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At the Beijing Auto Show, signs of a behemoth to come
New York Times, 27 October '04
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» At the Beijing Auto Show, signs of a behemoth to come
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The Beijing auto show is starting to look a lot like auto shows in Detroit or Frankfurt or Geneva, a sign of how China has become one of the world's great industrial powers.

The idiosyncratic, locally built clunkers found in other developing countries, like the Ambassador cars of India, are nearly gone. In their place are sleek models made in China by practically all of the world's multinational automakers -- sedans from Honda, minivans from General Motors and sport utility vehicles from Toyota -- and a range of locally designed cars.

Some of the local cars are cramped and underpowered, like the $4,000 ''minicars'' with minimal safety equipment or seat padding and engines that could belong in a motorcycle. Yet even these come with air bags now, thanks to the government's increasing concern about traffic deaths.

Auto shows, and the cars they flaunt, are windows into countries' souls. On display here is a China where the rich desperately want to live Western styles of life, even if they have mixed views about Western governments. But it is also a China that is trying to become more self-sufficient, with homegrown manufacturers presenting their own designs as well as the cars of their multinational partners.

''They're putting a lot of money into it to come up with a new aesthetic,'' said Ed Wong, a contract auto designer in Shanghai who works for many Chinese automakers. ''Some countries, it took them 20 or 25 years; the Chinese want to compress that.''

Joint ventures between multinationals and Chinese automakers dominate the Chinese market, accounting for more than four-fifths of sales. (More than 120 Chinese automakers share the rest.) But the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, First Automobile Works and the Dongfeng Motor Corporation are learning to put their global partners' knowledge into their own cars.

Their auto-show offerings are less blockish and more sophisticated, making them harder to distinguish from the multinationals' products. One car, a cross between an S.U.V. and a minivan, created by the Chery Automotive Company, drew particular attention as a design as polished and sleek as the Chrysler Pacifica.

''If you look back two years ago, the lines were less resolved,'' said Paul Blokland, the director of Segment Y Automotive Intelligence, an automotive consulting firm based in Bangalore, India.

What is not clear is whether cars made by Chinese companies will become discernibly Chinese. Government regulations in most industrial countries now limit designers' options, restricting vehicle weight to improve fuel economy and requiring that front ends not be too sharp or too rigid to reduce injuries to pedestrians.

China has adopted many of the same safety and environmental regulations, usually choosing the European version because Volkswagen remains the largest automaker here. It has chosen the American standard a few times, and in a couple of cases has drafted its own rules, notably for fuel economy.

''The legislation obviously plays a part in it,'' said Terry Spall, the general manager for Asia at the Motor Industry Research Association, a trade group in Nuneaton, England, that has helped a dozen Chinese automakers set up test tracks and other automotive research sites.

The automaker that is building the most elaborate test facilities and design studios in China is General Motors. Its designers contend that Chinese customers will still have some special tastes, and they want to reflect these tastes in their cars.

G.M. designers and stylists point out that a person's house is the center of Chinese life. The first character of the double Chinese character for a limousine is the same as the first character of the double character for a house. In choosing how to travel, Chinese buyers effectively want to ''bring a piece of house with them,'' said James Shyr, the design director for G.M. China.

The first character of the double character for a sedan, a four-door car, is the same as the first character of the double character for a sedan chair, or palanquin. G.M. already tries to make the rear seats of its cars as much like two chairs as possible, as in a palanquin, on the theory that it should be possible for two adults to sit in comfort in the back. Back seats are just as likely to hold the car's owner as they are a bunch of children, because chauffeurs only cost a couple of hundred dollars a month and getting a driver's license is an extremely bureaucratic process.

The long-term goal for G.M. is to tailor sedans for the Chinese market with thicker pillars supporting the rear corners of the roof, a design that should convey stability as well as privacy for rear-seat occupants.

''It's not good enough to give Chinese consumers what are essentially copies of our products in the United States, Europe and other markets,'' said Phil Murtaugh, the chairman and chief executive of G. M. China.

Ford is starting to have some success in China with campaigns that appeal to a bold level of ostentation. In an ad for the Mondeo sedan, put together by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, people put on sunglasses to look at the car, treating it with admiration bordering on reverence.

Chinese drivers commute roughly the same distances to work as American drivers do, and they drive similar distances on intercity trips, which is farther than for European drivers. Combine this with a culture in which people want their cars to show that they have arrived in the global middle class, and a result is a strong fascination with big and powerful cars, said Tom Doctoroff, the chief executive of the ad agency's China operations.

''A big car, an American-style car with the scale and mass of Jupiter, is a very powerful statement of who that man is,'' Mr. Doctoroff said, noting that most car buyers in China are men.

Sometimes what is missing in a picture can be more interesting than what is present. At the auto show here, and on the skyscraper-lined avenues of China's growing metropolises, pickup trucks and hatchbacks are conspicuously absent.

Market researchers say that pickup trucks look a little like horse-drawn carts, an image too plebeian for China's nouveau riche. Even in rural areas, peasants prosperous enough to buy a vehicle shun pickups for vans that are no more than pickups with long roofs over the beds.

Hatchbacks are also rare, suggesting that Chinese buyers are concerned about leaving their personal belongings exposed in the back. While Chinese streets remain safe by international standards, they are more dangerous than they were a generation ago.

Ford has expanded more slowly here than manufacturers like G.M. and Volkswagen because it is wary the market may fizzle; selling global models has helped it hold down costs.

DaimlerChrysler is most visible here through its Jeeps, which are essentially Cherokee models no longer manufactured in the United States, and Mercedes-Benz sedans.

A Mercedes is practically the same around the world, and DaimlerChrysler, its manufacturer, has not tried to tailor the car to China's market, said Roman Fischer, the chairman of DaimlerChrysler China.

The rule of thumb in China, as in most countries, is that the more luxurious the car, the more identical it is to similarly priced cars around the world.

Occasionally, the local partners of multinational automakers still evoke hints of an earlier era. Auto designers complain that engineers, not marketers or financial experts, still hold much sway in the top rungs of Chinese automakers and are sometimes hesitant to accept new ideas.

Yet with investment and design expertise pouring into China, many executives and designers expect the country to start producing eye-catching car models in the years ahead. ''I really feel China will be the global Detroit,'' Mr. Wong said. ''Give it another 15 or 20 years.''