It’s finally here! Auto China 2016, the largest Auto Show in the world, alternates between Shanghai and Beijing and this year it’s the turn of the “Capital of the North” – as its name literally means in Mandarin – to host this gigantic event. As you all know, at BSCB we attach particular importance to the Chinese market due to its size, fast evolution and critical place on the world scene. A “Special China” section was even created in our new navigation tab earlier this year to put our entire Chinese coverage at your finger tips, and multiple monthly updates are published to keep you abreast of the latest developments in this fascinating market.
Announced at 220.000 square meters of exhibition space, Beijing 2016 is indeed the largest Auto Show in the world this year, but pales in comparison with Shanghai which still felt at least twice as big if not more. This year, as it has been the case for our Beijing 2014 and Shanghai 2015 coverages, we will start with the Highlights of the Show. We will then publish our much anticipated ranking of the most impressive Chinese carmakers will be unveiled, and I can already reveal that a lot of feathers have been ruffled atop the charts! You can refresh your memory before the big unveiling and check out our “Most Impressive” rankings at Beijing 2014 and Shanghai 2015. Finally I’ll pop in an exclusive interview with Laurens Van Den Acker, Senior Vice President of Corporate Design at Renault, a new player in the China-made scene.
These are the Ten Highlights of the Beijing Auto Show 2016. If you only read one article about the Show, make it this one.
1. No one can keep up with Chinese carmakers
After two years of frantic launches in all segments and prices, with hundreds of new nameplates hitting the local market, I came into Beijing with reserved expectations about Chinese carmakers. Surely they couldn’t keep up with the rhythm they have accustomed us to so far. This was underestimating them again… Out of the 50-odd world premieres the Show had to offer 35 were from Chinese carmakers, and 25 of them in the SUV segment. If most foreign manufacturers are starting to pant at the lightning speed at which the Chinese market is evolving, local players are nonplussed and continue to align relevant model after relevant model, adhering more closely each year to the very specific – and changing – needs of the Chinese customer.
The speed at which most Chinese brands are releasing new models is unprecedented in the history of automobile and their unabated focus on the SUV segment is another proof – if we needed one – that they are not ready to waste time and energy in segments that are losing momentum, such as sedans. Where foreigners persist in launching hatchbacks and 4-doors, hoping for a larger share of a shrinking pie, Chinese carmakers have their eyes on the prize and will bolster the SUV growth even further over the coming years with an ever-expanding list of offerings that are getting dangerously close to their Western competitors’ quality for an unbeatable price.
Brands that we thought had lost their shine of late came back with a vengeance (Chery, Roewe, Dongfeng, FAW, BAIC), others are building on astonishing SUV successes (GAC, Baojun, Changan, Leopaard, Zotye). Some came from literally nowhere (Borgward, Cowin, LeSee), others are going from low-cost to mass at lightning speed (Geely, Venucia) while seemingly condemned ones won’t go without a fight (Lifan). There were some naughty pupils such as Brilliance, BYD and – to a lesser extent – Haval and but all-in-all it is almost impossible to fault any Chinese brand this year for not trying hard enough.
The Chinese car scene is evolving at a speed we have never witnessed before, and all cards seem to be redistributed at the start of each year, or each Auto Show. Where foreign manufacturers would ask for a break, Chinese ones hold their breath and fight even harder. As always, it is utterly exciting to see all this change happening so fast before our eyes and one of the reasons why we extend our coverage of Chinese manufacturers each year. Stay tuned for our Most Impressive ranking coming up soon…
2. Chinese Internet companies steal the Show
Aside from the mainstream Chinese brands we have grown familiar to and in line with the U.S. players that are disrupting their local industry such as Tesla, Apple and Google, the big novelty this year in Beijing was the thunderous unloading of large Internet players onto the Chinese automobile scene. LeEco, the Chinese Netflix, unveiled the concept for its self-anointed “Tesla beater”, the LeSEE, looking very impressive indeed but still very far from a production model.
