It used to be just Frankfurt, Geneva, Paris, Tokyo and Detroit. But now Beijing has jumped over the red VIP rope to gain ‘A-list’ global motor show status from key carmakers like General Motors who, along with its joint ventures, showed 42 models including the Buick Invicta concept.

Auto China 2008 or the 10th Beijing International Automotive Exhibition opened on Sunday April 20 in a new venue – the New China International Exhibition Center in Shunyi in the northeast suburbs of Beijing. Organisers say 600,000 visitors will have passed through the event’s doors by the time it closes on Monday 28th, – the 2008 Geneva show did nearly 715,000 by comparison.

Beijing’s Auto China played host to seven world exclusives from Mercedes’ first ever Chinese global unveil – the production GLK small 4×4 – to Audi’s Q5 compact SUV. The latter launch comes as no surprise when you learn that China became Audi’s second biggest market in 2007 after Germany, pipping the UK in the process with just over a 100,000 units sold.

Luxury European marques like Ferrari, Bentley, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce and Porsche all took stands, as did almost all mainstream marques from Citroen to Volvo.

In all, almost 900 vehicles were launched, including 55 concept cars across eight exhibition halls plus outside commercial vehicle and parts areas equating to a grand total of 180,000sq ft. This makes it considerably bigger than its Shanghai show rival with which the bi-annual Beijing event now alternates – in the same way as the Frankfurt show does with the Paris expo in Europe.

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While rip-off designs and outdated ‘new’ cars based on old Western designs were still in evidence at the 2008 Beijing show, the copycat side of things seemed less obvious than just a year ago at Shanghai. Indeed, beyond the cars themselves, many Chinese carmakers have also changed their logos – so BYD no longer has a blatant BMW-a-like badge – something that should improve its export potential and credibility.
There were still some odd automotive fish though, usually small ‘three-box’ saloon shapes, from the Chinese-only old school Citroen C-Elysee with a modern grille to some of the domestic Chinese brands’ weak ‘me-too’ budget efforts.

But the overall market’s unbelievable growth should not be dismissed merely because of a lack of sophistication in places.

The second biggest vehicle market in the world registered 8.8 million sales in 2007 (5.5m of which were cars) and in 2008 many experts predict a final tally of 10 million. There’s more growth to come too.

Only a tiny proportion of the 1.3 billion Chinese population can currently afford a car but according to JD Power and Associates, the market is due to grow by a whopping one million vehicles per annum until 2015. On that trajectory it could pass the struggling US market, which managed 16.5 million cars and trucks in 2007, to become the world’s biggest market within a decade.

Refreshingly at Beijing, aside from the many joint ventures that dominate the Chinese market – teaming the likes of FAW with VW and SAIC with GM – some Chinese brands seem to be trying to develop their own identity.

One of the biggest local players, Geely, showed a GT concept that would easily hold its own at any Western auto show. Despite the lack of a concept interior its exterior styling was that of a very modern sports car in the vein of a Maserati Gran Turismo (but far from a copy of it). Geely’s Panda city car was a more production-ready exhibit and could go some way to out-cute-ing the Fiat 500. Sales in China start later this year. Geely did also show a daft tricked-out London Taxi International TX4 concept (it has a joint venture to make the cabs in China) with wheels sticking out proud of the body panels and various bits of chrome plating. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Another ambitious Chinese maker, Chery, showed 29 new vehicles including a sharply styled QQ Sport city car interestingly with definite Chinese – rather than Western – design influences including bamboo sword sheath-style curved interior door grab handles.

In the poshest hall Beijing could muster – sitting near Rolls-Royce and Bentley – the start-up brand Roewe from Chinese owners SAIC, revealed the 550. Based closely on the W2 concept shown last year in Shanghai, the ‘Rover 45 replacement we never had’ has near VW Bora levels of interior refinement and strong exterior lines overseen by British design director Tony Williams. The 550 goes on sale in June to slot under the 750 (the old Rover 75).

Rowe exhibited alongside its now MG sister brand after SAIC ‘merged’ with Nanjing (NAC) in late 2007 and both could return to Europe – including the UK – as luxury and sporty stable mates within three years. According to NAC UK, market research into both the feasibility of the Roewe name and the whole market return that could include European production is currently being investigated.

A NAC spokeswoman told Just-Auto: “A great benefit of bringing the brands to Europe would be in the credibility they would gain back in China from the move that could then translate into sales.”

But the incredible sales expectations, important VIPs and smart and huge new exhibition space couldn’t hide the fact that Beijing and China in general is already starting to show real signs of automotive growing pains. According to the China Daily newspaper, a third of petrol consumed in China is used for cars and trucks and it is estimated the country will need 250 million tonnes of oil for transportation by 2020. The city’s air was tangibly polluted on most days of my short visit as building and transport emissions ramp up to get the city ready for its Olympics year.

The journey down to the show on the first press day in the pouring rain bore out the lack of infrastructure to go with the phenomenal growth and was a PR disaster for the event’s organisers. With almost no public transport all the way to the new show venue, the roads soon became gridlocked.

My personal experience involved a four-lane highway grinding to a halt on the two lanes heading to the show. Unbelievably, after much waiting in static traffic, a bunch of drivers then decided to use the luckily almost empty opposite side of the carriageway too, effectively gridlocking all four lanes both ways before peeling off into a gravel-strewn side road, then onto an off-road muddy wasteland before mounting the tarmac again on to another gridlocked road coming from a different direction. Reportedly, senior car execs in VIP cars had no way round the jam either and had to wait more than an hour in traffic or walk and literally get soaked.

Once inside, the show’s press day was full to the brim with excited show-goers – but with unlikely amounts of Chinese ‘media’ many well under the age of journalistic endeavour.

Overall, Beijing’s Auto China show proved just how important the Chinese market is to the world’s automotive economy and how far it has developed in such a short time, but the trip down to it could easily be seen as a wider metaphor for the realisation that with that growth there could be some real economic and environmental pain ahead.

Guy Bird