For years, automakers viewed China as a market where they could sell cars designed for other locales without much trouble. Now, sales on the mainland have become such a dominant part of worldwide car demand that Chinese consumer preferences are influencing global auto design. General Motors will offer the extra-roomy Chevrolet Sail sedan in India this year. It conceived the car with extended Chinese families in mind at its Shanghai design group in 2009. The Sail is already available in China, Chile, Ecuador, and Algeria. BMW and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz began exporting stretch versions of their made-in-China luxury sedans to the Mideast and South America last month. “In the future, what is made for the Chinese will also be made for the world,” says Burt Wong, chief production designer at the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai, the research and development joint venture between GM and China partner SAIC Motor.
The Chinese market’s sheer size explains why GM and other car companies are bolstering their design capabilities there. Global automakers sold a combined 18.5 million new four-wheeled vehicles in China last year, compared with 12.8 million light-duty vehicles (passenger cars and sport-utility vehicles) in the U.S., according to the Chinese auto association and researcher Autodata. Market tracker LMC Automotive projects that China’s share of the global market for light vehicles will hit 29 percent by 2016, up from 24 percent last year. That’s likely to keep growing, since China’s car ownership, at 60 vehicles per 1,000 people, is still less than half the world average, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. “Anyone with a clear mind would say China is the next place we should develop our next vehicles for,” says Michael Dunne, president of auto industry research firm Dunne & Co. “It’s inevitable. China is the biggest market in the world, it’s profitable and growing.” Another incentive to design cars in China and then ship abroad is to ease production overcapacity on the mainland, which will likely worsen through 2015, according to Mizuho Securities Asia. China exported 814,300 vehicles last year, up 49 percent from 2010, according to the country’s automakers’ association.
In the past, GM brought models designed for the North American market and adapted them to Chinese needs, Wong says. Today, designers in Shanghai collaborate with their colleagues in Michigan as many as four years in advance on new and refreshed car designs, he says. Chinese driving habits have inspired GM’s local design team. Drivers in China like to offer rides to friends and family, making second-row comfort essential, Wong says. So GM engineers in China decided to reposition the Chevrolet Sail’s fuel tank to ensure a roomier back seat. With 166,693 buyers, the Sail was Chevy’s second-best-selling model in China last year after the Cruze.
Detroit- and Shanghai-based engineers also worked together to design the 2010 Buick Lacrosse, with the Chinese center taking the lead in interior design. One reason: The automaker now sells more Buicks on the mainland than anywhere in the world. (GM is also the best-selling foreign automaker in China.) Sales of Buicks in China rose 17 percent last year, to 645,537 vehicles, more than three times the brand’s sales of 177,633 units in the U.S. The Shanghai center, which employs a staff of about 2,000, is developing an SUV for global introduction, Wong says.
Daimler’s Mercedes and its Chinese partner, Beijing Automotive Industry Holding, last month began exporting its long-wheelbase version of the E-Class sedan, says Arnd Minne, Daimler’s Beijing-based spokesman, declining to give more details. The China-made luxury sedan gives rear-seat passengers 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) more legroom than the standard version sold in the U.S. and caters to chauffeur-driven buyers.
BMW began exporting the long-wheelbase 5 Series sedans assembled at its factory in northeastern China last month, says Lisa Ng, senior vice-president at Brilliance China Automotive Holdings, BMW’s Chinese partner. The sedans will be sold in the Middle East (where chauffeured cars are popular) as part of a long-term strategy to show overseas consumers that made-in-China cars are reliable, Brilliance Chairman Wu Xiaoan said last August.
Still, some design touches are conceived with only Chinese customersin mind. Buyers of Volkswagen’s new Passat sedan in China get blue-and-orange LED front lights and Taoist yin-yang designs on speaker covers, features not available in the model sold in North America. And Ford Motor, which along with GM posted record 2011 sales in China, is adapting its in-car entertainment, navigation, and emergency systems to respond to Mandarin commands in a variety of local accents.