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AutoChina 2012: China OEs looking better; EVs taking back seat to other technologies

May 18, 2012

Okay, this is a bit late but here are my impressions of the press days (April 23-24) at Auto China 2012, which this year was held in Beijing.  First thought—I’m really glad Beijing built a subway line out to the new venue in Shunyi.   Second thought—I really hate that venue. It is confusingly laid out and I always get lost. The bathrooms are dirty and lack toilet paper.  The press room was hard to find, too small, and didn’t have any good food.   The new venue in Shunyi is too small so the suppliers and commercial vehicle companies had to be placed in the old venue. I did not have time to go there and so missed out seeing them.  I’m sorry to be such a complainer. But Beijing should do a better job.

I had much more positive impressions about the show itself, however.   It demonstrated that Chinese automakers have come a long way in terms of styling and technology, and in how they present themselves at the show.   China’s domestic OEs have grasped that the automotive industry is international and now avail themselves of global design firms and suppliers.  The cars still have a ways to go before they will be taking on the global brands around the world.  But they have made a lot of progress.

For those of you who miss scantily-dressed women at the Detroit show (I don’t count myself among that group), there are still plenty of those at Auto China.  Alas, there was no good food, neither at the stands nor in the expo center itself.  (Okay, I ate some decent food upstairs at the Fiat stand thanks to my good friend Jack Cheng. But few had access to that.)

If you are a guy, are you looking at the Jeep?

The rear view. Of the model, not the Jeep.

But I digress. First, styling. Okay, there are plenty of questionable-looking Chinese models. But the same can be said of foreign brands.  It is clear that Chinese automakers have availed themselves of international design firms such as Bertone  and Pininfarina , however.

Chinese automakers have also enthusiastically embraced foreign technology to improve a vehicle’s engine and transmission.  Great Wall Motors Co, for example,  China’s largest SUV maker and one of my favorite local OEs (hey, it has a woman president),  now boasts turbo-charged, gasoline direct injection, and common rail engines. It works with many international suppliers such as Bosch and Borg Warner     Chinese automakers have long had trouble doing automatic transmissions themselves.  Now they turn to overseas suppliers.  Chery Automobile Co.  showed a model with continuously variable transmission developed with Ricardo Plc, for example.

The Beijing show also demonstrated how important catering to local tastes has become for foreign automakers, many of whom showed models styled exclusively for the China market. Chrysler, for example, is just entering the China market and showed the Chrysler 300 Ruyi, a concept version of its 300 sedan styled by Chinese designer (albeit in Michigan) especially for Chinese consumers.

Chysler showed the Ruyi concept car, a version of the 300 designed by Chinese for Chinese.

Meanwhile, despite the government’s periodic calls for consolidation in China’s domestic auto industry, the number of brands is growing due to a mandate that China’s automotive joint ventures produce China-only brands.  So, I checked out the Venucia brand, launched by Nissan and Dongfeng, as well as Guangzhou Honda’s Everus brand.  Then there was the Denza brand concept car—the first electric vehicle out of the joint venture between Daimler and BYD.

Which brings me to one of my favorite topics, electric vehicles.  As we all know, the Chinese government has slowed its push to develop electric vehicles a bit.  As I’ve told many people, China is clearly using its “crossing the river by feeling for the stones” policy-making approach in its EV plans.  The most recent goal, announced in April, is for 500,000 battery electric and plug in hybrid electric vehicles to be on the road by 2015, rising to more than 5 million by 2020.

I would hate to be an automaker or supplier trying to figure out how to get ready for China’s EV growth. But, several that I talked to seemed resigned to the situation, and what choice do they have?  I ran into a Ford Asia-Pacific executive on the show floor and asked him what Ford’s EV plans for China were.  “We need to wait and see how the (government’s) plan evolves,” he said.  “We are trying to time our entry right. Our deliberate strategy of electrifying the cars we have is the right one for China.”

I interviewed Luigi Lubrano, vice president of research and development at Magneti Marelli S.p.A. and asked him about Magneti Marelli’s work in the EV sector in China.  “We are working with a couple of OEs, but they are only making demos,”  he said.   The battery cost is too high, he said.   “Right now, the China market is more targeted to downsizing—smaller engines, GDI, turbocharging,” said Lubrano.    Magneti Marelli is ready if electrification takes off in China.   “We have in our portfolio a standard solution” for electrification, said Lubrano.

It will be very interesting to see what the government says about electric vehicle purchase incentives between now and next year’s show in Shanghai and how that impacts what automakers are showing there.    I look forward to attending the show in Shanghai.   Not just because I want to see what technologies dominate, but because I cannot tell a lie,  I like the Shanghai venue much more.  The bathrooms are really clean.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bill Fisher permalink
    May 22, 2012 5:10 pm

    I keep waiting to hear of a breakthrough that will make Electric cars a viable alternative for the masses but that sound hasn’t reached my ears yet. Until the range issue and hours long recharging process are resolved it will be an uphill battle to persuade consumers to give up their internal combustion driven vehicles. Even at the top of the spectrum with the Tesla Model S claiming ranges of up to 285 miles, the price is out of reach except for a small percentage of the population, especially for a car that needs to stay close to home or be relegated to overnight stays every few hundred miles. At the same time, emissions are becoming miniscule as automakers push to squeeze every molecule of fuels energy to it’s utmost production levels and making the case for electric vehicles less and less meaningful. Meanwhile, the counrty is awash in Natural Gas that burns so clean we use it in our homes for cooking, heating and hot water. The infrastructure for Natural Gas is starting to take shape with semi-tractors now beginning to migrtate to CNG and Volvo just announced a new LNG model to be released next year. If the truckers adapt, the automakers will respond in kind, making electric cars even less attractive. The ultimate answer is, of course, hydrogen. There are intermediate steps along the way though that are better answers than battery electric. I’m not saying there is no place in the market for them, but technology has to take a quantum leap before that place will become significant. Finally, speaking for all my automotive brethren, we do appreciate the photos of that pretty Jeep. Great article Alysha!

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