While most of the European and North American media are on the West coast of America for the LA Auto Show we headed East to the Guangzhou Auto Show 2019. As the second most popular Chinese motor show after the bi-annual Beijing and Shanghai shows it attracts more than 900,000 visitors annually. Guangzhou is the capital of the South-Eastern Guangdong province which is home to more than 100 million people and close to Hong Kong and Macao. The Guangzhou Auto Show provides an ideal opportunity to find out how the automotive market and car manufacturers in China are doing.
The first thing we noticed at Guangzhou China Import and Export Fair is the number of halls filled with exhibitors. Virtually all major Chinese and overseas brands are present at this year’s Guangzhou Auto Show and cover a total of 15 halls. Also for fans of luxury and exotic cars there was little to complain with AMG, Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maybach, McLaren, Porsche and Rolls-Royce among others all showing their latest and greatest models in Guangzhou. From the popular performance brands only Ferrari is not there this year. A very strong contrast with the poor turnout at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show and certainly against the trend of dwindling interest in motor shows around the world from exhibitors and visitors alike.
Chinese manufacturers are catching up. FAST!
A few years ago one could easily mock the Chinese car makers for their odd brand appearance and sub-standard products. But Guangzhou Auto Show 2019 should be an eye-opener for the rest of the world. China is catching up and it is catching up fast. Hall after hall we are surprised by new Chinese car brands. Not only the cars they present are a significantly better than a few years ago also their brand appearance is much better. Nearly all Chinese car manufacturers offer visitors additional experiences – games, interactive presentations, live performances and more to keep visitors on the stand longer and connect with new audiences in a different way. Several brands took inspiration from how Mini presented itself and took that to the next level. It makes the actual Mini stand here in Guangzhou look dull in comparison.
What goes for the brand appearance also goes for their products. The exterior is very much up to personal taste and can be deceiving but interior design shows what Chinese customers want right now: large screens, touch and connectivity. Clearly new Chinese brands are taking less inspiration from established European brands and more inspiration from Tesla and smartphones. The young tech-savvy Chinese audience clearly digs it, the stands of the Chinese brands were buzzing all day long. The average buyer age is much lower in China as it is in Germany or the United States. Another key difference is that most customers buy their cars cash without financing or leasing.
Beyond the buzz at the stands of most Chinese manufacturers there were surprisingly few people at the Audi, Volkswagen and most of the Japanese brands. At closer inspection some of the China-only models Nissan, Toyota and even Volkswagen (like the Phideon and Lamando) offer in China look fairly dated on the inside with small screens and limited connectivity. At Volkswagen the Golf 8 was not there yet, instead the center stage was taken by the Volkswagen Tacqua (Chinese T-Cross), Touareg plug-in hybrid and the new Volkswagen Viloran MPV concept.
In terms of e-mobility there are some mixed signals coming from China. The number of State subsidised electric cars has seen a huge increase the last few years but as the government reduced both buyer- and manufacturer subsidies the number of electric cars sales tanked the last few months. Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius is carefully optimistic about sales of premium electric SUVs like the Mercedes-Benz EQC as in the luxury segment there are not many full electric models available yet and the luxury segment is less price-driven.
Concept cars at the Guangzhou Auto Show 2019
Denza X styled by Mercedes-Benz
Like all other foreign manufacturers Daimler also has joint ventures in China to produce and sell at the massive Chinese market. The new ultra luxury Mercedes-Maybach GLS 600 celebrated its world premiere in Guangzhou. The Chinese long established a taste for luxury and over two thirds of all Maybach models are sold in China. Another car expected to do well in China is the new GLB. This compact SUV available as optional 7-seater variant is aimed to satisfy both the demand for SUVs as well as space. The Mercedes-AMG A35 L Limousine also celebrated its world premiere although this long-wheel base version will only be sold in China. Mercedes-Benz also brought the EQS show car to China to share the design vision of its upcoming full-electric flagship limousine.
Most interesting of them all was the introduction of the new Denza X. This Chinese SUV is available as a plug-in hybrid and full electric version. It is engineered and build by Denza (a joint venture between Daimler and BYD) in China but styled by Mercedes-Benz. Also available as 7-seater the full-electric version offers up to 520 km of range and does 0-100 km/h in 4.3 seconds. A modern exterior is complemented with an equally modern interior with a large touchscreen console and camera integration for video calls and WeChat. Pricing starts at 289,000 Yuan which translates to around 37,000 euro. Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius said it will be exclusively available on the Chinese market but new Smart models built by Geely in China will be sold in Germany and the rest of the world from 2022.
