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Beijing Auto Show 2018: The 5 foreign carmakers that stood out

The Lincoln stand at the 2018 Beijing Auto Show.

Press Days at the Beijing Auto Show are now over and it’s time to sift through roughly 2.000 pictures to give you my highlights. You can see our coverage of the 2014 Beijing Auto Show here and the 2016 Beijing Auto Show here. As is the tradition, our focus is decidedly and unabashedly on the most impressive Chinese carmakers as not many (no?) Western outlets cover them extensively, but also because they progress faster than it takes to write these fine lines. This year we have opted for a more streamlined coverage so we will really focus on the top of the crop. But first, let’s get the foreigners out of the way and have a quick look at the 5 foreign carmakers that stood out in my view. This is the Beijing Auto Show coverage with a BSCB angle, so not what you may have read anywhere else.

Lincoln Aviator interior: the right amount of luxury to get noticed in China.

1. Lincoln hits all the right notes

American manufacturer Lincoln entered the Chinese market as a pure importer in late 2014 and has since been rewarded with solid commercial success with 54.124 sales in 2017. Two weeks ago, Reuters reported that Lincoln expects to begin building the new Aviator in China in late 2019 or early 2020, along with replacements for the MKC compact crossover and the MKZ midsize sedan, followed in 2021 by the all-new Nautilus, which replaces the Lincoln MKX crossover. All-in-all, 5 Lincoln vehicles are to be produced in China by 2022. It’s fair to say the brand has been playing its cards perfectly so far. I was already impressed by Lincoln at the 2016 Beijing Auto Show, and true to form this year the Lincoln stand was a refined display of luxury with a roof simulating an open sky that felt light and airy – in a good way.

Aviator/Navigator/Nautilus: only SUVs on the Lincoln stand, the right choice for China.

There were only SUVs on the stand – no Continental sedan – a logical choice as it already sells like dim sums here and doesn’t really need to be spruced up anymore. Instead, the imposing Navigator, the all-new Aviator and Nautilus were on display, hitting the Chinese market exactly at the core of where the brand’s potential lies. Making Lincoln even more relevant was the contrast of US competitor Cadillac, literally stuck in 2013 with Lorde’s “Royals” annoyingly playing in a loop on the stand, and no novelties pushed: only the CT6 and XTS sedans and the XT5 crossover, ageing and becoming less relevant by the minute. As for Jeep, granted with the Grand Commander it finally has a China-only nameplate, but its interior remains sub-par to pretend competing with its aforementioned compatriots.

2. Mercedes gets down to business

Aside from the obscenely opulent Maybach Ultimate Luxury SUV Concept complete with tea set and flowers inside, in Beijing Mercedes also had its sights firmly set on toppling Audi as the #1 luxury brand in China, as it has already done over the First Quarter of 2018. The world premiere of the A-Class L sedan further demonstrates the brand’s commitment to this market and is the first China-only sedan Mercedes has ever introduced – up until now it was content extending the wheelbase of the C and E-Class. The A-Class L will be competing in the high volume premium sandpit along the likes of the Audi A3 sedan and the BMW 1-Series sedan, two formats also by and large dedicated to China. It’s the realisation that Mercedes has already managed to do so well without this vehicle in China that pushes me to say the brand is the best position for the #1 premium spot right now. Archenemies Audi (Q5L) and BMW (iX3 Concept not due until 2020) seemed muted in comparison.

3. Hyundai keeps churning out China exclusives

It’s always a good surprise to discover a new China-only foreign nameplate that I didn’t even know was in preparation, and after Kia at the Guangzhou Auto Show last November it’s the turn of sister brand Hyundai to raise my eyebrows. After the Mistra in 2014 and both the Celesta and Reina in 2017, The Lafesta (a name also used by Nissan in Japan) is the 4th China-only offering by the Korean carmaker. Hyundai China design chief Simon Loasby says it exudes the brand’s new sensuous ”sportiness” design philosophy that will attract a younger generation of Chinese buyers. I agree – the Lafesta shows much more voluptuous curves than the cookie-cutter designs of the Elantra, Verna and Reina. Besides, Hyundai needs all the help it can get after seeing its Chinese sales dive by 30% in 2017, as the Encino crossover (known elsewhere as Kona) was also on display but is yet to appear in the Chinese sales charts.

4. Lexus 

Lexus aptly chose China for the world premiere of the new generation ES, the best-selling imported nameplate in the country both in 2017 and so far in 2018. The Japanese premium marque even doubled down with a separate fully-fledged dealership outside the Show’s premises. However we were also expecting the all-new C-HR-based UX crossover which didn’t show up in Beijing.

5. A much needed Toyota C-HR song and dance

976.000: that’s the number of Honda Vezel and XR-V sold in China since their launch here in late 2014. That’s also the sales figure Toyota just missed out on by waiting an excruciatingly long period to launch the C-HR here. It should have launched here at least one year before its November 2016 European launch date, instead we are looking at a sales start during the second half of 2018. However it’s not certain the C-HR will be met with the same success as the Vezel in China: local customers have also been lapping up Chinese offerings such as the Haval H6, GAC Trumpchi GS4 and Changan CS55, similarly priced but a lot more spacious and offering true 4WD ability. Toyota sells its sporty but capable crossover (we drove it on the barren Oodnadatta Track in Australia) through both its joint ventures: under the C-HR name with GAC-Toyota and the IZOA name with FAW-Toyota

Finally a side note: following the purchase of a 49% equity interest in Shenyang Brilliance JinBei Automobile, the Jinbei brand now appears as Renault Brilliance on its stand, but a more puzzling development is the Jinbei 750 brochure proclaiming “Renault quality” whereas that model was developed well before Renault was even in the picture.

Stay tuned for the most impressive Chinese carmakers at the Show…

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