Monday, May 14, 2012

Thoughts on the 2012 Beijing Auto Show

I recently traveled to Beijing to attend the 2012 Beijing Auto Show as well as to attend the Automotive News China Conference. While no one can expect to gain a full understanding of China during a quick trip like this one (indeed, one must live there for an extended period in order to learn that he can never fully understand China), such trips are often helpful for taking the pulse of what's going on at the moment.

First, a bit about the conference. Like most industry conferences, this one is basically a big networking opportunity surrounded by presentations from industry notables. My greatest impression was that, despite less than impressive growth numbers in the first quarter of this year, everyone seemed very optimistic about the prospects for longer term growth in China's auto market.

A lot of the discussion centered around the still largely untapped markets in China's Tier-3 and Tier-4 cities, and how dealer networks have aggressive expansion plans to take advantage of burgeoning demand among middle class Chinese consumers. And because the majority of auto purchases in China are still cash transactions, dealers see the ability to expand and sell their finance offerings as another key to getting more people behind the wheel.

From a personal point-of-view, while I learned much from the presentations, also I could not help but wonder why, for all of its stated intention of doing its own thing, going its own way, doing everything with "Chinese characteristics," China seems determined to build a consumer society with "American characteristics." Why is China copying some of the least attractive of American characteristics such as streets crowded with slow-moving vehicles, polluted air and consumer debt that has allowed us to live beyond our means?

While I wouldn't want to deny China the opportunity to develop itself and to improve standards of living, I wonder why China's planners cannot look down the road and foresee the kinds of problems that already exist in the US. Here is a chance for creative thinkers to leap ahead to solutions that will allow Chinese citizens the kind of personal mobility that will enhance their lives without bringing many of their negative characteristics.

And speaking of leaping ahead, this is a good point for me insert a few pictures and observations from the Auto Show.

This first picture is of a concept car shown by Chery, a local state-owned automaker from Anhui province. Actually, it's two cars, called the @Ant, connected to each other.
While I have to give Chery kudos for its creativity on this one, I felt like their design was more of a novelty than something that could truly solve problems. First, even though these cars are intended to be smaller, their footprints are actually quite large. Because the front wheels are intended to link up with another car in front, when the car is driven solo, those extended front wheels still take up a lot of room.

Also (and I really hate to nitpick here) aren't we pretty close to having technology what would allow cars to "link up" virtually with the use of software and proximity sensors? Such wireless technology would eventually allow for linkages to take place on the fly without the vehicles even needing to slow down. I'm guessing that the physical linkage suggested by Chery would require the vehicles to slow down, if not stop altogether, in order to establish a link.

In terms of more realistic concept vehicles, my impression this time was that Chinese designers (in some cases) have improved their design skills and visions since the last auto show I attended in Shanghai in 2009.

This crossover concept, also from Chery, really flows with some clever use of side panel creasing.
And this MG concept from Shanghai Auto was also an eye-catcher. I like the way they were able to integrate the traditional MG look with the round headlights into a very contemporary design.

And here's another nice concept from First Auto Works with really smooth lines. Unfortunately, FAW had it displayed in such a way that it was nearly impossible to capture the whole car in a single photo.

As in Shanghai 2009, everyone this year was still eager to demonstrate that they were developing new energy vehicles. Also like Shanghai 2009, practically none of the green vehicles on display could actually be bought by Chinese consumers.  (Of course, the foreign automakers also showed their NEV offerings like the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, etc.)

Here's the apparently electric version of Guangzhou Auto's Trumpchi which is built on an older Alfa Romeo platform (no doubt acquired from its new partner Fiat which owns Alfa).

I say this is an "apparently" electric version because, like many NEVs at the show, the only indication of their NEV status was a nearby sign or decals on the side. A look at the interior of some of these cars revealed the traditional shifter associated with an automatic or manual transmission -- which electric vehicles don't need.

This is the Denza, a new brand created by a joint venture between the private Chinese firm BYD and Daimler of Germany. This NEV is slated to go on sale in 2014.
Suicide doors also seemed to be all the rage this year, though no one actually has the guts to sell a car with this really cool feature.

Another common theme I noted was the traditional Chinese blue and white pottery theme on this sedan by local Chinese automaker Hawtai and a custom version of the Smart for Two.
And in case you are still wondering why Beijing wouldn't let Sichuan Tengzhong buy Hummer a few years ago...
... here's the Chinese version made by Dongfeng Motor. As you can see it's every bit as pretentious as the old US version which (fortunately) is no longer made, depriving some Americans of opportunities to unwittingly make fools of themselves.  ;-)

I didn't take a lot of photos of the non-Chinese automakers' stands as my interest on this trip was primarily in what the Chinese are working on. However, I did notice that all of the Detroit Three are projecting a lot more confidence than they did in 2009. If you remember, GM and Chrysler were still on the ropes then, and Ford was also pretty deep in debt. This year, all three had much larger stands, a lot more vehicles (including some really fascinating concepts) and were drawing such huge crowds that it was hard to walk through.

Here's a cool batmobile-looking concept from Chevrolet called the Miray.
The dancing blondes at the Ford stand attracted every red-blooded Chinese man with a point-and-shoot camera like bees to clover, so I couldn't get a good look at the new SUV Ford was displaying.
And finally, here's a shot of an Audi stand outside of one of the pavilions. What's so interesting about this? The characters on the building are inviting people to check out their used cars (二手车, literally "second hand car").
China's auto market is still so new that about 85% of car buyers today are still first-time buyers. But since 2005 over 80 million vehicles have been sold in China. This means that an increasing number of used vehicles will be available as many previous first-time buyers trade up.

I would not have expected to see used cars being touted at an auto show, but since Chinese consumers still overwhelmingly consider foreign brands to be superior to Chinese brands, it makes sense that a first-time buyer might be persuaded to buy a used car, certified by a foreign automaker, rather than a brand new Chinese-branded car.

As for the auto show itself, I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointment. The organizers of this show appeared to be more interested in how many tickets they could sell than in putting on a good show. Even though they designated different days as media days, industry days and public days, there appeared to be no real distinction as tickets were offered for sale to anyone who showed up.

China's biggest auto show alternates between Bejing and Shanghai on even and odd years, respectively. In the future, I think the odd years will be enough for me.


  1. Nice report. I think the future lies very much in hyrids, electric and smaller vehicles personally. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I agree. There are some interesting things being done with small electric cars by entrepreneurs in Shandong. (Not sure why they're concentrated in Shandong.) If China's government ever truly unleashes the private sector in this industry, I think we'll see a lot of innovation in small-footprint vehicles come to the surface.


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