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General Motors has been the American car company in China for years. Now Ford is making a push to change that. Last year, Ford's sales in China were up more than 30 percent. And the Ford Focus was China's bestselling car. In today's Business Bottom Line, NPR's Frank Langfitt went to this week's Shanghai Auto Show.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Li Ning bought his first Ford, a Focus sedan, about a couple of years ago.
LI NING: (Through translator) The biggest impression is it's easy to drive. It feels great. The exterior is what I like, very dynamic. I like cars that look muscular and that have some sense of American style.
LANGFITT: He was back this week browsing for another Ford at Shanghai's sprawling auto show. Wearing glasses, a gray hoodie and jeans, he scoured the company's exhibit of 23 models, snapping pictures along the way. Li now has a 19-month-old child. He's looking to trade up to an SUV.
NING: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: When it comes to car safety, I have more confidence in Ford than other brands, he says. In China's hyper-competitive market, where there's little brand loyalty, developing new customers and keeping old ones like Li is critical. To that end, Ford plans to launch 10 new vehicles in China by 2015, and open five new factories.
YANG JIAN: I think they're doing very well. The volumes are growing so fast, and I think the brand perception is getting better.
LANGFITT: Yang Jian is managing editor of Automotive News China. After a slow start here, Yang says, Ford is now developing an image as a trendy, stylish car for young people like Li. Despite Ford's recent gains, though, the company still has a long way to go.
JIAN: Ford's market share in China is very small. I think Ford is probably not even the top 10.
LANGFITT: In fact, Ford is number 12, with just 3 percent of the passenger car market here, according to LMC Automotive, a U.K.-based market forecasting firm. By contrast, GM is number two, with about 10 percent. And Volkswagen is on top, with nearly 20 percent.
TREVOR WORTHINGTON: I'm Trevor Worthington. I'm the car and SUV vehicle line director for Asia Pacific.
LANGFITT: To help lift that market share, Ford relies on people like Worthington. He helps the company mold and shape its global vehicles to meet Chinese tastes. For instance, Worthington says Chinese customers want a car that looks and feels more impressive, especially the rear seat.
WORTHINGTON: The use of the rear seat is definitely more important to a China customer, in my experience, than it is maybe in the U.S or Europe.
LANGFITT: And why is that?
WORTHINGTON: During the week, this vehicle is used for business. If an owner decides to take a client for a business dinner or to a meeting, or pick them up or drop them off, how that customer feels sitting in the back of the car is a reflection of the person who's driving the car. It is all about making sure that they feel special or they feel important.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR)
LANGFITT: We step inside a Kuga, a small Ford SUV with the same architecture as the Ford Escape. Worthington describes the adaptations for the market here.
WORTHINGTON: This is a different rear seat cushion than we use anywhere else in the world. It's got more comfort and more shape. It's slightly shorter to give the maximum amount of rear leg-room that we can.
LANGFITT: Outside, Worthington points out the cosmetic touches, including chrome handles and sleek, brighter head lamps. Things he says consumers associate with the Chinese word Da Qi. Worthington explains.
WORTHINGTON: It's about grand. It's about presence. It's about being important. When we go to market research and you stand Chinese people in front of a car, they will always comment on whether a car is Da Qi or whether it isn't Da Qi.
LANGFITT: Zhu Bing is 24 and works in sales for General Electric. He's eying the Kuga, which starts at more than $31,000. Some of those carefully chosen details are resonating.
ZHU BING: (Through Translator) It's pretty Da Qi. I really like it. For example, the design of the front suits us young people. I'm attracted to the logo and the head lamps are pretty cool.
LANGFITT: Zhu drives his parent's Volkswagen but he thinks VWs are for people over 30. He plans to buy a Kuga in the fall.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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