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Chinese storm the US

Mon, 14 Jan 2008

By Liz Turner

Motor Industry

14 January 2008 21:31

Two years ago, the Chinese manufacturer, Geely, parked a single saloon in the foyer of the Cobo Exhibition Centre for the auto show press day. This year five Chinese manufacturers are presenting their wares, and all have ambitions to start selling them here. Some are seeking co-operative deals with established companies, but none want the role taken by Chery, producing cars designed and engineered by Chrysler. They want to be the major partner.

Geely’s 2008 display included a wide variety of cars including a version of the London Taxi called the Huapu Business car. Vice president Jie Zhao (‘call me George’) told CAR that Geely is in Detroit to listen. ‘We want to understand what US customers want, and we get feedback from other companies.’ He insisted, however, that the company is not looking for a partner.

Rival firm Changfeng has worked with Mitsubishi since 2002 making a version of the Pajero/Shogun. The company unveiled an SUV and a chubby small MPV, and chairman Li said he hoped US visitors would be impressed by his company’s technology and safety.

BYD, or Build Your Dream started as a battery company, supplying the likes of Nokia and Motorola, but it bought Tsinchuan Automobile five years ago, and is using its expertise in batteries to produce electric vehicles and hybrids. A spokesman claimed that the company has had approaches from BMW and Peugeot to buy its technology, but is not selling.

Chamco hopes to sell Chinese cars in the US by 2009. Its CEO is Steve Saleen, better known for hot Mustangs, and he’s here seeking US and Canadian dealers to sell an SUV and pick-up. The company already has 70 of the 150 US dealers it wants and is seeking 40 each in Canada and Mexico. These guys mean business: the vehicles will be priced at least 20 percent below equivalent Detroit metal.

All the Chinese models on show at the Cobo exhibition centre this year are well behind the competition in quality and styling (despite the input of Italian styling houses). US safety and emissions regulations also form a big hurdle, but there’s no room for complacency.

In America, where public transport is frequently non-existent, poor people need a car to get a job or buy food. As the Korean car makers have gone upmarket, they’ve left a hole at the bottom begging to be filled. The Chinese are surely about to fill that gap.

They say: ‘We’re at Detroit to listen to the market’
We say: If only Detroit listened to its customers better
CAR verdict: 4/5

By Liz Turner