Low-priced Chinese cars quietly gain a foothold in Europe
PALAZZOLO SULL'OGLIO, Italy - They have names like the Brilliance BS6, the Landwind Fashion, or the improbable Hover Wingle, and though these sedans, vans, and sport utility vehicles are hardly as familiar to Europeans as, say, a
"I've got air conditioning, ABS brakes, and air bags," said Carlo Scalvini, describing his Hover, a big and boxy sport utility vehicle built by the Great Wall Motor Co., with headquarters in Baoding in eastern China. "And the price is competitive: You pay 10,000 euros less in the end," more than $13,000.
The enthusiasm of people like Scalvini could influence the global auto industry and China's place in it. China's quiet inroads into Europe are the first test of rich markets by Chinese automakers as they build dealer networks and deliver small shipments of cars to test the reaction of drivers and auto industry experts.
Many of the dealers who have signed on with the Chinese previously worked with the Japanese and the South Koreans, and so have experience in coaxing Europeans to purchase cars with unfamiliar names and unusual looks, but sweet prices.
If business is starting fitfully, they foresee healthy profits down the road, aided by the weak dollar. European car dealers pay in dollars for the Chinese cars, yet are paid in strong euros when they resell them, pocketing nifty profits from exchange rates.
"The game the Japanese mastered in 15 years, and the Koreans in 10," said Nigel Griffiths, director of European light vehicle forecasting at Global Insight, "they will do in 18 months to five years."
Paradoxically, the Chinese have been helped in Europe by their alliances with Western automakers in China. Some of the Chinese cars being imported into European countries use electrical components from Bosch, the big German parts supplier, or have been designed by Italian firms like Giugiaro. Now, the Europeans are seeing their ideas and components flow back into their own markets.
That the European market is essentially open is also helping the Chinese. Because so many European cars are now being built elsewhere, a quota on imports is politically almost impossible.
There have been setbacks, like abysmal results on a crash test done on a Chinese car two years ago. Some specialists are skeptical that the Chinese can become major competitors in Europe and the United States. After all, car buying remains an emotional business. "There is a general lack of brand awareness, and distribution is a hurdle," said Michael K. McKenzie, a China expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers' automotive institute in Detroit.
But the Japanese and South Koreans overcame similar hurdles. Moreover, the Chinese are moving in several stages. "They are coming through the back door: first Russia, then working their way west," Griffiths of Global Insight said. He estimates that China will sell 54,000 cars in Russia this year, out of a total market of 2 million, compared with 31,000 last year.
The Chinese are arriving even as European carmakers struggle with flat prices and diminishing profit, and the Chinese presence is expected to ratchet up the pressure. That will force some European companies that stayed in the mass market for small cars, like
It began when a Dutch
Then, at about the time of the Frankfurt show, the German automobile club, known as ADAC, put the New Vision to a crash test. The driver's survival chances were about nil, the club's testers said.
Bijvelds' Chinese partners were dismayed. The New Vision was put on hold, while Landwind ironed out the kinks. A successor model, the Landwind Expedition, has a comely design by an Italian design studio, a German-built engine and all European safety features.
Bijvelds suggested that the automobile club might have been prompted by German automakers to undermine his project. A club spokesman, Maximilian Maurer, denied that. "I am sure that in time the Chinese will succeed here," he said, "and the ADAC doesn't want to keep them away. We simply want to inform consumers about the quality of these cars."
Bijvelds, 28, receiving a visitor at the headquarters of his Landwind Motor Corp. near Antwerp, Belgium, said, "We get so many products from China with Western brands, why not cars?" Europeans, he says, are after value for money, citing Renault's recent bonanza with the Logan, a car built in Romania that has a six-month waiting time for delivery in Belgium. "They want a lot of car for a little money," he said.
The German crash test, a colleague told him recently, may have been a blessing in disguise. "Now everybody knows you," the friend said, "For good or bad, they know you."
In Germany, Hans-Ulrich Sachs, a former Volkswagen executive who is chairman of HSO Motors Europe, is signing on dealers to sell the Brilliance BS6, a comfortable sedan with a vague resemblance to a midsize BMW. Indeed, Brilliance assembles BMW's 3 and 5 series cars for the domestic Chinese market.
By the end of this year, Sachs, 54, wants 150 showrooms in Germany, and by next year, 1,100 throughout Europe. This year, he hopes to sell 6,000 to 7,000 cars. The first 500 arrived in mid-March.
Why would a German buy a Chinese car? he asked rhetorically. "Value for the money."
For Europe's carmakers, alliances with Chinese companies could become two-edged affairs, providing models that one day may well compete against their own cars. Volkswagen, for instance, has joint ventures with Shanghai Automotive and First Auto Works. Yet Kai Grueber, spokesman for the Volkswagen Group China, played down the potential for competition, saying that VW was focused for now on the domestic Chinese market. "Future exports into the Southeast Asian area are conceivable in markets where we can expand our offering with new models," he said.
At Eurasia Motor here in Palazzolo, about 35 miles northeast of Milan, where Scalvini bought his SUV, a shipment of 360 arrived in November, and have all been sold through a network of 95 Italian dealers. "We're now expecting 800 more, in lots of 200 each, of the same model," said Federico Daffi, Eurasia's chief financial officer. Eurasia pays Great Wall $14,000 for the SUVs, and sells them for as little as 19,600 euros (about $27,000), still one-fourth below the South Korean competition. Eurasia then uses the lower price to market to middle-class families who until now could not afford an SUV.
Scalvini, 44, would buy more Hovers now, if they were available. He is the owner of Consorzio Vela, a company that employs about 800 people and maintains a large fleet of vehicles supplying services like delivery and catering to other Italian companies.
"I'm convinced it will be a winner," he said.