Audacious, gutsy, and maybe a little nutty -- how else to describe the push by New York auto entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin and China's Chery Automobile Co. President Yin Tongyao to import and sell 250,000 mainland-made sport utilities, sedans, and sports coupes in the U.S. starting in 2007? After all, Chery produced only 80,000 cars in all of 2004, has near-zero brand recognition outside China, and has been sued by General Motors Corp.'s (GM ) South Korean unit for allegedly ripping off the design for its best-selling QQ minicars in China -- a charge Chery denies. And while Bricklin was expected to announce his first dealer on May 26, U.S. auto execs aren't exactly losing sleep over the Chery threat -- not yet, anyway.
Big Three execs did take notice, however, when Honda Motor Corp. (HMC ) announced plans to export compact cars from China to Europe starting in June. Honda already sells about 200,000 locally built vehicles in China a year, ranging from Accord sedans to Odyssey SUVs. In April, with local partners, it began production at a new assembly plant in Guangzhou that will eventually build and export 50,000 Fit compacts a year to be sold in Europe as the Jazz. Honda won't say if it plans to send China-built cars to the U.S., but it hasn't ruled out exporting other models from China eventually.
In the global auto industry, Chery and Honda are on opposite ends of the spectrum. But they do share this: Both are betting big that the Chinese auto industry is entering a new phase that will see a shift from manufacturing only for the fast-growing local market to become an export base for the rest of the world, too.
This transition is in the early stages. Of the 405,000 vehicles exported last year, according to J.D. Power & Associates Inc., just 10,000 were passenger cars. Low quality and high component costs will keep Chinese auto exports to the U.S. and Europe in the novelty category for the next few years, analysts say.
That's no reason for Western carmakers to be complacent, though. China is closing the quality gap and building a base of low-cost suppliers that could eventually allow it to unleash inexpensive, well-made cars on the West. And because local production capacity of 3 million vehicles a year is currently outstripping demand by about half a million vehicles, there are already a lot of wheels looking for a garage. "It's inevitable," says Mark LaNeve, chief of sales and marketing at GM. "They'll follow the example of the Koreans and Japanese."
Korean cars gave Detroit fits in the late '90s by undercutting domestic small cars on price and outdoing them on quality -- then moving up into other segments. Autos from China could provide more lower-cost competition for the Big Three at a time when GM and Ford Motor Co. (F ) are already reeling. That could cost them, along with Chrysler (DCX ), more market share and prod them to move more of their own production offshore.
How fast can the Chinese gear up? The way things are going, it won't take 20 years to match Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) quality levels, as it did for the Koreans. And with Chinese auto assembly workers earning $2 an hour -- vs. $22 in Korea and nearly $60 in the U.S. for wages and benefits -- it may not be long before China has the wherewithal to start selling competitively priced cars overseas. "The Chinese are probably five or six years away from being able to sell a competent low-end car," says auto analyst Maryann N. Keller.
The Chinese government is putting its heft behind the export push -- subsidizing the export drive of such local players as Chery and giving the likes of Honda big incentives. Beijing also is nudging foreign auto makers to divert investment into export production so local partners can become familiar with managing foreign-exchange risk and global supply chains. It's also pushing domestic companies such as Chery, Geely Auto, Brilliance China Automotive (CBA ), and Shanghai Automotive Industry to develop their own brands overseas.
For smaller players such as Chery and Geely, the crucial test will be delivering quality products. Chinese carmakers have made big strides, with a 19% boost in quality last year over 2003, says a recent study on initial quality by J.D. Power. Still, Chery's locally sold QQs have 374 problems per 100 vehicles, vs. the '04 U.S. average of 118 problems per 100.
Quality isn't the only challenge facing Chinese carmakers. They also will have to meet U.S. safety and emissions standards -- an exhaustive process that includes expensive testing. Without a global partner experienced in meeting U.S. standards, the task will be especially tough.
Another challenge is a bit of a mind-bender: While China's labor costs are dirt cheap, the overall cost of bolting a car together there is anything but. Honda officials say the cost of making the Accord in China is still higher than in Japan or the U.S. And it costs about the same to build the Fit compact in China as it does in Japan. Honda makes money selling cars locally because prices are high.
Blame expensive parts for the high costs. Despite a major production shift to China by Western partsmakers, the nation remains a net importer of auto components, especially high-end gear such as engines and transmissions. Those parts face tariffs of up to 20%, plus shipping costs. Parts made by Chinese partners or foreign transplants are pricey, too, because of local-content rules that result in generally low production runs. Bernd Leissner, president of Volkswagen Group China, notes that while labor accounts for only 6% of production costs, materials eat up 85%.
That will begin to change as higher volumes start bringing costs down. Jack Perkowski, CEO of ASMICO Technologies, which owns 13 parts factories in China, figures that will happen once the domestic market gets closer to 10 million units a year. Analysts see economies of scale kicking in by 2010. That's when China should be able to start beating Thailand, Japan, and the U.S. on cost.
The first cars to reach the U.S. from China will be starter wheels that won't pose a threat to Western auto makers. By early 2006, for example, Scottsdale (Ariz.)-based China Motor Corp. expects to begin selling Geely's bare-bones Solo sedan for about $7,000. But Bricklin and Chery aim to begin with models that will compete with mainstream vehicles. Starting in 2007, they plan to roll out a four-door sedan, a crossover SUV, and a sports car. The SUV, which Bricklin grandly compares to the $31,000 BMW X3, will sell for $15,000. While analysts say Chery will face a marketing challenge, analyst Jim Hall of AutoPacific Inc. says its cars will generate interest "because of a price advantage, just as Hyundai did in the beginning."
But what Detroit really fears are exports from Chinese joint ventures with the likes of Volkswagen, Honda, or Toyota. They know how to build cars that meet U.S. safety and emissions requirements and Western quality expectations. Just as important, they have established dealer networks that could be used to sell China-built models with familiar brand names. The potential threat: ultra-low-priced Honda Civics or VW Passats.
For Detroit, that's a scary prospect. "Our strategy is to become competitive at the low end of the market," says GM's LaNeve. That means importing cars built by its Korean affiliate, Daewoo, to sell as Chevys, such as the $10,000 Aveo subcompact launched in fall, 2003. LaNeve wouldn't discuss GM's long-term plans. But analysts say that, under pressure from Chinese cars, the auto giant could step up exports from Korea, where quality and supplier connections are already established. Eventually, though, it might turn to its own plants in China, where it has been producing cars since 1999.
Latecomer Ford is still expanding its factory base in China just to meet local demand. Analysts note that Ford could one day choose to start bringing cars over from its plants in Thailand, which now supply the Asian market. Moving production offshore would be sure to anger the United Auto Workers, though. Indeed, when DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) said in April that it is considering exports of small cars from China to the U.S., the union squawked.
In the meantime, China's auto industry is roaring into the future -- building out its supplier networks and boosting quality. Sho Minekawa, president of joint venture Guangzhou Honda Automobile Co., says that when an assembly error in the braking system of its Fit model surfaced this spring, a team of Japanese and Chinese workers fixed the problem in a matter of weeks. What's more, Honda says in-house quality tests show that the China-made Accord is actually superior to the one made in the U.S. If those quality gains hold and a far bigger market drives down costs, China could start throwing its heft around the global auto market in a big way. Look out, Detroit.
By Brian Bremner and Kathleen Kerwin, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing, Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt, and David Kiley in New York