Beijing auto show at full throttle despite economic slowdown

SUVs are the hottest offering on the Chinese car market where premium brands are magnets for the new middle class


The Beijing Auto Show is the only place in the city where you can confidently walk in front of an SUV and not fear that you will be mown down by a maniac checking their texts or phoning their broker - but you still find yourself pausing on the stands.

Traffic was appalling leading up to the event, with most of the capital’s five million cars seemingly crammed onto the airport expressway that forms the main part of the route out of the city to the exhibition site.

The event itself is buzzing, a sign that Chinese economic growth, which has slowed in recent months, is starting to accelerate and is clearly taking the auto industry with it on its upward trajectory.

Because of the snarly traffic, I parked three kilometres from the site, and was picked up by one of the entrepreneurs driving flatbed tricycles from near the show grounds. Mine was equipped with a pink plastic stool on the back and it cost three euros to get there.

In 2014, Beijing had 63 passenger vehicles for every 100 households, more than double the national average of 25 cars. So sometimes you have to improvise to get around.

Disembarking from the cheapest form of motorised transport in the city, soon you are surrounded by one of the most expensive varieties, the sports utility vehicle.

And what a lot of SUVs there are - along with new energy cars, the Sports Utility Vehicle is dominating the stands at the 2016 event, both domestic and foreign varieties.

According to IHS Automotive, 41 per cent of premium vehicles sold in China are SUVs, and this is set to rise to 45 per cent in the next four years or so.

One of the most popular premium SUVs is the Porsche Cayenne, and this was drawing a lot of attention, as was the Macan.

Porsche is keen to marry the need to produce environmentally friendly cars and the country’s desire for premium SUVs.

“Sustainability for us is a very important point, especially for our engines. Today, we have three plug-in hybrids that we are using in three different model ranges - the Panamera, the Cayenne, and also our high-end sports car, the 918,” said Porsche chairman Oliver Blume.

“In the near future, for us it is plug-in technology. But the real challenge is the full electric car of the future you can drive like a Porsche.”

Porsche may be looking to an all-electric future, but in Beijing its star turn was the mid-engine sports car and the show saw the global premiere of the 718 Cayman, which has a new four-cylinder turbocharged engine, as well as Asian bows for the 718 Boxster S and 911 Targa 4.

All three are equipped with downsized, optimised turbo engines that have a greater power output and fewer emissions, to keep with the environmental prerogative.

The queues to get on to the stand on the press day were long, even the VIP line was considerable, and the Cayman was the star with its 2.5-litre engine and Variable Turbine Geometry technology. The 718 Cayman S goes from zero to 100 km/h in 4.2 seconds in “Sport Plus” mode, which is half a second faster than its predecessor.

Volkswagen unveiled its T-Prime Concept GTE SUV, positioned above the next Touareg, which also has a plug-in hybrid powertrain variant featuring a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, an 8-speed automatic transmission, and a 14.1-kilowatt-hour battery, and an impressively high-tech dashboard.

On the Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and Lamborghini stands there is an air of hushed appraisal. These stands tend to attract buyers early on the show and at Rolls-Royce, a shabbily dressed, clearly filthy rich, guy was doing some sums on his smartphone and taking a very close look at the back seat of the car.

High-performance cars with back seats are a bit of a thing in China.

At Ferrari, the main interest is in the GTC4 Lusso, which is a a V12, front-engined, four-seater FF - a bit like a Ferrari estate, if that doesn’t sound like heresy. Ferrari said at the Geneva show that it would never make an SUV, which will have disappointed many in SUV-mad China.

There were plenty of people taking a very close look at the GTC4, including one man who took a keen interest in the back seat. I expect to see a few of these at the Nanshan ski resort near Beijing next season.

Nestled between Lamborghini and Aston Martin was the Karlmann King, which is the biggest SUV I’ve ever seen and looks like a manga creation, a brutalist cross between the Dark Knight’s Batmobile, a Stealth bomber and a police riot control van. It was designed by IAT Design for Unique Club and to buy this angular matt monster will set you back 12 million yuan or $1.85 million, which works out at €1.64 million.

When everyone else at the show is obsessed with light materials, battery power and zero emissions, this beast is made of steel and has a 6.8-litre Triton V10 engine. And it’s built on a Ford F-450 Super Duty platform, which is used for police vehicles and this explains a lot.

The back seat has a karaoke machine and expensive liquor, and there is little evidence of the government’s long-running corruption crackdown making much headway into the Karlmann King.

Innovation is a new obsession in China and much of this drive is going into producing new-energy vehicles - around 37 billion yuan (€5 billion) has been invested into new-energy vehicles over the past five years.

The race is on to find a Chinese Tesla, and one of the leading contenders is tech billionaire Jia Yueting, whose LeEco LeSEE company was showing the Faraday Future FFZero1.

He hopes to start producing a version of the LeSEE concept in a few years at a 900-acre plant being built near Las Vegas by US strategic partner Faraday Future, in which Jia has invested. These cars would be sold in the US and China.

Looking ahead, he also wants to produce electric cars in China, probably through a partnership with BAIC Motor.

A major presence this year among domestic players is BAIC, which is keen to revived the defunct German brand Borgward which closed in the 1960s. Fifty-five years later it is back with its BX7 prototype, which has a plug-in hybrid system and is aimed at the upper mid-sized SUV market.

BAIC also showed the Arcfox-7 all-electric supercar concept that boasts 603 horsepower, which was designed out of Spain.

Other Chinese new energy brands include the new Chinese brand Cowin Motors, which used crowdsourcing to design its X3 SUV prototype, due to be unveiled this year.

BYD, the carmaker backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is collaborating with Daimler on an energy efficient car.

The look of the show is very different from the last one in 2014 (the show alternates annually with Shanghai), but there is the same sense of urgency in the way people rush between stands, devouring information and photographing absolutely everything.

Perhaps one difference is that the crackdown on corruption and general austerity has translated into a ban on scantily clad model girls on the stands, replacing them instead with young male hunks polishing the cars.

This means far fewer rubberneckers blocking the aisles as they film near-naked model girls draped across the cars.

The pace of economic growth has slowed to its lowest rate in a quarter of a century, but there are signs it is picking up again and car sales, which slowed but remained buoyant, are starting to creep up again. Looking at the crowds gathered at the stands, it’s hard not to feel that rumours of the demise of China’s breakneck economic growth have been somewhat exaggerated.

In every aisle there are young men in blue camouflage combat outfits walk around holding signs saying “Keeping Moving Please”.