Fleet News

Global fleets: China hots up as bikes make way for new cars

CONSTANT congestion on almost every major city highway may well prove to put the ultimate brake on the incredible growth of China's auto market.

But the traffic chaos that passes for normal on the six-lane expressway near Beijing's international exhibition centre seems of little concern to an industry bent on driving to new heights as the world's biggest nation clamours to swap the bicycle for the car.

Despite government efforts to cool the economy, vehicle sales in the first quarter still grew by 28% and leading analysts continue to predict that in just four years' time, the Chinese car market will surge past the seven million mark.

So it was small wonder that corporate confidence was plentiful when the doors opened on the eighth International Motor Show in the bustling capital that houses 13.8 million people and registers more than 1,000 new cars every day.

With a fleet of more than 50 models on display, Ford's mass assault on the event best illustrates the significance it now holds in a market fast replacing its sleeping giant reputation with a frenzy reminiscent of the gold rush days of early America.

Still a relatively minor player here because Volkswagen captures about one third of sales and General Motors has a 9% share, Ford took the biggest stand space as brands like Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover made their show debut.

Ford Asia Pacific executive vice-president Mark Schulz summed it up succinctly with the comment: 'China and Asia Pacific are now the epicentre of global growth. No-one can afford to ignore what happens in the Chinese auto market.'

Expansion of between 60% and 80% over the last two years took China's new car market to 2.1 million last year, and even though restrictions on bank loans are cooling fervour in the showrooms, GM says demand here still provides most of its profits.

Honda Motor (China) Investment chairman Atsuyoshi Hyogo told Fleet News: 'There's no question that this market is turning a lot of heads. No-one expected the dramatic growth we see today. When our first automobile project began here just six years ago, the entire market was about 500,000 units – now it will soon become the second biggest in the world behind only the US.'

Next-generation examples of the Ford Focus are set to go into production in several areas across the Asia Pacific region over the next 12 months.

Schulz said the intensive development would start being rolled out soon after the new model programme introduction gets under way at the Paris Motor Show.

As the company showed a concept of its new mid-size four-door sedan at Beijing, Schulz said each production location would feature increased local sourcing and an integrated manufacturing approach in order to better serve the needs of the region.

He said: 'We call this car Focus for good reason. People are going to see that at Ford, we really do think globally and act locally. The new Focus is going to show we are at home everywhere we go.'

The announcement came as Volvo president and chief executive officer Hans-Olov Olsson revealed that the Swedish branch of Ford's Premier Automotive Group was in the process of coming into local production in China.

Olsson said he expected Volvo's mainland China sales would rise by 20% this year and would triple to 10,000 units per year over the next five years.

He said: 'The premium car market in China will grow to more than 300,000 units per year over the next five years and we want to be part of it. We regard China as the number one priority market – potential here will be bigger than Japan in the long term for us.'

Olsson declined to be more specific about the move into local production, but it is thought likely Volvo would make use of the facilities already operated by its parent company, which has joint ventures with Chang'an Motor Corp in Chongqing Municipality and Jiangling Motor in Jiangxi Province.

A similar solution is among the options open to Land Rover, which will also investigate the feasibility of a 'complete knock-down' operation should demand for its products increase, with parts shipped to China for assembly there.

Britain's only dedicated 4x4 manufacturer is on course to deliver 1,000 vehicles to Chinese customers this year, double the number supplied last year, when it arrived in the marketplace.

Chief executive Matthew Taylor told Fleet News: 'We could have done much better, but I've resisted the temptation to export old Discovery models because I want our image here to be based on the Range Rover and the new LR3, which will become available next January.

'I have no doubt that the LR3 will help us grow quickly because there's no other vehicle quite like it.

'I also think China has the makings of a major territory for sport utility vehicles. If we do achieve sufficient volume, complete knock-down could prove very worthwhile, although the process is not as straightforward as you might think in our case. As we are a relatively low volume producer, it might not be reasonable to expect to source the dedicated systems and components that our vehicles need from local suppliers.'

ChanganFord president and chief executive officer Ron Tyack told Fleet News that present output of the Fiesta and Mondeo models of 300 units per day would soon rise to 500.

He said: 'We are using about 70% of the space available on our site, so there is room for further expansion, but we are also building new manufacturing facilities in Nanjing, Shanghai.

'There has been no announcement yet as to what we'll be producing there, but I know Volvo and other PAG units are looking into the feasibility of local manufacturing and obviously it would make sense to consolidate the Ford group's manufacturing in China.'

Jaguar mounted its first display at the event and sent a delegation to Beijing to assess market opportunities. Managing director Mike Wright said: 'Our aim is to build up a good dealer network with a particular accent on service and are already dealing with four importers who are shared with Volvo and Land Rover.

'Coming to China is a significant move for us and we'll concentrate our efforts on the S-type and the XJ, which I think has particular promise here as an alternative to the BMW 7-series and Mercedes-Benz S-class, which are now selling in comparatively large volumes.

'I'm confident we can carve out a niche here and I'm convinced that after the US, China will become the second biggest market for our new long wheelbase model.'

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