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Car firms unveil Chinese specials

Ford unveiled a three-cylinder mini-SUV and Chrysler showed a dragon-theme Jeep as car makers revealed models designed for Chinese buyers at the Beijing auto show amid tougher competition in the world's biggest vehicle market.

Companies are looking to China to drive revenue amid weakness in the United States and Europe. But explosive sales growth that hit 35% in 2010 fell to just 2% in the first quarter of this year.

Ford premiered the scaled-down EcoSport SUV, designed for "urban adventurers" with a 1-litre engine. It is due to be manufactured at Ford's factory in the south-western city of Chongqing.

The array of vehicles at the show designed with Chinese buyers in mind reflected this market's huge and growing importance to firms that used to sell the same models worldwide with few local changes.

Nissan, Toyota, Audi and China's young but ambitious car makers also used Auto China 2012 to showcase luxury saloons and SUVs with China-specific features.

Chrysler announced it will sell a dragon-themed Jeep, with gold-toned accents and dragon designs on headrests and elsewhere.

"To be successful in China, we must tailor or vehicles to the specific tastes of Chinese customers," said Mike Manley, Chrysler's chief operating officer for Asia.

Japan's Infiniti showed a new luxury saloon with a bigger back seat for Chinese businesspeople. Fiat, trying to rebuild its presence in China after withdrawing in the 1990s, showed the new Viaggio, designed with its local partner Guangdong Automobile to appeal to Chinese buyers.

Chinese car sales growth plunged last year after the government tightened lending and investment curbs to cool an overheated economy and inflation.

China's independent car makers, aiming to move up to higher-priced market segments, showcased luxury saloons and SUVs with more powerful engines, navigation systems and other features to appeal to more prosperous buyers.

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