China Grabs Spotlight At Shanghai Auto Show

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The Ig is a new concept car by Chinese automaker Geely. i

The Ig, a new concept car by Chinese automaker Geely, is a three-seater microcar that has a single door and is powered by electricity and solar panels. It will cost $3,000 to $4,000 and is expected to go on sale within three years. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
The Ig is a new concept car by Chinese automaker Geely.

The Ig, a new concept car by Chinese automaker Geely, is a three-seater microcar that has a single door and is powered by electricity and solar panels. It will cost $3,000 to $4,000 and is expected to go on sale within three years.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Geely's prototyping division director, Wei Xiaobo. i

Geely's prototyping division director, Wei Xiaobo, says the company has brought 22 new models to the Shanghai Auto Show, more than any other company. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Geely's prototyping division director, Wei Xiaobo.

Geely's prototyping division director, Wei Xiaobo, says the company has brought 22 new models to the Shanghai Auto Show, more than any other company.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Chinese battery-maker BYD showcases its new electric plug-in model. i

Chinese battery-maker BYD, which began making cars six years ago, showcases its new electric plug-in model. BYD aims to be the world's top automaker by 2025. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Chinese battery-maker BYD showcases its new electric plug-in model.

Chinese battery-maker BYD, which began making cars six years ago, showcases its new electric plug-in model. BYD aims to be the world's top automaker by 2025.

Louisa Lim/NPR

At Shanghai's auto show, it's hard to imagine that the industry was in trouble. Celebration is in the air as girls in sequined hot pants twirl around gleaming cars.

For the past three months, China has sold more cars than the U.S., becoming the world's top car market. Driven by an auto stimulus package, March car sales in China hit a record, up 5 percent from a year ago. That's slower than the double-digit growth of the past but compares favorably with the U.S., where March car sales plummeted 34 percent.

"The world is moving, and the markets are moving," said Porsche Executive Vice President Wolfgang Durheimer, explaining why the company launched its first four-door model, the Panamera, in Shanghai rather than Detroit or Tokyo.

"China is a booming market for Porsche, and for this reason we decided to launch a new model line in a new environment, and that's why we are here in Shanghai," he said.

Porsche's sales in China were up 145 percent in the past fiscal year. In the high luxury market, others are reporting such trends. Bentley's Mike Hawes said, "Globally our sales were down 24 percent, which is fairly typical of the high luxury sector market. But in China, we were up 50 percent."

But at the other end of the market, domestic companies are proving tough competition on price. Surveys show 80 percent of purchases are made by first-time car buyers, and their first priority is cost.

"There's different expectation on price and product," said Nigel Harris, Ford's vice president of marketing and sales in China. "You get first-time buyers who are coming off motorcycles and bicycles, so the first vehicle they can afford is a little bit less than what you can buy a Ford for."

Michael Dunne, managing director of the China operations of JD Power & Associates, said Chinese automakers have upped their game dramatically when it comes to appearances. "Today you have to look hard, and second and third looks to realize: Oh, that's a Chinese brand right next to Porsche, Mercedes and Toyota," he said.

One domestic automaker drawing crowds is Geely, which unveiled 22 new models at Shanghai. The crowd pleaser is its concept car, the Ig. This space-age microcar has one Batmobile-like door that opens vertically; it's an electric car with solar panels to charge the storage battery; it has a single seat in the front, and despite the cutting-edge technology, it's all about price.

"This car can either be a left-hand drive or a right-hand drive," said protyping division director Wei Xianbo. "The single door keeps the cost down. It should cost $3,000 to $4,000. It will be our cheapest car. It will go on sale in two or three years."

Another attention-grabber is BYD's electric car, the world's first mass-market plug-in. Warren Buffett owns 10 percent of this company, which has only been making cards for six years. Spokesman Paul Lin said, "Our midterm target is 2015 to become No. 1 in China market. In 2025, become No. 1 in the world. Our nuclear weapon is our new energy car."

The Chinese government is throwing its weight behind alternative-energy cars. The official government target is that Chinese companies will produce 500,000 hybrid or electric cars by the end of 2011.

As Detroit flounders, Beijing looks to the future.

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