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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From China, The World's New Car Capital

Robyn Meredith,

Half a world away from Detroit, where the Big Three are fighting for survival, car lovers are running their hands over the shiny sheet metal on display at the Shanghai auto show this week.

China is the world's bright spot when it comes to car sales. Despite a slowdown in sales, China has even dethroned the U.S. as the world's biggest auto market--every month this year, more cars have been sold in China than in America, where industry sales have plunged by a third in recent months.

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Because the global economic slowdown has crimped budgets in China too, mainland Chinese car buyers who used to favor foreign brands are more likely to buy Chinese, according to a survey from TNS Automotive China, part of custom research agency TNS. The survey showed that 44% of China's future car buyers who want to buy foreign brands instead plan to purchase Chinese makes. "The economic slowdown offers real opportunities for Chinese domestic car makers," said Klaus Paur, Shanghia-based TNS Automotive Director for North Asia. "They can benefit from the cautious consumer behavior and position themselves as attractive alternatives to foreign brands--if they deliver sufficiently well on consumer expectations regarding product quality and reliability."

Most of the world's auto makers displayed their wares at the show, alongside Chinese auto companies.

Porsche kicked off the Shanghai Show this year by unveiling the Porsche Panamera, its first sedan. For many sportscar lovers, it was heretical for Porsche to produce a four-door car. But the Panamera is quick: The top-of-the-line turbo version has a 500-horsepower engine that gets to 100 kilometers an hour in just 4.2 seconds.

Don't expect to see too many on the streets of China, where Panamera prices start at a shocking 1,843,000 yuan ($236,282). Porsche also showed a Cayenne GTS and the Cayenne S Transsyberia.

Porsche isn't the only luxury maker counting on China. Audi showed off its Q7 SUV; and BMW and Mercedes both displayed sedans--the BMW 760 Li and S-Class S65, respectively.

Not every car at the show was a gas-guzzler.

Electric cars were stars. General Motors displayed the Chevrolet Volt, which will go on sale in China in 2011. And Chinese battery maker BYD, or Build Your Dream, showed off its M6 multipurpose car, along with its plug-in hybrid (See "Buffett-Backed BYD Goes Electric.")

But the biggest surprise in the show came from Chinese automaker Geely. When it revealed its Geely GE concept car, heads turned. But not for the right reason. The car is a knockoff of the Rolls Royce Phantom, right down to its winged hood ornament.

Robyn Meredith,

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