chinese market but available (in theory at least) in the UK for a trifling £79,995 each, though that does buy you Victoria’s signature on your handbook.
The autograph on the Mercedes-Benz G63 and G65 AMG required a little extra rummaging to find, but pop the bonnet and you’ll find the paw print of one of Affalterbach’s finest on the front of the mighty new V8 and V12 engines located there. If the 544bhp G63 sounds dear at £110,000 it’s nothing compared to the £250,000 Mercedes would charge for the 600bhp G65 were it to offer it for sale in the UK. Some might say that’s quite an expensive way to trim 0.1sec of your 0-62mph time, though a Mercedes spokesperson would only describe its profit margin as ‘healthy’.
Meanwhile MG took another tentative step on the return journey to credibility with its Icon concept car. Though clearly not intended for production, its creators insist there is nothing on the car that could not be made were demand to be proven. In the meantime it was encouraging to see MG produce a concept that was aware of its heritage without being manacled to it and sufficiently wacky to draw the crowds, but not so outlandish it smacked of bored designers with nothing better to do.
Yet still despite these promising machines and others such as BMW’s i8 Spyder concept, the Audi Q3 RS concept and VW’s fun Bugster cabriolet concept, we had hoped to leave Beijing with a sense of a show all grown up and ready to take its place on the world stage not just for its sheer size, but its significance too. But while it’s on the way, it’s not quite there yet. It’s true that all those big hitters who snubbed Tokyo turned up in Beijing, but only Mercedes brought its A team. With Geneva just gone and Paris just the other side of summer there is a sense of manufacturers holding back the really good stuff for the more established shows.
As for Beijing it is by turns enthralling and maddening. It’s fun to see the cream of European automotive royalty lined up next to the serried ranks of Chinese domestics, many of which you may have barely heard. But the lack of information and, indeed, staff with the language skills to communicate it gives the feel of a local show and the sense of surprise when you express interest in a car that has never and will never be sold outside the People’s Republic is often palpable.
But it would be too easy by far to be dismissive of and patronising towards Beijing and its motor show. The fact is we were all laughing at Korean cars 20 years ago yet now Kia is Europe’s fastest growing brand. And the Chinese are learning and learning fast. They are acquiring skills, information, technology and experience through myriad joint ventures with western manufacturers.
In Beijing there were fewer joke Chinese cars and more that deserved to be taken at least fairly seriously than at any prior Beijing show. Their product while still patchy and occasionally hilariously oddball, is improving all the time. At this rate when we return in two years time, it won’t just be western cars grabbing the headlines, there will be a smattering of homegrown machines too.