Steve Cropley reports from China on BMWs, Brilliance and revamped MG Rovers
23 April 2007

On a European one-to-10 scale of spectacular motor shows, this one polled at least 18. Not only was Shanghai’s Auto Show, now in its 22nd year, chosen by BMW as the launch-pad for perhaps its most influential speculative model in a decade, the CS Concept, but this bustling, sprawling event also featured the world debut of cars from two rival Chinese companies that have started making MGs and Rovers where Longbridge left off three years ago — and are doing it better. Accompanying this were good-looking new cars from the likes of Chery and Brilliance, two of China’s 180-odd manufacturers with a high foreign profile and a determination to do well in Europe. And just to underline the importance of Shanghai, GM empowered its Chinese-run design studio to hot-house its own highly credible proposal for the Buick Riviera, which is a bit like Morgan getting the Koreans to re-create the Plus Eight.It wasn’t hard to understand while GM had granted its outpost such licence: as GM last year struggled to maintain its status as the world’s biggest car company, its Chinese joint ventures accounted for 877,000 sales in 2006. This year that figure's expansion is well ahead of average market growth, so far a mere 26 per cent.

Flame surfacing burns out

The BMW was undoubtedly the show’s star, a long, low and beautifully sculpted luxury saloon for the £100,000-plus market featuring the M5’s V10 engine. BMW’s spokespeople described it as the beginning of a new BMW generation, which suggested that it would be heavily influential on the shape of the new 7-series. Design boss Chris Bangle, whose controversial current 7-series design set off the design furore that has swirled around BMW design ever since, commented that "it will be interesting to see what the relationship is between this car and the 7-series…" Close, we’d suggest.

Like an MG Rover, only better-made

The tussle over the MG Rover clones is something that could only happen in China. Nanjing Automotive, winner of the bidding war to acquire the worn-out Longbridge company and its site, showed three MGs — the MG7 (a Rover 75) in long and short-wheelbase forms, the MG5 (a Rover 45 clone) and the MGTF sports roadster. All looked as capable and well-built as anything to come from a British factory. Quality director Paul Stowe — a cheery, seen-it-all veteran employed in the Longbridge cause by MG Rover, BMW, the Rover administrators, SAIC (the failed, preferred bidder) and now Nanjing Automotive — confirmed that the quality was indeed high. The Chinese knew bad quality threatened their investment, he said, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen.Over at SAIC, which failed to buy Longbridge but did get some intellectual property rights, such as the ability to make the KV6 engine and former Rover versions of the 75, cars called Roewe (Chinese pronunciation: "wrong way") were being offered, looking just as good as the Nanjing cars. These were not lashed-up cars in any sense. They were recreated Rovers and MGs in the same spec and restrained colours. What raised a smirk on both stands was the keen but naïve attempts of the Chinese to commemorate the British culture which created these cars, and which they obviously seem to love. The Roewe cars were surrounded by a guard of honour of little girls, dressed as if for an afternoon at some Home Counties pony club; the Nanjing ceremonies kicked off with an extraordinary dance troupe of four couples, who looked for all the world like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. For a moment, these things had a charade look about them — until your eye fell back on the cars themselves: well-built, nicely painted, coloured and trimmed with restrain, and, yes, desirable.

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A flash of Brilliance

Other new Chinese models? They were everywhere. Chery, the company which has done a deal with Chrysler to make a big-scale small car, was there with an impressive prototype from Torino Design (brainchild of Roberto Piatti, a former 10-year incumbent at Bertone) for a three-door Focus-sized "breadvan", powered by a 1.6 litre engine. It was called Shooting Sports, and the Chinese were telling people it would go into production.Brilliance showed its terrific two-door coupe, similar in stature to the Hyundai Coupe (but a lot better looking), and also a Focus-style proposal. So did Roewe, in fact its smaller-than-75 saloon seemed so reminiscent of its big brother that we wondered if it was the downsized 75 often mooted when Rover was still owned by BMW. It looked great, anyway; no clone of any other car, but obviously related to and more modern than its Rover 75-based brother. Credibility seemed its middle name.

Next stop, Europe

There was much, much more — including truly outrageous rip-offs of the Smart City Coupe and BMW X5, and an extraordinary convertible which combined an inch-perfect Merc CLK front end with the rear of a Renault Megane coupe — but the whole event was summed up by a veteran British car industry boss I encountered who over the years has overseen the importation of models as diverse Italian supercars and American 4x4s. "There are 178 car makers here, but only one certainty — and that is that Chinese cars are coming to Europe. The Koreans will move up the slope until they collide with the likes of Fiats and Peugeot, and that will leave the area underneath to the Chinese. They won’t have to be asked twice."

Steve Cropley

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