Carmakers set to battle for Chinese consumers


Global carmarkers will pull out all the stops at the upcoming Beijing auto show as they battle to win over Chinese consumers in the fiercely competitive market.

The Beijing auto show - the largest car show in the world's biggest car market - opens to the public on Monday. International and domestic automakers will display 1,134 vehicles, with 118 new models making their global debut, according to the auto show's official website.

"International automakers are strengthening the models they have on offer in China with a specific focus on heightening their high-end premium models on offer in a bid to create greater brand loyalty and attract consumers away from other brands," Namrita Chow, senior analyst at IHS Automotive wrote in a note.

Japanese automakers eye lost ground

Japanese automakers in particular will be raising their game as they attempt to regain market share lost in 2012, when territorial disputes over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea led to a steep sales drop for their brands in the mainland, IHS said.

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The collective Japanese share of China's passenger car market fell to 16.6 percent in 2013 from 23 percent in 2011, according to LMC Automotive.

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"Nissan, Toyota, and Honda are strengthening their premium brand (Infiniti, Lexus, and Acura) lineups in China as well as planning local production in the country," Chow said.

Lexus, the premium line from Toyota, for instance, will debut its new its new luxury compact crossover, the Lexus NX - its first foray into the fast growing segment. A compact crossover is a sport-utility vehicle (SUV) built on a small-car platform. The model is expected to set the tone for future Lexus models that are expected to be produced in China, said IHS.

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The Lexus RC-F Coupe will also be shown alongside the NX, giving Chinese customers greater exposure to models under the premium line.

Tapping high-end demand

Other international brands will follow a similar strategy, with Ford set to showing off its Lincoln lineup, which will be officially introduced to China this year, and General Motors (GM) strengthening its Cadillac presence in China.

"Brand penetration in China is becoming increasingly important for automakers, as Chinese consumers tend to rely on friends and family to recommend models and brands," Chow said.

GM is in the process of building a Cadillac factory near Shanghai as part of efforts to expand its share of China's luxury auto market that is currently dominated by brands such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes. The company has a target to triple Cadillac's annual sales in China to 100,000 units by the end of 2015.

Restrictions to slow sales growth

While passenger vehicles sales are seen slowing in China over the coming years as more cities impose purchase restrictions and implement measures to combat pollution, the mainland continues to hold significant potential for automakers given the sheer size of the market.

Major Chinese cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Guiyang have imposed curbs on car sales through the combination of a lottery system and an auction to limit the number of car plates issued. More cities are expected to follow suit.

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Last year, new vehicle sales jumped 13.9 percent to 21.98 million units - roughly one quarter of sales worldwide. This year, new auto sales are expected to reach some 24 million units, up around 10 percent from 2013, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.