Porsche Vies With Maserati as Limelight Shifts to China

Updated on

Volkswagen AG’s Porsche debuted the revamped Panamera coupe at the Shanghai Auto Show where it sought to outshine Maserati’s all-new Ghibli to win over China’s growing ranks of luxury-car buyers.

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s X4 coupe-like sport-utility vehicle, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz GLA compact SUV and a sedan version of the Audi A3 hatchback also celebrated world premieres this week at China’s biggest auto show of 2013. The unprecedented high-end car push underscores the country’s emergence as the segment’s key market for expansion.

“There’s still a lot of growth potential in China,” Rupert Stadler, chief executive officer of Volkswagen’s Audi, the best-selling luxury brand in the country, told reporters in Shanghai. “The premium segment accounts for about 9 percent of the total market and that share could grow to between 12 percent and 15 percent.”

With Europe’s car market sliding to a 20-year low on weakening demand in Germany, the region’s luxury-car makers are focusing on China’s wealthy. The push is prompting a shift to SUVs and sedans, which are more popular there than European hatchbacks and wagons.

McKinsey forecasts sales of upscale vehicles in China to average 12 percent growth a year through 2020, outpacing the 8 percent rate for the country’s total car market. That growth would put sales of high-end autos there ahead of the U.S. by 2016 and on par with demand for all of Western Europe by the end of the decade, the consultancy said in a March report.

Executive Legroom

To tap this growth, Porsche will offer an extended version of the Panamera four-door coupe, which is 15 centimeters (6 inches) longer than the standard model. The variant, which is priced from 132,662 euros ($173,150) in Germany, is geared chiefly at the Chinese market, where many luxury-car buyers have drivers, making rear legroom a key factor.

The second generation of the Panamera will go on sale in July, starting at 81,849 euros. The model also marks the introduction of a new V6 biturbo engine, which will replace a larger V8 as manufacturers look to improve efficiency. The engine boosts fuel economy as much as 18 percent while still adding 20 horsepower.

“We remain carefully optimistic,” Porsche sales chief Bernhard Maier said in an interview. With the new Panamera and recently overhauled 911 sports car, Porsche’s “better prepared than ever before” to cope with market swings.

Down Shift

Fiat SpA’s elite Maserati brand is shifting down market with the new Ghibli. Its first-ever midsized sedan, which is equipped with an engine with at least 330-horsepower, will vie with top-end versions of the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-Series.

The new entry-level Maserati, which can accelerate to 100 kilometers per hour in as little as 4.8 seconds, is a key part of Fiat’s plan to stem losses in Europe, which amounted to more than 700 million euros last year.

Fiat Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne is targeting an eightfold increase in Maserati sales to 50,000 cars in 2015 from about 6,000 last year. The Turin-based company’s European turnaround plan calls for exporting 16 new, Italian-made upscale cars worldwide, including an Alfa Romeo SUV, a small Jeep and six Maserati models.

The Ghibli, which is due to start at more than 50,000 euros, will be built at the Grugliasco facility in Turin alongside the Quattroporte, Maserati’s flagship, which celebrated its global debut in Detroit, as the once Europe-centric brand turns its attention abroad.

‘Upside-Down World’

“It’s sad to say, but the world turned upside down,” Maserati chief Harald Wester said in Shanghai. He expects sales to surge to 20,000 vehicles this year, with half of that volume coming from the Ghibli.

General Motors Co.’s Cadillac is also pushing into China. The American luxury brand plans to introduce its entire global portfolio in the market as the brand targets 10 percent of local luxury-car sales, according to Bob Socia, GM’s China head.

To help attract Chinese consumers to Cadillac, GM signed up actor Brad Pitt to help promote the brand. Cadillac, which is targeting sales of 100,000 vehicles a year in the country by 2015, plans to expand its number of dealerships in China to 200 this year from 70 outlets in 2011.

Daimler, which has struggled to grow as fast competitors in China, is betting the GLA, the fourth in a new line of front-wheel-drive vehicles, will help Mercedes gain market share by appealing to drivers other than older men.

Younger, Female

With the new SUV, “we want to gain more younger customers, more female customers and ones that are outdoorsy and are very active in their lifestyle,” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

In addition to the Porsche Panamera, Volkswagen flexed its motoring muscle with the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse in Shanghai, which according to the Wolfsburg-based carmaker is the world’s fastest series-made roadster after reaching a top speed of 408.84 kilometers (254.1 miles) per hour last week.

The car, which is powered by a 1,200-horsepower engine, was driven on VW’s testing center in Ehra-Lessien in northern Germany by 29-year-old Chinese entrepreneur and race-car aficionado Anthony Liu to reach the record.

Sister brand Audi, the world’s second-largest maker of luxury vehicles, showed the sedan version of its revamped A3 intended to woo Chinese and North American buyers seeking a compact car with separate luggage space. The A3 sedan will hit European showrooms later this year, with a starting price of around 25,000 euros, and will be rolled out in the U.S. and China in 2014.

New models might help Europe’s luxury-car makers cope with intensifying headwinds this year. Demand for new vehicles on their home turf is set to slide for the sixth consecutive year, even China isn’t the salvation it once was.

“Growth rates in China are normalizing,” BMW sales chief Ian Robertson said in Shanghai, where he presented the all-new X4. “The market is maturing.”