Faraday Future FF Zero1
Also backed by LeEco, Faraday Future showed its outlandish FF Zero1 – a sort of futuristic one-seater Batmobile – that had its World Premiere earlier this year in Las Vegas. Jia Yueting, founder of LeEco, says that the car of tomorrow will be connected, electric, self-driving and… free! He considers the car as just a larger smartphone or tablet on wheels, another channel to sell content to his customers. Subsidising the car for a recurring content subscription the way Apple does with the iPhone starts to make total sense from this angle. LeEco isn’t the only Chinese tech to have invaded the auto world this year: Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are all making their way into it, with Alibaba recently partnering with giant SAIC. The Chinese car industry is not only evolving at breakneck speed, its borders with other tech industries are also blurring fast.
3. Ford finally officially launches its iconic F-150 Raptor in China
We at BSCB always try and approach the Auto Shows we visit with a specific sales angle. Gone very much under the radar in Beijing, the decision by Ford to officially launch the 2017 F-150 Raptor in China later this year is in fact a very symbolic one that warrants big headlines. If you have been following our Chinese Photo Reports of the past couple of years (see China 2014 Photo Reports and China 2015 Photo Reports), you will be familiar with the recurring theme of “One Ford F-150 Raptor and one Toyota Tundra in each city”. Indeed, in absolutely every Chinese city I have ever visited – big or small – I would without fault always spot at least one of each nameplate.
It would be mundane were it for the fact that neither is currently officially sold in China, they are privately imported from the U.S. and sold locally at an extortionate price. Yet the Chinese can’t seem to get enough of them, indicating a significant pent-up demand for this type of vehicles. It would appear Ford U.S. has been reading BSCB as they will start officially selling the 2017 Raptor here later this year, the fact that the Chinese government is in the process of cancelling laws preventing pickups from entering big cities probably also helping. This shows that Americans manufacturers are starting to get China very right indeed. GM had a new Buick LaCrosse in Beijing after unveiling the new Excelle GT and Verano in Guangzhou last November, Jeep introduced its China-made Renegade and distributed very sleek brochures celebrating its 75th anniversary and Lincoln also did extremely well as we’ll see further down. It’s not by chance that GM outsold VW in China for the first time in a decade in 2015. Also, where was the Toyota Tundra TRD on Toyota’s stand? Nowhere, you guessed it.
4. Renault makes a splash
Just one month after the Kadjar made its first appearance in the China-made sales charts, French manufacturer Renault went all guns blazing in Beijing with the World Premiere of the all-new Koleos. Renault kick-started its very first Chinese assembly plant in Wuhan earlier this year and is determined to not make the same mistakes its compatriot PSA Peugeot-Citroen made in this country, namely missing out big time on the SUV wave despite being installed in China for almost 25 years. The marketing budget Renault has unlocked for the Beijing Auto Show is impressive, with large Kadjar banners facing the subway exit into the Show and a gigantic digital screen spanning 200 meters across a large building in construction one block away from the Exhibition Center (see pictures below).
Renault has carefully laid out its stand to ensure the connection with its Formula 1 success isn’t missed by any visitor. This connection has done wonders to position the French manufacturer upmarket in India, and Renault wants to replicate this situation for the Chinese market.
The choice of ambassador for the Renault Kadjar in China is also telling: where another French carmaker, DS, selfishly selected Gallic actress Sophie Marceau – unknown in China – Renault opted for Fan BingBing (X-Men, Iron Man 3), a huge superstar in her home country and able to bring the brand a lot closer to its Chinese audience.
Renault is spending big bucks to impose itself in the ultra-competitive Chinese market, and with 3 SUVs in its lineup (Koleos, Kadjar and Captur) it is playing its cards right to succeed at doing so. It better be, because the long-term annual sales target of 800.000 set by Carlos Ghosn in 2014 is an extremely ambitious one. In comparison, Peugeot, Citroen and DS completely missed the mark in Beijing this year. If in 2015 I was awestruck by the Peugeot CEO Maxime Picat delivering his entire speech in Mandarin, this year it seemed the speech was more or less the same and the accent was definitely French. The only ‘novelty’ Peugeot had to offer was a thinly facelifted 3008 while DS had nothing (the 4S hatch was launched in Guangzhou) and Citroen a C6 “Luxury sedan” that looks positively cheap from the outside.
