At the Shanghai motor show, some of the biggest manufacturers you’ve never heard of displayed their newest models alongside familiar Western brands keen to crack the world’s most lucrative automotive market.
Long gone are the days when Shanghai was an exhibition of the most blatant copycat cars, and the impressive quality of new Chinese creations is beginning to pose a very real threat to more established manufacturers. The 2019 edition was especially significant, with an increasing number of Chinese models being prepared for European launches and global manufacturers such as Volkswagen adding to their range of models adapted specifically for sale in China.
Shanghai 2019: Full show report
China’s car sales fell for the tenth consecutive month in March, pitching the country’s growing ranks of car makers face-first into an unprecedented headwind whipped up, in part, by on-going trade frictions with the US and a continued slowing of the global economy, stymying their dramatic growth of the past two decades and threatening new model plans along the way.
But if there were concerns for the long-term health of the Chinese car industry in what has been described as its biggest crisis yet, it certainly wasn’t showing as the 2019 Shanghai motor show opened its doors.
With business confidence in the world’s largest car market showing heartening signs of a rebound, owing to a timely reduction in sales tax ordered by the Chinese central government effective from the beginning of April, the mood within the vast halls of the international convention centre, where the country’s biggest motor show takes place every two years, was cautiously upbeat.
While China’s car sales have fallen for the good part of the past year, they continue to far outstrip those of any other country. The overall figure for March, at 2.52 million, showed the smallest decrease year-on-year in over seven months, at 5.2 per cent.
With many car makers reducing prices to boost sales in light of the tax break, expectations are total car sales for 2019 will be roughly in line with those of 2018 at around 22.5 million.
Predictably given the importance now placed on Shanghai motor show as an automotive showcase with international reach, every key Chinese car maker, including the five state-owned heavyweights SAIC, FAW, BAIC, Dongfeng and Changan, all presented new or improved production models this year. They were kept honest by an ever more competitive list of private own rivals headed by the likes of Geely, GAC, Great Wall Motors and BYD as well as key introductions by joint venture operations such as those operated by Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota and Honda.
It was the concept cars from established western car makers, including the clever new Audi AI:ME, versatile Volkswagen Roomzz and rugged looking Mercedes-Benz Concept GLB, that grabbed the headlines in the days leading up to Shanghai motor show. However, it was China’s growing number of increasingly well funded electric vehicle start-ups that stole the limelight once the veils went up.
With China’s electric car sales showing no sign of a slow down despite a recent reduction in government subsidies, the competition for the attention of buyers is now intense.
Zero local emission compatibility and other key technology solutions play a big part in the attraction of new cars for Chinese buyers and it was being laid on thick by the likes of Nio, XPeng, Weltmeister, Singulato, Byton, Aiways, Bordrin Motor and Leap Motors, along with many other newly-created electric vehicle start-ups, several of which are based in and around the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai itself.
With promises of ranges of up to 373 miles and charging times of less than 15 minutes, China’s latest electric cars have, it seems, now breached the point where they can compete head to head with those from Tesla and perhaps, more importantly, more traditional combustion engine rivals.
From advanced 5G connectivity solutions to smart holographic augmented reality head-up displays, the latest in autonomous driving functions and new hydrogen-fuelled power units, this year’s Shanghai motor show proved without any doubt that China has once and for all arrived as an automotive force - and not only for domestic consumption but with truly global credentials.
As one seasoned automotive industry official opined as BYD’s design boss, Wolfgang Egger, presented the stylish electric-powered e-SEED GT: “Shanghai, it’s the new Detroit”.
One solid theme evident in Shanghai this year was a surprise swing away from SUVs towards contemporary new sedans, the most notable of which, the Nio ET, Enovate ME-S, Xpeng P7 and Qoros Mile II, all boasted newly developed platforms with pure electric drive systems in a direct
Aware at the threat China’s electric vehicle start-ups pose to their business, many of the country’s established car makers have also begun to create their own electric vehicle sub-brands to attract new customers, as evidenced by the prominence given to BAIC’s Arcfox, GAC’s Aion and Geely’s Geometry brands - all of which had something genuinely new on display.
In March, sales of so-called new energy vehicles in China, which include both plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars, jumped an astonishing 85.4% over the same period last year to over 126,000.
But just as electric vehicles are seemingly coming into their own, China is looking further ahead in a bid to outdo its western rivals. Nowhere was this more evident than on the Grove Hydrogen stand, which showcased the Granite - a highly desirable looking Porsche Panamera-sized sedan designed by Pininfarina and powered by a newly developed hydrogen fuel cell power unit.
The focus wasn’t purely on technology, though. The launch of Volkswagen’s new Jetta brand, which is aimed at younger first-time car buyers, was a reminder for all at Shanghai that for cars to remain popular in China against competition from new forms of mobility sharing they need to be financially attainable for the majority of the population.
Times might be tough right now, but China’s car industry still has its foot firmly on the throttle.