Both Porsche and BMW chose the glittering Shanghai Auto Show to unveil new models to the world, the first time that either company has looked outside of Europe and the US and a sign of China’s growing importance.
China overtook the United States as the world’s largest auto market earlier this year and sales growth in March was a heady 10.26pc, despite the economic crisis.
“This just shows how important China is to us,” said Wolfgang Porsche, a scion of the family and the current chairman of Porsche’s supervisory board.
He spoke as Porsche unveiled the Panameria, a four-seater sports car that will form the company’s fourth brand behind the 911, Boxster and Cayenne. “This is really a big thing for us, a totally new car,” he said.
“This is now one of the five most important car shows in the world,” said Helmut Broeker, the head of Porsche China. “This is the first time we have launched a product line in Asia and outside our core countries.”
Porsche sales in China more-than-doubled last year to 8,300 cars, even as total sales in the last six months fell by 27pc.
Although China is only Porsche’s third largest market, behind the US and Germany, the carmaker is expanding rapidly and aims to have 40 dealerships; some in cities that few Westerners have ever heard of. “We have just opened in Taiyuan,” said Mr Broeker, referring to China’s grim coal-mining capital.
BMW, meanwhile, unveiled the new 7 series and the X5 M, a trim “sports activity” vehicle. “We even offer more models in China than in our other markets around the world,” said Ian Robertson, BMW’s board member in charge of sales. “And we are determined to do everything we can to meet the demands and tastes of our customers here,” he added.
China’s premium market is soaring, and the country now has almost 825,000 sterling millionaires, a near 300pc rise in the last two years, according to the Hurun wealth report.
In total, 13 cars had their world premiere in Shanghai, and almost every major company pinned its hopes on the Chinese market.
“Even as other markets shrink due to the global crisis, China has taken appropriate and timely policy steps to secure stable economic and car market growth,” said Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota. “We have even more hopes and expectations for the future of the Chinese market than ever before,” he added. Toyota had to issue a series of profit warnings at the end of last year, culminating in a forecast that it would lose 150bn yen (£1.04bn) in the year to March 31.
For General Motors, meanwhile, China is a lifeline, with sales rising 25pc last year. Kevin Wale, the former head of Vauxhall who now heads GM China, vowed that sales would double in five years to 2m vehicles a year. GM said that no money from the US bail-out package to the car industry would come to China, or to anywhere outside the US, and that its operations in China do not need any extra investment.
“We are seeing a major shift in the battleground within the global automobile market from the US to China,” said Atsuyoshi Hyogo, the head of Honda in China. The Chinese government has set a 10pc growth target for its domestic market, representing annual sales of well over 10m cars a year.
However, Chinese carmakers are poised to overtake their foreign counterparts and also set themselves a series of audacious targets. Changan Automobile, a smaller company that partners Ford, said it would triple the number of its dealers in China to 3,000 as it too seeks to double sales to 2m units.
“The longer the crisis lasts, the bigger the chance of failure or a scale-down of some American and European automakers,” said Xu Liuping, the chairman of Changan.
Changan, Guangzhou Automobile, Chery and Geely all said they were interested in foreign acquisitions, but cautioned that the path of making foreign purchases is littered with failures. Their respective comments represented a definite scaling back of ambition from the past few months.
Chinese companies have been consistently linked with Saab, Volvo and Vauxhall, but Nick Reilly, the chief executive of GM in the Asia Pacific region, said that of those three brands, only Saab is up for negotiation. He declined to comment if Chinese carmakers had bid.
“I have been very impressed with what I have seen here. The Chinese companies are really listening to what our buyers want,” said one car dealer from Dubai at the show.
Dr Peter Pleus, an executive at Shaeffler, the car parts supplier, was more blunt. “I think Chinese companies will be very strong in two years time and will present serious competition. Currently, the industry is fragmented, with too many players, and some of them are over-stretching themselves. But the government is seeking consolidation and the companies are learning very fast.”