China emerged as the world’s top car market in 2009, and though the sector stalled last year, with sales rising just 2.5% to 18.51 million, carmakers are convinced it is where the industry’s future lies.
Manufacturers at this week’s Auto China 2012 exhibition in Beijing said they have started to include features that appeal to the Chinese consumer – from large grilles and highly visible chrome fittings to luxury back seats for the in-laws.
“We want to have more China elements in our design for global cars,” said Shen Li, spokeswoman for Nissan China.
“The designers find inspiration in traditional paper cutting, or in Tang (dynasty) paintings representing opulent women. Every model in the future has to have a good potential in China.”
The car penetration rate in China is still relatively low compared to more mature markets in North America or Europe, but last year, even with the sales slowdown, more cars were sold in the Asian nation than in the United States.
Until recently, foreign car manufacturers adapted existing models sold in Europe or North America to the Chinese market. But with the rise of China and its global footprint, the trend is the other way round.
“In the future as China grows, we will increasingly need to take into account the weight of the Chinese market,” said Frederic Banzet, director at Citroen.
“We will work from a design with Chinese characteristics and adapt it to other markets,” he said.
To this end, PSA Peugeot Citroen set up a design studio in Shanghai in 2008 aiming to understand the Chinese market and launch targeted products to increase its market share.
The studio now counts some 650 employees, and the company plans to increase headcount to 1,000.
Volkswagen Group has also invested heavily in two design studios – one in Shanghai and another in the northeastern city of Changchun.
“The chrome finishings, the interior wood work… We are delivering the whole package to the United States,” said Walter de Silva, head of design for the group, which owns a total of eleven brands including Audi and Lamborghini.
Volkswagen’s new Passat was designed and launched in China last year, and hit the roads in North America a few months later.
Simon Loasby, director of design for Volkswagen in China, said designs from China had a growing influence on Volkswagen cars globally, while many Chinese designers were also working on projects in Germany.
“It is amazing how much of what is started here can fertilise the rest of the world,” he said.