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Charming China

Automakers tailor vehicles to tap huge-but-slowing market

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BEIJING -- Ford unveiled a three-cylinder mini-SUV and Chrysler showed a dragon-themed Jeep on Monday as automakers rolled out models designed for Chinese buyers at the Beijing auto show amid tougher competition in the world's biggest vehicle market.

Automakers are looking to China to drive revenue amid weakness in the United States and Europe. But explosive sales growth that hit 35 per cent in 2010 fell to just two per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Ford Motor Co. premièred its latest SUV, the scaled-down EcoSport, designed for "urban adventurers" with a one-litre engine. The vehicle is due to be manufactured at Ford's main China factory in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

"This new SUV is specially designed for growth markets like China," said Kumai Galhotra, Ford's vice-president of product development for the Asia-Pacific region.

Automakers that used to sell the same models worldwide with few local changes increasingly create products with Chinese buyers in mind.

Nissan, Toyota and other automakers also used Auto China 2012 to showcase luxury sedans and SUVs aimed at Chinese buyers. The event, China's biggest auto show this year, opens to the public today.

Chrysler Group LLC announced it will sell a dragon-themed Jeep, with gold-toned accents and dragon designs on headrests and elsewhere.

"To be successful in China, we must tailor our vehicles to the specific tastes of Chinese customers," said Mike Manley, Chrysler's chief operating officer for Asia.

Japan's Infiniti rolled out a new luxury sedan with a bigger back seat for Chinese businesspeople. Italy's Fiat SpA, trying to rebuild its presence in China after withdrawing in the 1990s, showed the new Viaggio sedan, designed with its local partner Guangdong Automobile Co. to appeal to Chinese buyers. The four-door sedan, with a 1.4-litre engine, is due to go into production in June at a factory in the southern city of Changsha.

"The products that we are building today globally have a lot more attention paid to what the customer needs in China," said Kevin Wale, president of General Motors Co.'s China unit, in an interview ahead of the show.

GM sells a Cadillac sedan in China with an unusually small four-cylinder, two-litre engine to meet demand from local buyers for smaller engines, Wale said.

"Nowhere else in the world would it have been done," he said.

Automakers are targeting both ends of the market, rolling out luxury models for newly rich urban Chinese and economy models for the low-income but vast rural population.

Jaguar Land Rover, owned by India's Tata Motors, unveiled a Range Rover Evoque Special Edition four-seat coupe Sunday co-designed by Victoria Beckham with gloss black forged alloy wheels, rose gold-plated accents and mohair.

Chinese auto sales growth plunged last year after the government tightened lending and investment curbs to cool an overheated economy and inflation.

Total auto sales rose just two per cent in the first quarter of this year over a year earlier to 1.2 million vehicles, according to LMC Automotive, a research firm.

Global automakers kept their own sales growing faster than the market last year by taking shares from Chinese rivals such as Chery Automobile Co. and Geely Holding Group, though industry analysts and companies say that trend is unlikely to last.

Sales by Volkswagen AG and its Chinese partners rose 12 per cent in the first quarter, while Chery's fell 22 per cent, according to LMC Automotive.

"I don't think that's a long-term trend," said Wale. Pointing to the experience of Japan and Korea, he said, "you should never underestimate the ability of a major industrial market to generate globally competitive car companies."

Ambitious independent Chinese brands that want to move up to higher-priced market segments showcased luxury sedans and SUVs with more powerful engines, navigation systems and other features to appeal to more prosperous buyers.

Geely showed its first SUV, the GX7 sold under its Gleagle brand, with a 1.8-litre engine and touch-screen navigation. The company says the GX7 will be aimed at buyers aged 25 to 35 and priced at 90,000-120,000 yuan ($14,000-$19,000) based on choice of options.

BYD Co., China's second-largest domestic brand, showed off an updated e6 electric sedan it says can travel 300 kilometres on a charge and other models with more powerful engines. The company is 10 per cent owned by American investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Corp.

"In the short term, competition will be more fierce, especially when international brands are launching low-cost vehicles," said Henry Li, general manager of BYD's export division.

"We try to create our own competitive edge to cope with the competition. We are not only staying in a low segment but are creating new technologies and improving quality," Li said in an interview. "That's the way we have to respond."

New brands created global automakers and local partners under pressure from Beijing to establish more indigenous Chinese brands showed some of their first low-priced vehicles aimed at lower-income areas of China.

Venucia, a partnership between Nissan Motor Co. and a Chinese automaker, displayed its first production model, the D50, a compact sedan. Denza, an electric vehicle joint venture between Daimler AG and China's BYD Co., displayed a model of its first car, due to go on sale next year.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2012 E9

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