Currently reading: Shanghai motor show 2011: report & pics
Full coverage from one of the year's biggest motor shows, including news and pics of every show star

On one level, the 14th biennial Shanghai motor show - or Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition, to give it its full name - is meat and drink to the frivolous critic. You could amuse yourself for ages lampooning the organisation, always so close to chaos, or the sub-Carpenters muzak (with bonus Mandarin lyrics) that blares from every speaker in every one of the two dozen halls.

See all the best pics from the Shanghai motor show

You could also make fun of the unsmiling platoons of dark-haired car industry executives, all apparently wearing the same navy suit, who seem constantly to stick their elbows into your ribs, and who shout into their mobile phones as if addressing a crowd.

But that would be to take the whole thing far too cheaply. The Shanghai motor show, and the Beijing event with which it alternates annually, is already one of the half dozen most significant events in the world motor industry's calendar, and it can only become more important still.

Read all the latest news from the Shanghai motor show

This year, post-recession, China is confirming its position as the world's biggest (and greatest ever) car market, with sales in the first quarter this year on course to reach the 20 million mark. That's 30 to 40 percent bigger than the whole of Europe of the whole of the US. It's 10 times the UK volume, seven times that of Germany.

It is such a vast market (tipped by most experts exceed 30 million by 2020) that the cautious noises some foreign makers were making just a couple of years ago now look ridiculous. As Kevin Wale, CEO of Shanghai GM put it when we spoke yesterday: "You have to think about expansion every day. We're selling 2.5 million cars now. If that goes up by 10 percent or more, as expected, that's 250,000 cars plus. It's a new plant, right there..."

See pics of Shanghai motor show's weird and wonderful

And the point is, this year's Auto Shanghai is the window on all of this. It used to be manageable, but now it's the at least the size of Europe's mammoth Frankfurt showcase, and growing rapidly and bewilderingly larger. How's this for a quote from a spokesman for China's automobile manufacturer's association when I asked the official numbed of Chinese car makers? "We think it's around 120, but we're not quite sure..."

There were lots of new cars, for sure. The naive stuff from indigenous Chinese makers, Great Wall, BYD, SAIC and the rest, has all-but disappeared, replaced by variations (to my eye) on a mid-80s Honda Accord saloon, because an astonishing 80 per cent of China's car shoppers are first-time buyers, and these are the cars they consider safest and most sensible: bigger saloon cars with lots of boot space.

Live blogs from Autocar's team of reporters at the Shanghai motor show

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We shouldn't fear for the direction of bold design though, says Kevin Wale. Buyers are catching up amazingly fast - for instance, Buick's all-Chinese design for a compact SUV, called Envision, heads firmly into Land Rover Evoque territory (and Shanghai GM rarely wastes time on purely speculative concepts) and Peugeot's brilliant SxC, Range Rover sized but sleeker, is also a serious effort for this market, even if management hasn't quite given it the nod.

The new Mercedes A-class concept looked deeply impressive, and (happily) quite out of character with what went before, while maintaining much of the practicality. The Audi Q3 looked similarly professional, but a good deal more predictable. VW's new Beetle looked a lot tougher than before, which should help sales. But I couldn't get on with the big Volvo, the Universe, whose bling content was a bit too much even for a Chinese concept, and whose PV544 bonnet shape looked ungainly. However, here's a chance for the Chinese to prove we European based "experts" don't know what we're talking about.

See all the best pics from the Shanghai motor show

The good old Union flag was used, as usual, for retailing: MG (the initials now explained as Morris Garages, rather than the "Modern Gentleman" which a bunch of Chinese revisionists tried on several years ago) employed it liberally as a backdrop for their increasingly credible MG3 and MG6 cars. They also displayed a Focus-sized MG5 concept which fought with the big Pug to be my show star.

And BMW-Mini used the flag liberally in a whole reception room, lifted (so we were supposed to think) from Goodwood House and even featuring leather armchairs and a tiger-skin rug that was the backdrop for its fully loaded Mini Goodwood.

This is just a taste. Shanghai is rapidly turning into a three-day viewing event. But for car-lovers, most trends were positive: design kept improving, sales optimism was rife, enticing products were everywhere, and European car makers seemed to be shaping up for real slice of Chinese prosperity in the next few years. "Please come back in 2013" said a sign as we left. For most of us, there is already no decision to make.

Steve CropleySee all the best pics from the Shanghai motor showRead all the latest news from the Shanghai motor showSee pics of Shanghai's weird and wonderfulLive blogs from Autocar's team of reporters in ShanghaiCome back to tomorrow for full coverage of the week's other big motor show from New York.

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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