That’ll be close to 17 million car sales, not far short of the US in boomtime – yet this is a country where still only 30 people in 1000 own cars (US: 600-odd) and where 75,000 new engineers are expected to graduate next year alone.
In such an environment, with average incomes rising fast, it’s no wonder premium car manufacturers are struggling to meet demand. Launching locally made long-wheelbase versions of their regular cars seems to be the European preoccupation in China at present.
BMW sold over 90,000 cars to Chinese owners last year, 40,000 of them built in a local factory which is about to be expanded to a capacity of 100,000 units. Yet while in Beijing, BMW chief Norbert Reithofer told journalists that this was not going to be enough. A local capacity of 300,000 units in the next few years was “a realistic scenario”.
Not that premium car sales are the main event here yet. It was fascinating to note the way modest, locally made models drew bigger crowds here than Ferrari’s new 599 GTO.
Shanghai GM built a million mostly family models last year, and now says it expects to achieve two million four years ahead of schedule. Local journalists explain that China’s car market is caught between two phases: providing buyers with decent mobility now, whatever the styling, and preparing rapidly for an electric future. Chinese industry bigwigs hope their market can skip a generation (or two or three) of 'traditional' development and emerge as a world leader in electric cars.
It may be a vain hope, however. Outsiders note a Chinese love affair with the traditional automobile, redolent of 1960s America, arriving at irresistible speed. One fascinating sign of it is the opening of a drive-in cinema in downtown Beijing, complete with miniskirted waitresses, serving the occupants of 600 cars on weekend evenings.
For now, Chinese products look too eccentric and lacking in image and refinement for European tastes – and this extends to the Beijing show’s extensive crop of electric cars.
A few are genuinely good looking, but many are awful. However, if the claims being made for them are to be believed, they’re progressive in terms of range, power, top speed and charge time. Why? Because the Chinese government is pouring billions into electric car development, especially through university schemes affiliated to car makers.
An electric car network can solve many problems at once, the authorities believe, cutting crude oil imports and pollution while the required electricity can be generated from coal, of which China has plenty.
BMW’s Chinese-built electric 5-series concept is the German company’s way of tapping into all this, and of discovering just how advanced Chinese electric/battery technology is at present.
For now, the Germans believe the Chinese are not as advanced as they are, but acknowledge that the government cash dwarfs their own investment and that they’ll ultimately need partners to compete. BMW has real-world experience with its Mini E and BMW ActiveE to retail, but Chinese muscle will eventually be the biggest factor.
This, as one Chinese journalist explains, is why local manufacturers are slowly ‘internationalising’ their styling and instigating partnerships that will carry their products into the US and European car markets.
“Today’s Chinese cars lack refinement because they are tightly restrained by cost,” he says. “But our industry has proved it can build anything to any price. Once we start exporting cars in big numbers we will raise the quality. It will not be a problem, just a process…"