The crowds at the 2012 China Auto Show displayed particular enthusiasm for luxurious German brands like Audi and Mercedes that have seen sales in China rocket.
Chinese love fancy cars, but most can't afford one
BEIJING // Anyone who doubts China has become the centre of the global car industry should visit this year's motor show in Beijing.
The crush of visitors, evident even on the new subway line leading to the China International Exhibition Centre in Beijing, seems to demonstrate the country is caught up in a frenzy for motoring never seen before.
China overtook the United States to be the world's largest market for vehicle sales in 2009, when 13.5 million cars and trucks rolled off the country's dealership forecourts.
Last year the number was a record 18.5 million and analysts expect the 2012 figure to be about 10 per cent higher.
The crowds at the 2012 China Auto Show, who pack the aisles and click cameras with 30cm-long lenses, displayed particular enthusiasm for luxurious German brands like Audi and Mercedes that have seen sales in China rocket on the back of heavy economic growth.
Audi had one of the most dramatic displays at the show, which continues until Wednesday, offering a catwalk parade of young models who strut up and down beside the cars amid pounding techno music.
Yet many among the hordes enjoying the spectacle have an enthusiasm for things four-wheeled that exceeds their prospects for owning a car of their own.
China may be the world's largest car market, but on a per-capita basis sales continue to trail those in developed countries.
Just one person out of 93 in China bought a new car last year. In the US, the figure was about one in 24.
For the average young graduate, a car is simply too expensive. The average annual starting salary for graduates in top-paying industries such as finance is 30,240 yuan (Dh17,620), about one-tenth the figure for the US, $48,661 (Dh178,727).
Zhou Yau, 28, from north-east China, works in the car industry as an engineer, but he does not expect to be able to afford a car - new or used - for another five years.
"I would like to have a car, but as a young man, the first plan is a house ... later I will buy a car," he said at the show.
"But even if I don't have a car I enjoy seeing the cars."
Although a car remains out of reach for many, the industry has nonetheless "exploded" in China, said Yingjie Li, 32, another engineer at the event.
"Many people are rich, so they want to buy a new car," said Mr Yingjie, who lives in Beijing. "I think more and more people want a car of their own because their relatives have bought a car.
"They have a certain kind of thinking that if you don't have a car you will lose face."
China's own luxury car makers are also showing off their models at the event, targeting the country's nouveau riche, although their selection demonstrates an inequality that mirrors that seen in China as a whole.
The FAW-Hongqi CA7600, a modified version of which carried the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, during the October 2009 celebrations to mark 60 years of Communist Party rule, was displayed in all its 5 million yuan glory, spinning on a platform and adorned with male and female models. It might suit one of China's billionaires, numbers of whom doubled in just 12 months, reaching 271 in 2010, according to the Hurun rich list.
Next door, First Automobile Works has its more modest V5 saloon displayed for 59,900 yuan, less than 1.2 per cent the price of Mr Hu's motoring behemoth.
While the CA7600 is comfortably out of his reach, Song Dan, 30, who lives in Beijing and works in finance, is visiting the motor show to find a car that will let him upgrade from his four-year-old Toyota and five-year-old Honda. He admits peer pressure is partly behind his decision to buy a new car.
"I just got my bonus at the beginning of the year. For myself, I think I don't need to change my car, but my friends and colleagues they [have] changed their car already, so maybe it's the time."
However, societal expectations, perhaps fortunately, also put a limit on how much he is likely to spend.
"If you get a very expensive car it means you're very successful ... but if my boss gets a car like a Mercedes or BMW, I can't buy a car that's more expensive," he said.