Sean O'Grady: China is putting on the glitz

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Indy Lifestyle Online

As you've no doubt noticed, there's a lot of excitement these days about China's emerging auto industry – quite rightly, considering that it will soon overtake the United States as the world's largest market, and that by the end of this decade China will produce one in every 10 cars made in the world.

The articles in this issue of Motoring shed light on a couple of aspects of the phenomenon. First, there's the way Chinese companies are starting to look acquisitively at Western brands, such as MG, so fixing their lack of heritage and name recognition. Second, we meet the new breed of Chinese car tycoon – the Henry Fords, William Morrises and André Citroëns of our times, you might even say.

I have to admit, though, that during a recent visit to Zhejiang province in eastern China, I spent rather too much time just car-spotting. Some folk, I know, would devote their spare time on such a trip to studying Confucianism or going on a panda safari or searching for rare bird species. Not me; I was watching what the Chinese drove and how they drove them. Equally fascinating, I should say.

The default car on the roads of this economic powerhouse is a 1984 Volkswagen Santana, which has been manufactured under licence for some years by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. The model has undergone a few face-lifts and been re-badged successively as the Santana 2000 and Santana 3000, all done with a degree of style.

Tellingly, the priority on the latter redesign was to give the car a much higher, bigger boot. This is also what the Chinese have done to their versions of the Rover 75 (also a Shanghai product) and the near-identical MG 7 (formerly MG ZT) made by Nanjing (see report on this page). Cabbies love Santanas, as they do a chromed-up version of the 1982 Audi 100, also still made under licence (I think by Red Flag).

Indeed, plonking boots on the back of what were originally hatchbacks seems quite a Chinese fetish. I admit, however, that American and eastern and southern European buyers also seem to favour such designs, so maybe it's not that strange.

What is odd is seeing a Honda Jazz with a big tail tacked on the end. They've done much the same to other locally built products with foreign joint-venture partners; you'll see Citroë* ZXs so refashioned, as well as a newer, more modern product from the same company, named C-Triomphe, which looks like a C5 with a proper boot. They've even got a Peugeot 307 with a boot, which looks truly ungainly.

Mind you, perhaps one day the Chinese will be such big players that they'll be looking at how to re-engineer their booted cars into hatches for those funny Europeans – that is, when they've quit making blatant copies such as Chery's QQ, a ripped-off Daewoo Matiz).

The other key to automotive success in China is to put on the glitz. The more upfront and chromey and full-sized the look, the more it appeals. Past master Hyundai benefits greatly from this, but so do Audi, Buick, Bentley and China Brilliance.

So there you are, all lovingly recorded in my car-spotting notebook – my own great haul of China.

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