For European car makers the magic letter in China is L
European premium car makers aiming to maintain or boost their sales have long learned to adapt to the Chinese wishes and customs. One letter is key to this success: L. It stands for long – or long-wheelbase – and aims to satisfy the demand for cars with large legroom in the rear. For a long time this desire for leg space had to do with the large number of chauffeur driven cars. But in todays China where even the majority of the premium cars are owner-driven the large leg space is a way of doing good by family members, friends and business partners taking place on the backseat.
Take place on the backseat of nearly any Chinese car at the Guangzhou Auto Show and you will find ample leg- and headroom. I’m 1.90m tall and already had plenty of space. Most European cars on the other hand feel very cramped in comparison hence the necessity for European car makers to create long versions of their models sold outside of China. Audi was the first brand to celebrate success with their China only A6 L more than a decade ago. Now you can find L versions of a variety of European premium cars including long-wheelbase versions of the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Volkswagen Tiguan, Jaguar XF L and many many more. The Chinese market is so important that some manufacturers decided no longer to offer a shorter version but to sell the long-wheelbase variant all around the world.
Audi A6 L
Mercedes-Benz E300 L
Jaguar XF L
A Toyota for 150,000+ Euro
Believe it or not but one of the most desirable cars for wealthy Chinese is a Toyota. This Toyota Alphard minivan is so popular in fact that customers pay a premium to get the car quicker as there are significant waiting times. At the Guangzhou Auto Show Toyota showed the successor to the popular Alphard called the Toyota Hellfire. Equipped with sliding doors and two lazy boy seats on the second row it is very practical but far from beautiful. The price for this new Toyota? A whopping 1,200,000 Renminbi – over 150,000 euro and that is if you can even get your hands on one as the demand is more than the supply.
Copycats and Clones – Not gone but less
Most of us recall one or the other blatant copy car produced in China. The number of copied designs is becoming less and the unique designs of Chinese cars like the Byton M-Byte, Geely Icon and the Denza X are clear indications for the growing professionalism and maturity of the Chinese car manufacturers. Having said that we still found a few pretty clear examples of a copy-paste design job:
Enovate – Porsche Taycan copy
Roewe RX5 emax – Volkswagen Touareg clone
Beijing BJ80 – Mercedes-Benz G-Class duplicate
World Premiere for the Aston Martin DBX
Unveiled only a few days ago the Aston Martin DBX celebrates its global auto show debut at the Guangzhou Auto Show 2019. Equipped with a turbocharged 4.0 V8 from AMG and electronics from Mercedes-Benz the 2.245 kg SUV accelerates from 0-100 km/h in 4.5 seconds. The Aston Martin DBX has a top speed of 291 km/h. Ironically the DBX was the only SUV we sat in all day that felt a bit cramped in the back, so it might satisfy the Chinese desire for luxury but in terms of space it falls a bit short.
Chinese Tuning – Low-riders vs luxurious minivans
The tuning and customized cars on display in Guangzhou are generally divided in two categories with very little in between. On one hand of the tuning scene you can find tricked out lowriders and stanced cars that hug the tarmac and impress with more camber than most cars can handle. On the other hand there are dozens of companies specializing in personalizing and upgrading minivans – mainly the Mercedes-Benz V-Class. These tuning companies take the otherwise fairly practical V-Class into the realms of the before-mentioned Toyota Alphard. European tuning companies trying to cash in on the trend include Lorinser and Mansory.
The Chinese automotive market remains strong amid trade war turmoil and reduction of electric car subsidies. The Chinese car manufacturers have made incredible progress in terms of branding and product. Some Chinese brands still produce obvious copies of European premium cars but there number is getting smaller and smaller and the popular (new) Chinese brands set themselves apart by offering unique designs appealing to a young tech-savvy audience. It remains to be seen how the driving dynamics of the latest generation Chinese cars are but if they made as much progress there as with design it won’t be long until the Chinese car makers are ready to take over the rest of the world.