Chinese tastes dictate global vehicle design
General Motors, which conceived the Chevrolet Sail in Shanghai, will offer the sedan in India this year, and already sells it in Chile, Ecuador and Algeria.
Last month, BMW and Mercedes-Benz began exporting stretch versions of their made-in-China luxury sedans to the Middle East and South America.
"In the future, what is made for the Chinese will also be made for the world," said Burt Wong, chief production designer at the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center in Shanghai, the r&d joint venture between GM and its Chinese partner SAIC Motor Corp.
Catering to consumer demands may help GM gain share in China, where it already sells more vehicles than any other foreign carmaker.
For China, increasing exports alleviates excess capacity that Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd. forecasts will probably worsen through 2015. China exported 814,300 vehicles last year, an increase of 49 percent from 2010, the country's automakers association said.
China's influence on automotive design will increase with its share of the global market for light vehicle sales, projected by LMC Automotive to reach 29 percent by 2016.
Automakers sold a combined 18.5 million vehicles in the country last year, compared with 12.8 million U.S. light-vehicle deliveries, according to the Chinese auto association and Autodata Corp. China's car ownership at 60 vehicles per 1,000 people is still less than half the world average, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
"Anyone with a clear mind would say China is the next place where should we develop our next vehicles for," said Michael Dunne, president of the eponymous industry researcher based in Hong Kong. "It's inevitable. China is the biggest market in the world, it's profitable and growing."
Drivers in China like to offer rides to friends and family, making second-row comfort essential, Wong said in an interview at the GM research center, housed in a white-walled building about an hour from central Shanghai. GM engineers in China studied the issue and decided to reposition the Chevrolet Sail's fuel tank, compared to other cars, to ensure a roomier back seat.
Designed in Shanghai
The Sail was Chevrolet's second-best selling model in China last year after the Cruze, attracting 166,693 buyers. GM also plans to sell in India a localized version of an eight-seat multipurpose van that was designed for China, it said this month.
In the past, Detroit-based GM had brought models designed for the North American market and adapted them to Chinese needs, Wong said. Now, the center cooperates with Michigan colleagues as early as four years in advance on new and refreshed car designs, he said.
Detroit and Shanghai-based engineers worked together to design the 2010 Buick Lacrosse, with the Chinese center taking the lead in interior design. The Shanghai center, which employs about 2,000 staff, is currently developing a new sport-utility vehicle for global introduction, Wong said.
Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and its Chinese partner Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co. last month started exporting its Long-wheelbase version of the E-Class sedan, said Arnd Minne, Daimler's Beijing-based spokesman, declining to give more details.
The China-made luxury sedan gives rear-seat passengers 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) more legroom than the standard version sold in the U.S. and caters to demand for chauffeur-driven buyers.
Long-wheelbase luxury sedans are likely to be popular in the Middle East because many of these customers are chauffeured, said Andrew Thomson, Hong Kong-based co-head of Automotive at KPMG China.
BMW AG began exporting the long-wheelbase 5-Series sedans assembled at its factory in northeastern China last month, said Lisa Ng, senior vice president at Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd., BMW's Chinese partner.
The cars will be sold in the Middle East as part of a long-term strategy to show overseas consumers that made-in-China cars are reliable, Wu Xiaoan, chairman at Brilliance, said last August. The company declined to provide more specific details.
Buyers of Volkswagen AG's New Passat sedan in China get blue-and-orange light-emitting diode front lights and Taoist Yin Yang designs on speaker covers, features that aren't available in the model sold in North America, said Andreas Hoffbauer, the company's Beijing-based spokesman.
Ford Motor Co., which along with GM posted record 2011 China sales, is adapting its in-car entertainment, navigation and emergency systems to respond to Mandarin commands in a variety of local accents.
"Ultimately, China's status as the auto industry's biggest customer would make focusing on their design requirements impossible to ignore," said Alice Leung, Hong Kong-based deputy head of research at ICBC International Research Ltd.