Old names with new faces at Shanghai

China still the engine of growth for the world’s auto sector

Visitors at the Shanghai Motors show visit the Mercedes-Benz stand. Photo: Reuters

Visitors at the Shanghai Motors show visit the Mercedes-Benz stand. Photo: Reuters

Tue, Apr 23, 2013, 14:58

Walking through the halls and stands of the Shanghai motor show this year must have been somewhat akin to attending a cocktail party in early 1990s Hollywood. So many familiar names, but all with new faces.

Shanghai has, of course, become a hugely important stop on the international motor show circuit and almost every major global car maker was there in force, trying to tempt the Balinghou. Who? Simply put, they are the most influential people in the automotive world right now; China’s monied, aspirational, youthful middle class.

“Balinghou males are a huge cohort in the world’s largest market, and they’re now reaching their prime,” said François Bancon, Division General Manager of product strategy and advanced planning at Nissan. “Clearly, their tastes will shape automotive trends worldwide for decades to come. So we believe it’s important to listen with respect, and respond by putting dreams within their reach.”

Nissan had brought along a new hybrid concept saloon, called Friend-Me, which tried to create an interior where all four passengers had equal space, comfort and access to the car’s infotainment system. Not sure how equal access to information will go down in China, but equality for all occupants is at least in line with Communist Party doctrine...

Whether or not the Friend-Me makes it to European shores in the form it was shown in, there’s no doubt that the whims and wishes of the 240-million-strong Balinghou will have a massive influence on the shape, style and content of the cars that we too will be buying in the coming decade.

Far more so than the oft-quoted threat of Chinese car makers taking chunks of European market share (which seems hardly likely at a time when Chinese car makers are losing market share at home to European, Japanese and American brands) it is the shaping of Western cars to suit Chinese tastes that will affect our markets.

Such shaping may bring with it some familiar names though. Both Ford and General Motors dug into the past to name new cars designed specifically for Shanghai. GM’s Buick division (which has had some notable success in China over the past few years) brought along the Riviera concept, reviving a classic Buick name from the sixties (and also from a 2007 Shanghai show concept that failed to find favour).

Clearly, GM isn’t going to start selling Buicks in Ireland but the brand is closely allied to Opel for research and development (the Buick Verano, Regal and Encore are essentially the Opel Astra, Insignia and Mokka with nose jobs - Hollywood style car engineering) and the crisp lines and low, wide grille of the concept could well influence the shape of future Opels.

Meanwhile, there was the Ford Escort. Once a staple of Irish roads, the Escort name became irrevocably (or so we thought) tarnished by successively dreary versions in the mid-to-late-nineties that Ford binned the name and started again with Focus in 1998.

Now though, specifically for a new compact saloon for China. The shape of the car is distinctly modern Ford; gaping, Aston-Martin-style grille, crisp surfaces and a rear end that looks distinctly similar to the old Focus cabriolet. Why the Escort name though? Well oddly, classic Escorts are currently big news in China, proving popular at auctions and being regularly imported. Which makes you wonder both whether Chinese fans of classic Escorts will appreciate the name being used on a rather plain-looking new car and whether or not any of the old Cork-built Escorts have found their way to China. It certainly explains that dearth of good two-door Escort bodyshells that rally fanatics often complain about.

Other familiar names with new bodywork included the Porsche Panamera (which gained both a stretched wheelbase and an impressively frugal plugin-hybrid powertrain) and the Mercedes E-Class which also now comes in China-only long wheelbase spec.

Ford, aside from launching the Escort, also debuted the new 170bhp, 1.5-litre version of its compact, lightweight three-cylinder petrol engine in the new Mondeo (still a year away for Irish and European customers, sadly) while the entire Kia brand decided to take a major visit to the plastic surgeon’s and emerged rebranded, specifically for China, as Horki, The name apparently conflates the written symbols for China and Driving.

SUVs and luxury cars were, needless to say, shown en masse in Shanghai. Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Maserati were out in force, while BMW, with the X4, and Citroen, with the Wild Rubis concept, showed that there’s more than one way to skin the SUV cat. Volkswagen showed off a plugin-hybrid Range Rover Sport rivalling concept called the CrossBlue Coupe which will, it seems, make production in 2015 but may not come to Europe. Its styling most assuredly will though, on the next-generation Tiguan and Touareg.

Chinese-owned MG showed not one but two concept SUVs; the CS is a crisply-styled Nissan Qashqai rival while its Icon is a potential Juke rival with what appears to be the styling from a 1962 MGB roadster grafted onto the front. Mercedes’ SUV contribution was probably the most significant though.

The GLA Compact Crossover Study is hiding its modesty behind a screen of motor-show tinsel but its is in all but some glossy chrome add-ons identical to the production car that will take on the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 from later this year. Given its chiseled, handsome looks, it’s rather hard not to see it tempting buyers in their droves, whether or not they conform to Balinghou standards.

Of course, underneath the GLA is essentially an A-Class hatchback wearing lifts in its shoes, so like almost everything else at Shanghai, it’s a familiar face that’s had a little work done.

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