At the Shanghai Auto Show, China Slows Its Roll

Brett Berk
·Contributing Editor, Autos
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[Dancers unveil a Luxgen sedan at the Shanghai motor show. Photo: AP]

We attended the previous Shanghai Auto Show just two years ago. But when we arrived at the convention center this week for 2015 press preview, we found the location eerily unfamiliar. That was because, in the intervening time, the world’s most populous city in the world’s largest car market had built a brand new venue. And not just any venue: a cloverleafed cluster with a central atrium the size of Madison Square Garden and one million square meters of exhibition space.

This is how quickly things change in China. And that includes the automotive market. This is our third Chinese motor show, and things are markedly different even from last time, when we announced that the market had matured. We spotted two major trends in the new vehicles introduced at the show, and both indicate Chinese car consumers’ desire to shed their stereotypical image as chrome conscious and smog spewing.

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[Photo: Reuters]

The first fad is the literal and figurative contraction in the ultra-luxury market. With a relative slowdown in urbanization, and thus the building and real estate sectors — the source of financial windfalls for 80% of China’s high net worth individuals — cash flow is down. Bentley executive Kevin Rose told us that this year’s sales figures for high end cars were not only missing projections of double-digit growth, but were actually expected to dip by about 25%. Now, these high-end customers, we were told by Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson, are looking for “more modest luxury. Not something that is simply showing off, but something that is aligned with their values.” (Whatever those are.)

Perhaps this downturn explains Maybach’s local strategy. In 2013, well after the brand had died everywhere else in the world, it was still peddling its profligate 62S luxo-barge in Shanghai. But at the display this year, the featured vehicle was the “entry level” Mercedes-Benz Maybach S400 sedan, which is like the twin-turbo V-12 S600, but with half the engine missing. This kind of downsizing ruled at McLaren as well. While they’d just shown an “entry-level” $180,000 sports car, the 570S in New York, they unveiled the even more “discount” $165,000 540C in China.

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Though it’s an, ahem, stretch, we even might be able to make a case for inclusion in this shrinking market of the Aston Martin Lagonda. Shown in Shanghai to accompany an announcement of its planned distribution in China, the bespoke $500,000 sedan is neither subtle nor downmarket. But its projected sales numbers in China are very modest, and thus very realistic. “Remember,” Aston’s head of Design Marek Reichman told us on their stand, “we’re talking about sending just a very small number of cars here. We’re only selling 200 total. Globally.”  

The second trend was in electric powered luxury SUVs, which were everywhere in evidence. The reason behind this was twofold. Bentley’s Kevin Rose told us that younger and more cautious and image conscious luxury buyers were moving away from big flashy sedans and toward more restrained crossovers. And Lars Danielson, Volvo’s Senior Vice President of the Asia Region, explained to us that there was “strong support and subsidies, nationally and locally” for consumers to purchase EVs.

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[Qoros PHEV 2 Concept]

We thus witnessed the introduction of myriad plug-in hybrid pavement prowlers, including the BMW X5 xDrive40e, the Audi Q7 E-Tron Gas/Hybrid and the Volvo XC90 Elegance Hybrid. Raising our spirits unexpectedly was the Qoros PHEV 2 Concept, an audacious crossover that looked like a shrunken and jacked up Cadillac Ciel, topped with a blocky brise soleil ripped off Edward Durell Stone’s glamorous mid-mod Manhattan townhouse. 

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[Audi Prologue Allroad Concept]

Tied for favorite was the long, high-riding, gasoline/hybrid Audi Prologue Allroad Concept with its distended profile that echoed the brand’s 5000S Avant of the 1980s. It was sterile and derivative, but it had an appealing artificial purity, like the air in our hotel, or a Blade Runner replicant.

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[Chevrolet FNR Concept]

Additional, non SUV electrics were also present in the Cadillac CT6 Hybrid which housed a big battery pack behind its back seat, good enough for a claimed 60 km of electric-only range, the predictably reserved (but thrillingly turbine wheeled) Audi A6 E-Tron Hybrid, sedan, the outrageous 493-hp Peugeot 308 R Hybrid hot hatch, and perhaps in a category all its own, the autonomous, all-electric Chevrolet FNR Concept, which we’ve already discussed in a separate article, but which remains indescribable.

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If all of this category shifting is to be believed, then Volvo was perhaps the brand most on trend. This makes sense, since they’re now a wholly owned subsidiary of Geely, a home market Chinese automaker, providing them with unique insight into this complex and capricious market. Their XC90 Elegance Lounge Concept hit all the marks. Not only did it provide a restrained yet exclusive hybrid SUV experience, it did so in a way that, according to Volvo CEO Samuelsson, “moved away from a very bling-bling luxury and toward a Volvo kind of luxury.” This was best illustrated in the extremely coddling interior, which did away with the front passenger seat, replacing it with a wood, leather, and machined metal console that was a combination foot rest, jewelry box, shoe holster, and flat-screen infotainment armature. In action, it looked like a robot vacuum cleaner, albeit one that was decidedly Scandinavian: less Jetson and more Jensen.  

So that you don’t click away from this piece concerned for the flailing fate of China’s economy, Bentley’s Kevin Rose reminded us that last year’s “slow” growth there still meant a 6% increase in the nation’s gross domestic product. “That means adding all of Turkey,” he said, “which is the world’s seventeenth largest economy.”

Speaking of turkeys, we have to give the award for the show’s most off-trend launch to the Lincoln Continental Concept. Lincoln is attempting to make major inroads into the Chinese market, seemingly as a plan for dispensing with a surfeit of cars no one wants anywhere else in the world. But if this is its best effort, we would like to inform the faded brand that it is encompassing every possible outmoded notion of the Chinese market: drooling chrome, inflated scale, mimetic styling, and button-tufted baroque interior materials. The market changes quickly here, so maybe by the time they release this tarted up Taurus, desires will have morphed again, and retro Rococo will rage. We’d be more likely to bet on the proliferation of fleets of networked FNRs.