Chaotic Beijing motor show has ever-increasing global influence
The hierarchy has been well and truly shaken up in recent years when it comes to motor shows. While Geneva will always be the most glamorous and Frankfurt the most tedious to get around, it's possible that China's annual show is now the most important and will be for many years to come.
Beijing and Shanghai take turns every year to play host and, in China's second largest city, the heavy hitters are here in abundance. Beijing's exhibition centre is, like much of the city, grey, stark and depressing from the outside. But step over the threshold and into any of the five ferociously hot halls and be prepared to be dazzled by the audacious, colourful and extremely noisy manufacturer stands. Again, like the city, it's chaotic and there's barely enough room to move due to the sheer volume of attendees, but this does nothing to affect the show's dominance over other markets. There's untold sums of money in China these days and the car companies would like to liberate as much of that cash as possible.
Apart from hideous congestion, China's roads suffer from poor surfaces with potholes that would be better described as craters blighting practically every route. So it's no surprise to find that, like the UAE, the Chinese market is skewed in favour of the SUV. Lamborghini's own effort truly is the star of the show but almost every company had an SUV of its own. Porsche (unveiling the Cayenne GTS for the first time), Bentley, Maserati, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, Mazda and Ford - they're all at it and some of these companies have already begun building them locally.
Rising fuel prices may soon put a stop to the explosion of SUV sales but, with 1.6 million of them sold in 2011, there's obviously demand - and manufacturers are only too keen to meet increasing supply. As impressive as those sales figures are, though, they're a drop in the ocean compared with the total new car sales last year of 18.5 million. Numbers like that are impossible to ignore.
Thanks to government tax breaks (which recently ended), sales of indigenous-brand small cars and minivans have been staggering and still represent almost half the vehicles sold here. But they're rarely seen in other countries due to their oddball designs and patchy build quality.
One exception, however, is MG. Owned by SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation), this once-British stronghold unveiled its Icon concept car. MG's sights are set on Europe as well as its own turf and promise that every facet of this cleverly designed (though clearly not for production) car could be made a reality if there was sufficient demand. The company's new five-door hatchback, the MG5, is also on display, 18 months ahead of its European debut and before its summer release here in China. It's good to see MG making significant forward progress and the cars will be available in the GCC, too.
The atmosphere surrounding Beijing is heavy with pollution and that's obviously of great concern to the authorities who are doing their level best to promote transport that's friendlier to the environment. VW is answering the call with its funky Beetle-derived eBugster, an electric car that the company's deadpan German representative promises will be FFFUN. With green propulsion and looks that will appeal to the world's younger buyers, it's a sign that the electric car will soon come of age.
Elsewhere, there's no shortage of shiny new metal, and Mercedes-Benz has gone for the jugular with its CSC, a production-ready car that will differ from the show car in only minor details. Visually arresting, it's a four-door coupé that practically invents yet another new subgenre. And it'll be priced less than the C-Class, too. For that to have its debut here shows the importance of the China market.
Over on the Jaguar-Land Rover stand, apart from the devastatingly gorgeous F-Type concept, there's the one millionth-built Discovery (or LR4) that's far from shiny. In fact, it's filthy because it was driven here all the way from Land Rover's UK factory. It didn't miss a beat on the five-week-long journey across some of the planet's toughest routes and is testament to JLR's ever-increasing build quality. Turns out the three back-up vehicles they sent out with the Disco were a waste of time and money.
Beijing as a show still has many improvements that need making. There's precious little visitor information anywhere and the entire layout is baffling, but one cannot help think it will all come good sooner rather than later.
I leave feeling upbeat about the state of an industry I saw dying a few years ago now returned to rude health and, while rampant consumerism has many ugly side-effects, it means the companies we know and love will still be around for quite some time.
Updated: April 28, 2012 04:00 AM