Global and Chinese automakers showcased family-friendly sedans and SUVs targeting coveted urban buyers at China's biggest auto show recently as competition intensifies in this huge but crowded market.
China's vehicle sales rose 13 percent in March, blistering growth by Western standards but down from 45 percent in 2009. With sales weak elsewhere, global companies that see China as a key part of their future are pouring money and technology into fighting for market share.
"It is a very, very competitive market," says Bob Socia, president of General Motors Co.'s China arm.
The Shanghai auto show, held in alternate years, has grown into one of the global industry's most prominent events, especially after China passed the United States in 2009 as the biggest auto market by number of vehicles sold.
Organizers say exhibitors at this year's show will display more than 800 vehicles, from mass-market compacts to minivans to hand-built sports cars with price tags of more than $1 million.
GM is displaying 53 models from its Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet units as well as its local Baojun and Wuling brands. GM says it will launch 17 new and refreshed models in China this year and wants to expand Cadillac's share of the country's booming luxury market.
Ford Motor Co. unveiled a new version of its Mondeo sedan and the sport model of its smaller Focus ST aimed at prosperous, family-conscious Chinese buyers. Marin Burela, the president of Ford's main Chinese joint venture, says the Mondeo is aimed at luring Chinese buyers with "affordable luxury."
The Mondeo "rivals vehicles priced well beyond this segment," Burela says.
Italy's Fiat SpA, trying to catch up after launching its first China venture just three years ago, unveiled a version of its Viaggio sedan and an SUV, the Freemont, based on the Dodge Journey. Fiat says the Viaggio, with a smaller 1.4-liter engine than models sold elsewhere, was its first vehicle designed for the China market.
China's auto sales last year topped 19 million. Industry analysts and automakers say they expect rapid growth to continue, rising to annual sales of as much as 32 million vehicles by 2020 — the equivalent of the United States and Europe combined.
"China really is in the infancy of industry development," says David Schoch, Ford's president for Asia and the Pacific. Ford expects 60 to 70 percent of its sales growth to come from the Asia-Pacific region in coming years, he says, "and most of that is driven by the China engine."
Schoch says Ford plans to double the size of its China dealership network to more than 800 outlets.
At the show, Japanese automakers that are struggling to come back from a sales slump are displaying models they said were restyled to suit Chinese tastes.
Toyota Motor Co. is showing a Yaris sedan and other models it says were modified for China after market research. Honda and Nissan Motor Co., which have hired Chinese designers, is showing models they say were created to meet local demand.
Sales of Japanese brands plunged last year during a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and continue to wane even though the tensions have abated.
Japanese automakers suffered a combined 17.8 percent sales decline in March, according to Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
Speaking at the Shanghai show, Toyota vice chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada stressed friendship with China. He noted that Toyota has produced its hybrid Prius in China since 2005, the first manufacturing site for the vehicle outside Japan.
"For me, China is a cherished neighbor," he says.