China’s passenger vehicle market reached 170,671 units in July 2003, an increase of 59% over that of July 2002. China’s year-to date July sales hit 1,080,784 units, 80% higher than the same period of last year, according to an Automotive Resources Asia press release.

Though starting from a relatively small base, sales in the SUV segment have grown the fastest, reaching 29,658 units from January to July, or a 243% increase over the same period last year. The launches of several new SUV models – including the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Nissan Paladin and Jeep 2500 – have helped draw new customers to the SUV segment, especially among individual (non company) buyers.

China’s SUV segment used to be dominated by a few competitors, such as the Beijing Jeep Cherokee and the Mitsubishi-based Changfeng Pajero, though the models were relatively dated and priced relatively high. Typical customers were mainly government buyers, or a small number of off-road driving fans.

Things started to change in the SUV segment when the Jinbei-GM Blazer was introduced to the China market in May 2001. As Chinese customers began to learn more about the culture of SUVs — especially as used by American families – Chinese perceptions of owning an SUV began to change. Now, the SUV is taking on an image — among the well-educated young city professionals — of being an upscale purchase, while also being rugged, powerful, practical and safe.

Jeep’s new 2500 model is experiencing some success, and is helping to fortify the Jeep name in China. The vehicle features a redesigned exterior and interior, while maintaining its price between RMB120,000 (£8,800; $US14,570)-RMB140,000 (£10,300; $US17,000). As a result, the waiting list for the 2500 can be one to two months long, previously unheard of demand at Jeep.

More locally-assembled SUV models will debut in China before the end of 2003, including the Toyota Landcruiser and Prado. And Honda recently announced that it will launch production of its CRV sport-utility-vehicle in 2005, in a joint-venture with Dongfeng Motors.