Electric vehicles bring buzz to China’s biggest motor show

Ford leads charge with new models as sales of new-energy vehicles rise sharply

With China’s economy slowing and air pollution at the top of the political agenda, new-energy vehicles will be a key feature of this year’s Auto China show in Shanghai. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

When it comes to the global car market, no single event quite reflects the change in auto manufacturers' global emphasis than Auto China, the motor show that alternates annually between Beijing and Shanghai and this year takes place in the country's financial capital.

The days when the event was a glitzy showcase for poorly-designed rip-offs and copycat models, with leering rubberneckers ogling scantily dressed women on the stands, are well and truly over.

With the economy slowing and air pollution is at the top of the political agenda, the buzz these days in China is less in the luxury market – although there will be plenty of expensive motors on display in Shanghai – and more focused on new-energy vehicles.

China is the world’s largest market for new-energy vehicles and its “new-energy vehicle” (NEV) classification includes electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars.


Sharp growth

Xu Yanhua, deputy secretary-general of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, forecasts NEV sales this year of 800,000 units, representing year-on-year growth of 60 per cent.

China's passenger car sales grew 8.9 per cent year on year to 1.5 million units in February, driven by the rise of sport-utility vehicles, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association.

Sales of NEVs rose more than 30 per cent to 16,500 units in February, from 5,400 units in January, illustrating just how quickly the market is growing.

Ford is really going after the NEV market and this week is showcasing the Mondeo Energi, a plug-in hybrid which will feature an electric drive range of up to 50km and will be manufactured by its joint venture Changan Ford.

It also announced an all-new fully electric small SUV with an estimated range of more than 450km that it will bring to market within five years and will be sold in North America and Europe, as well as China.

"We are prioritising our electrification efforts in China to reflect its importance as a global electrified vehicle market and to make lives better, simpler and more cost-effective for Chinese consumers," Ford president and chief executive Mark Fields told the China Daily. "The time is right for Ford to expand our electrified car line-up and investments in China."

High-performance Mini

Expect lots of crossovers to make their debuts at Auto China this year, including the Mini John Cooper Works Countryman SE Cooper All4, the high-performance version of the popular crossover from the German-owned British brand.

It’s the most powerful Mini ever, boasting a turbocharged two-litre four-cylinder engine producing 228 horsepower and 258lb ft of torque, which enable it to reach 100km/h in 6.2 seconds from a standing start.

The Countryman JCW is fitted with a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic gearbox.

The Lexus NX luxury compact crossover, which debuted in 2014, has been given a makeover for the Shanghai show, with updated exterior design and interior enhancements that add convenience and functionality, the company says. The debut is scheduled for April 19th.

Skoda is planning to unveil its first NEV, the Vision E, an SUV coupé that has a range of up to 500km on a single charge

Jeep is expected to debut a new hybrid concept, what Chinese media are saying will be something between a Grand Cherokee and a Renegade and falls into the NEV category.

Photos of teasers on China Car News show the classic Jeep grille, with a steeply-angled windscreen, ultra-wide wheel arches, and an all-new D-pillar design.

There is a lot of speculation, but no official confirmation yet, that BMW will bring a tooled-up M4 to Shanghai, with the performance coupé sporting the CS badge.

A production version of Citroen’s Aircross Concept, which debuted at the last Shanghai show two years ago as a concept, will be shown. It’s a spectacular upgrade on the C5 saloon, a family SUV which shares the Peugeot 5008’s DNA.

Among domestic firms, Geely Automobile, which owns Volvo, is set to reveal a crossover known as the "01" at Shanghai, which will be the first vehicle under Lynk & Co brand, aimed at luring younger buyers in China.

The 01 is based on Volvo's compact modular architecture platform and was designed in Sweden. It was previewed as a concept last year.

Skoda is planning to unveil its first NEV, the Vision E, at the show. The Czech carmaker describes it as an SUV coupé that has a range of up to 500km on a single charge, with a top speed of 180km/h.

In a statement, Skoda said the Vision achieves “level 3” standard of autonomous driving, which means it can operate independently in traffic jams, go into autopilot on motorways, stay in lane and swerve, carry out overtaking manoeuvres, independently search for free parking spaces and park and leave parking spaces without driver involvement.

A production model is due in 2020, and hopefully by then there will be some insight into how this will work in China’s chaotic traffic environment.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing