Chengdu is one of those booming Chinese megacities that make most of Europe’s cities look like villages. More or less at the centre of China, the wider Chengdu zone is home to around 14 million people and is attracting massive investment from around the world.
It seems to have everything; it has become an important area for electronics and IT, logistics, finance and agriculture. The Chengdu Aircraft company builds the J10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ and J20 Stealth military planes and Volvo - owned by Chinese company Geely - is building its first stand-alone Chinese factory in the area.
Infrastructure investment continues at break-neck speed, with a huge number of new road projects and a new Metro rail system opening last year. By 2015 there’ll be four Metro lines reaching out into the suburbs. All of which puts the UK’s attempts to ‘build its way out of recession’ into perspective.
The Chengdu Motor Show is held in the city’s giant exhibition centre. As many as two million local people were expected to attend. It certainly seemed like that last Friday. It was teeming, humid and incredibly noisy: nearly all the stands had either loud music or dancers.
Unlike a typical European show, Chengdu exhibitors - mostly domestic brands - are actually trying to sell cars to visitors. It’s quite easy to spend under £4000 on a locally-produced city car such as JAC’s Citroen C1-lookalike. Indeed, the dealers manning the stands seemed to be offering 10 per cent discounts as a matter of course. While the crash standards are unlikely to be the best, the cars seem perfectly reasonably finished and assembled.
However local sources say that these cars, while cheap to buy, are typically expensive to maintain. Super-low prices mean engineering corners are cut and regular repairs are almost inevitable. Chery’s ageing QQ model - exhibited here with mistranslated cartoon decals - is one of those super-cheap vehicles that are reputed to be expensive to run. Sales, however, continue to be relatively strong.
One of the stars of the show was VW’s new Jetta model. The European Mk2 VW Jetta is still a very common site on Chinese roads and will continue to be sold to taxi drivers, but the new car is based on a Polo platform and is priced from as little as £7500 for the 96bhp petrol model. Considering the low cost, the standard of fit and finish was impressive.
It is just this kind of European-brand budget car that is helping to strangle the Chinese domestic car industry. This situation is regarded as so serious that senior people in the domestic industry are publicly calling for the Chinese national government to step in and help the huge number of domestic makers work together to avoid predicted oblivion within the next ten years.
Although Chengdu is a long way from the Western-influenced coastal cities, virtually all the western carmakers - including Renault, Peugeot, Opel, Jeep and Citroen had stands. Even a little sales headway in the 19m per-year Chinese new car market would make a lot of difference to beleaguered Europeans.
JLR had a massive stand, with much space given over to Jaguar, a brand that could transform its fortunes with a breakthrough in China. Even 50,000 annual Chinese sales - surely possible - would double the size of the marque. Land Rover was running an Evoque film which seemed to show Victoria Beckham behind the wheel.
The remains of JLR’s British Leyland bedfellows also had a big presence. Shanghai’s Auto’s MG and Roewe brands showed new models including the MG 5 hatchback alongside the MG 3 supermini (officially priced between £7000 and £9000, though dealers are generally discounting by around 10 per cent) and the familiar MG 6.
Beijing Auto showed an interesting cutaway model of its M-Trix platform, aka the 2003 Saab 9-3 architecture equipped with the old Saab slant-four engine, which used to power the Saab 9000 and 9-5. Both technologies were bought from ailing Saab a couple of years ago.
Volvo - which might now be regarded as a local brand - had a huge stand and parent company Geely still insists on giving its version of the London TX4 black cab a star billing. Such old-school engineering seems in stark contrast to Geely’s Volvo V60. But, I suppose, that’s China: ancient and modern side by side.