Chinese sales of sport utility vehicles rose by 100 per cent last year.

The aged cyclist wobbles, then stops his bike, as the hulking VW Tiguan squeezes past him down the ancient hutong laneway in downtown Beijing. At the wheel is a 30-something businessman wearing an expensive black T-shirt, gabbing animatedly into a mobile phone.

He continues his drive down the ancient laneway not far from Tiananmen Square, and the lane is lined with other sport utility vehicles (SUVs), the latest must-have accessory for the newly rich Chinese person.

The bicycle long ago gave way to the car in Beijing, but the most visible growth area in the booming auto industry is reserved for the SUVs – the Chaoyang Chariot, if you like, rather than the Chelsea Tractor.

In the television ads, the cars are depicted in overwhelmingly urban environments, as China's suburbs and secondary roads, while they have improved, are not yet ready for the SUV. There are some ads featuring rugged outdoor-loving men driving their SUVs across rugged terrain, but the footage seems to come from the US – China's country roads are a challenge too far for these cars. But whatever they are saying, the ads appear to be working.

According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, there were 1.326 million SUVs sold in China last year, which marks a rise of 101 per cent on the year before. Of the five million cars sold in the first quarter of this year in China, 395,000 were SUVs, a jump of 47 per cent on the previous year.

Imported cars remain prohibitively expensive even for the new rich in China, but a succession of joint-venture car-making projects means that affordable local versions are available. The 10 most popular SUV models in 2010 were all locally produced, and of these, six were foreign brands.

Last year, the Honda CR-V was the biggest seller, moving 140,000 units. The automobile is made at the Dongfeng Honda plant. The Toyota Land Cruiser Prado was the best-selling imported SUV in 2010 with 36,891 units sold. Usually the television ads feature grey or black Hondas or BMWs being driven men in that crucial 25-50 demographic.

Beijinger Yuan Li is 37, and he studied in Japan before setting up a design company, and he loves his grey BMW X6, as does his actress wife.

"I love my SUV, it's big, convenient, and powerful," he said. "I can easily drive it to the countryside, or sometimes I can drive it on road trips far away. Before the SUV came to China, commercial cars were for businessmen. I used to own an Audi A4, but things have changed. You don't need to be a businessman driving a boring business car, you can drive cars with some personality, like an SUV.

"I think SUVs are cooler than normal cars," he added. "They have a double function – you can use it for business meetings and for fun. A lot of young businessmen like me prefer SUVs to ordinary cars, especially at my age. I also love sport cars, but they're a bit too much."

Although owners mention rising petrol prices, the increase in the price of gasoline in China in recent months does not seem to have dampened demand for the gas-guzzling cars. Petrol prices are under government control in China and are kept at levels which are manageable for most motorists.

However, demand is slowing because of a government initiative to cool the car market to help to address pollution and traffic issues. In Beijing, new licence plates are being rationed, which has resulted in the number of new cars being bought slow considerably. This means that the rise in the number of SUVs bought in China this year will probably slow down, but it is still forecast to be around 22 per cent more than the numbers sold last year.

Beijingers are, however, aware of the wider environmental impact of SUVs, and other big cars, and the government has also tried to keep people driving in smaller cars. In 2009, the government blocked Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery's bid to buy the gas-guzzling Hummer SUV on environmental grounds. The state-planning agency was trying to decrease pollution,and Hummer didn't fit with that attempt.

More SUVs with larger emissions will put even greater pressure on the environment. They are large and cumbersome on the roads... an ostentatious display of wealth by the rich through owning socially visible possessions such as a Hummer is just insensitive," ran one commentary on China Economic Net.

"SUVs are a waste of money for many people," it added. "People buy SUVs for their off-road capability. But what's their use when... the city is most of the time just one large parking lot?"

However, the broader feeling remains that now is China's time to own cars such as the luxury SUV. Chinese people do not take particularly kindly to being told to clean up their environmental record by Americans who, they point out, have driven huge gas guzzlers for so long, and indeed continue to do so.

Zhang Hongli, 32, comes from Hubei and is the marketing manager of a publishing company, which prints novels and business books. She owns a white Volkswagen Tiguan. "I just bought the Tiguan two months ago," she said. "I spent a long time thinking about it, and then I decided to go for it. I've loved SUVs for the longest time, they really are so beautiful. I love going out, and owning a SUV makes it convenient for me to go wherever I want, including Tibet."

At the Shanghai Auto Show this year, there were 20 new models of SUV on offer, and some of the world's biggest car companies debuted their marques in Shanghai, such as the GM Envision and the Audi Q3.

Mr Ni, who owns two car shops in Beijing but asked not to have his full name used, said he believes that men just love SUVs – it's that simple.

"Regardless of their age, their job or their interests, they seem to love them," said Mr Ni. "But it is particularly noticeable among young men between the age of 30 and 50, who once they start getting a bit of success in their career, and can afford to buy a car, either for business or pleasure, they opt for SUVs," he explained, adding that the typical purchasers are men who "like to spend their weekends out of town".

Car ownership is a potent symbol of China's expanding wealth, and the country overtook the United States as the world's biggest auto market two years ago. Time was that only a very few people had cars, and bikes ruled the streets. As late as 1985, the country produced a total of only 5,200 cars.

The Porsche Cayenne SUV seems to be popular with government officials. Although the cars have no specific markings, different groups have different licence plates in China – foreigners for example, have black plates – and so you can identify official officials by their plates. Many of the Cayennes you see on the streets seem to be official cars or those belonging to civil servants. Beijing police have a fairly large fleet of domestically produced Landwinds, though these are marked as police cars.

Jia Xinguang researches the car market in China. For him, the SUV has been a game-changer in China, altering the culture. Despite the strong rise in wealth in the country, there is still an aversion to being seen to be flashing your riches around, but an SUV still has a practical application in people's minds, which means it does not mark you out as a "flash geezer". "You can buy an SUV here and people do not think of you negatively as a rich man," said Jia. "This is an important difference."

Homegrown SUVs, which retail for around 100,000 yuan – or £10,000 – and are proving particularly popular. Car analyst Zhong Shi believes the cheaper SUVs have fed into a strong aspirational need in the new China.

"People love these cars, envy these cars, but can't afford them," said Zhong. "So when the cheaper SUVs appeared, they fed this desire. They have a similar appearance, but are much different in terms of quality.

"It's like the way a lot of people buy those fake luxury-brand items," he added. "Anyway, it's a clever move by the local producers, finding this market space, and this is why the SUV market has been so hot in recent years."

The next step is to start exporting Chinese SUVs. Although the Chinese brands have struggled in safety and quality tests, Chinese manufacturers are quick learners.

Landwind is eyeing the British market, and Great Wall has Britain firmly in its sights, and it plans to enter the US market by 2015, Great Wall's chief executive, Wang Fengying, recently told Automotive News China. "We are in the process of implementing the plan," she said, and the group plans to launch its Haval brand there. The group has already spoken to a number of distributors and the company already sells vehicles in Australia, Italy and a number of emerging markets.

None of which is particularly good news for Britain's cyclists.

China's top-selling SUVs

1. Honda CR-V

2. Great Wall Haval H

3. Toyota RAV4

4. Toyota Highlander

5. Hawtai-Hyundai Santa Fe

6. VW Tiguan

7. Zotye 5008

8. Kia Sportage

9. Chery Tiggo

10. Hyundai ix35

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