5. Lincoln the most impressive stand
Another proof that Americans are getting China very right, Lincoln’s presence at the Show was by far the most sophisticated, aspiring and in touch with the Chinese customer. The layout of the stand, the innovative welcome desk (see above), the hostesses, the lineup (compact SUVs and large sedans), the personal hosts guiding potential customers through the models and the stand, the waterfall, the ‘hidden’ VIP section featuring all the materials used in the cars as well as a new Continental more accessible to explore, the mix of modernity and heritage with a vintage Continental exhibited… Everything, everyone and everywhere is on-brand, on-point, on-target. “Impeccable Craftsmanship” it was. Bravo.
6. Acura the latest local producer
After Renault with the Kadjar in March and Jaguar with the XFL in April, Acura is the third worldwide OEM to enter the China-made arena in 2016 with the very China-adequate CDX compact SUV. The stand smartly connected it with the brand’s flagship, the NSX, and although not particularly striking, it falls right into the bullseye of luxury SUVs with its sights firmly set on the Lexus NX and the upcoming Infiniti QX30. Infiniti manufactures the Q50L sedan and the QX60 SUV locally since 2015, so among Japanese luxury brands it leaves just Lexus as pure importer in China. Toyota has no plans to start assembling Lexus locally in the near future though.
7. The Koreans still as hungry as ever
Just as the Elantra Lingdong launched in market in March, Hyundai hasn’t wasted any time renewing another best-seller, the Verna (aka Accent) with a new generation unveiled at the Show as a World Premiere – a clear sign of how critical the Chinese market is for the Korean manufacturer. The Hyundai stand had a separate area for new luxury brand Genesis with the G90 and G80 exhibited and a smooth, silky ambience in the refined corner and hostesses were eagerly distributing the Hyundai Premium D magazine. Kia had a refreshed K3 and a facelifted K4 among other novelties: it appears Korean manufacturers are the only ones able to keep up with the frenetic launch rhythm set by Chinese carmakers at home…
8. …while Toyota is asleep at the wheel…
If Ford smartly launched the F-150 Raptor (in the absence of any other novelties), the Tundra TRD was nowhere to be seen on the Toyota stand. Last year in Shanghai, the focus of Toyota was on its new Corolla and Levin Hybrid. This year in Beijing, the focus of Toyota is on… its Corolla and Levin Hybrid. Passable in a European or American Show but unacceptable in China. In a market flooded with dozens of new SUVs each year (month), Toyota did not even exhibit the new CH-R it unveiled in Geneva last March. It will sell like hot dumplings in China and would propel the Toyota brand to the top of the shopping list of many local consumers, yet this seemed to have escaped Toyota’s management. And the feebly facelifted Vios and Yaris L shown will not do.
9. …and Volkswagen wants to go premium
Embattled in its emissions scandal, Volkswagen has made one thing clear: its necessary budget cuts will not affect China in the least. Its stand at Beijing smelled very premium indeed, with only the upmaket variants of each nameplate exhibited, a lot of space made for the all-new Phideon (unveiled in Geneva) and yet another large SUV concept (the T-Prime) when what the brand needs since 2010 is one or four compact SUVs. A facelifted Bora also pointed its bonnet, but this is not a World Premiere as I have already spotted one on the steers of Beijing.
If Volkswagen definitely did not behave like the market leader it is in Beijing, premium Germans also showed a definitive step back compared to their performance a year ago in Shanghai. BMW had a new long-wheeled X1 to show and Mercedes the new E-Class L but Audi had nothing really new. We have time for Mercedes who has been on a launching frenzy in the past two years, especially in the SUV segment the Chinese consumers can’t get enough of, but the other two carmakers have certainly not made the most of the opportunities that the Beijing Auto Show had to offer this year.
10. Borgward, Cowin and Changhe among Chinese surprises
A Chinese Auto Show wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any big, very big surprises such as completely new brands coming out of nowhere or carmakers resuscitated from the dead. And Beijing didn’t disappoint in this area. Literally just a logo a year ago, Borgward relaunched in Frankfurt last September (bad idea) but now that it is back on its backer’s territory (Foton/BAIC), it suddenly came up with a full stand complete with a 3-model lineup!
Cowin, a “young and connected” spinoff brand from Chery, had nothing to be ashamed of against most other Chinese established brands, SAIC launched a new all-electric brand/lineup and Changhe came back from the dead with two very satisfying offers. But there was more, much more, and we will cover every single Chinese carmaker present at the Beijing Auto Show 2016 is our “Most Impressive” ranking, coming up shortly. Stay tuned!