The hot, and merely lukewarm, models of the Shanghai auto show

Shanghai Motor Show
Shanghai Motor Show

In the late 1980s, there were only 176 cars registered to private individuals in the entire nation of China. Those stats did not include the cavalcades of outmoded Hongqi limousines used to ferry about key Party members, which likely brought the total beyond the three-digit range. Still, contrast this with 2012 when, in what is now the world’s largest automotive market, nearly 20 million vehicles were sold.

That is a significant and rather abrupt increase and has not come without some concomitant (cough) havoc. It is also is nearly one car for every human living in Shanghai, which now ranks as the globe’s most populous city, and is the site of this week’s Chinese Auto Show, an honor it alternates, annually, with Beijing. Having attended the festivities in the capital last year, this sitting was beyond preferable. Alluring, cosmopolitan, and at once fiendishly diverse and monolithically immense, Shanghai is kind of like Haussmann’s plan for Paris, but with every block sprouting brightly illuminated seventy-story erection. In contrast, Beijing is more like 19th century Leeds, but with every block sprouting recalcitrant glandular growths and a rheumy pallor.

We could count about 11,000 constantly moving construction cranes from our perch on the 86th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and similarly ceaseless crowds at the block-square, seven-story Louis Vuitton store across the boulevard. Yet the mood among the American and European and Japanese auto manufacturers was cautiously sober. After a decade or so of ludicrous record-breaking growth, the free-range catbird days are, apparently, over. China, we kept being told, is maturing.


This means different things to different manufacturers.

It means that the ultra-luxury segment is no longer the market’s sole automotive focus, though it continues to churn inexorably toward its imminent position as global leader, as evinced by the ten-deep crush of spectators vying for an opportunity to be prevented from accessing the cordoned stands where the Rolls-Royce Wraith and Bentley Flying Spur made their Chinese debuts.

It means that there is room for a brand like Maserati, which introduces a new car about as often as the Canadians coronate a king, to show two all-new vehicles — its elegantly dilated Quattroporte, and its sharply aggressive E-Class-fighting Ghibli — both part of their China-fueled plan to increase global production ten-fold in the coming years.

It means that Audi can choose, after a quick-peek preview prior to the New York Show, to officially debut a pair of premium and super-premium small sedans, in the handsome, and positively B3 80-echoing A3 and S3.

It means that, based on the government’s ability to craft and enforce autocratic dictates — for worse, and occasionally for the environmentally better —a Lotus Elise-platformed, former Lotus executive-run, Motown-based, alt-power startup like Detroit Electric, can choose to world premiere their carbon fiber-bodied roadster here in the hopes of cashing in on the Party’s green-for-green initiative. Ditto for Porsche and their plug-in Panamera S e-hybrid. And Icona with its audacious Vulcano 950-hp hybrid hypercar.

And it means that there is expansion enough in the needs and tastes of the vast middle of the market that home country manufacturers like Geely, BYD, Brilliance, Lifan, Gaima, and the aptly titled GAC, can move from creating blatantly mimetic rip-offs of iconic exemplars of lifestyle-oriented success like the 2007 Lexus RS and 2007 Mini Cooper, to creating blatantly mimetic rip-offs of iconic exemplars of crisp inanity, like the 2007 Hyundai Sonata.

Here’s what “maturing” doesn’t mean: aging. The youth/car conversation in the West is focused almost exclusively on our Millennials’ auto-averse predisposition for texting-while-remaining-in-virtually-connected-stasis-in-mom’s-basement to the far riskier texting-while-driving. Quite the opposite is true for the kids in the Axis of Sino Evil. Remember the One Child policy of the '70s and '80s? Well, it was effective. But when dealing with 500 million workers of child-bearing age, it still yielded the world’s largest demographic cohort: 250 million only children, now in their 20s and 30s. You may have noticed, without any sense of foreboding, that this is approximately the size of America’s entire population. Except these whippersnappers are all educated, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, employable, and raised up in an era of capitalistic plenty. And they’re hungry for cars.

Nissan is after a meaty chunk of this horde with their Facebook-is-not-available-in-China-taunting Friend-Me concept, which promises to bring these sibling-less youths together with their beloved peers in “a show-offy design that combines a cocoon-like interior with tech-savvy integration, allowing the constant sharing of mobile experiences,” whatever that means. If every picture tells a story, this one’s goes something like this: once upon a time there were some 370Z headlamps, and on their way to the Peach Forest, they met a grille shaped like the Boxster S exhaust outlet, a erratically distended flank that resembles a Leaf stretch limousine, some wheels last seen julienning zucchini on a LaMachine, and a set of Bangle-era BMW 6-series taillights that were bit by a rabid bat and sprouted prehensile wings. We smell a hit!

Mercedes and BMW are gunning for these kids’ lonely aspirational dollars with Sportily Active-ish Vehicles. Benz cocked and shot off the 67th round in its semi-automatic assault on the niche marketplace: a handsomely snouty — and not excessively over-styled, for a change — CLA-based GLA high-rider. We generally hate crossovers, but we were captivated. Likewise for the Bavarians, who played the tree-frog card with an azurely anuran five-door sport-activity coupe-sedan-hatchback thingy: #mce_temp_url#the X4. As with goslings, or baby bok choy, there are times when hitting something hideous with Doctor Shrinker’s ray gun can render it adorable, and the Bimmer folks have proven this by downscaling their ug-duck X6 into this palatable fun-sized treat.

Shanghai auto show
Shanghai auto show

Just to make sure that China’s GenOne-Is-The-Loneliest-Number gets the (text) message, BMW plan to load the driver-centric screens of their vehicles with a network of social network-friendly apps like the Chinese Facebook (Tencent), the Chinese Twitter (Sina Weibo), the Chinese Pandora (Douban) and the Chinese YouTube (Youku). During a tour of these incipient integrations at BMW’s Connected Drive lab in Shanghai’s lovely French Concession district, we asked one of the marque’s tweengineers precisely who would be driving the car while she was raptly scrolling and scrawling networked connectivity upon the touchpaddy iDrive controller. She raised her hand proudly. We almost rolled our eyes and said, “(Chinese) kids today,” but then we remembered that there are 250 million of them, and they function with one communal hive brain, and reconsidered; we don’t fancy that kind of enemy. Also, given the traffic in China, none of them will ever drive faster than 20 kph, so what kind of damage can they really do?

And what of Flint’s strutting Imperial Lion, the formerly dominant Buick? Well, in this ever-maturing market, the brand that has spent the past five years fleeing from its synonymity with maturity made a big noise by unveiling the latest iteration of its ancient Riviera personal luxury yacht concept. It’s not a production-ready car. And it’s not exactly ugly. But while 175 of those 176 privately owned '80s vehicles may have been Buicks, in a marketplace predicated on freshness, this fruit may be a bit over-ripe.