Updated: April 22, 2010 3:14 AM | By Joe Mcdonald, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS--, cp.org

Automakers showcase ambitions for China, 'green' vehicles at Beijing auto show



BEIJING - Automakers plan to unveil dozens of new models at the Beijing auto show this weekend as foreign producers look to surging China to drive slack global sales and local brands try to raise their profile following Geely's purchase of Volvo.

The show has quickly become a premier global event as explosive sales growth propelled China, a country with almost no private cars 15 years ago, past the United States in 2009 to become the world's top auto market.

Major producers that used to reserve vehicle launches for U.S. or European auto shows plan to debut 14 new models at Auto China 2010, according to organizers. Chinese manufacturers plan to show 75 new sedans, SUVs, experimental "green" cars and other vehicles. The event opens to auto writers Friday and to the public on Tuesday.

"Auto China has grown to be one of the biggest and most important auto shows of the year, joining Detroit, Tokyo and Paris," said Trevor Hale, a spokesman for Daimler AG.

The reason: China's buoyant auto market shrugged off the global crisis and sales soared by an eye-popping 45 per cent last year to 13.6 million vehicles, well ahead of the 10.5 million units sold in the United States. The expansion accelerated this year, when sales jumped by 63 per cent in the first quarter.

"The growth is phenomenal," said John Bonnell, a J.D. Power analyst.

Sales have been boosted by China's economic rebound, which saw growth accelerate to 11.9 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Bonnell said this year's auto sales growth will ease but still should be strong as Beijing winds down its stimulus and cools bank lending to curb inflation pressures.

Global automakers are looking China as a commercial lifeline amid weak global demand and are more ambitious than ever at this year's Beijing show.

Among the weekend's planned debuts: General Motors Co.'s all-electric Volt MPV5 concept car and a Chinese-made GM minivan and a compact sedan. Daimler is showing its latest ultra-luxury Maybach sedan and an E-Class sedan designed for China with a bigger back seat for customers who have drivers and ride in back.

GM says its China sales jumped 68 per cent in March from a year earlier and this year's sales should top 2 million vehicles, four years ahead of schedule. By contrast, GM's U.S. sales last year plunged 30 per cent to 2.1 million vehicles. The president of GM China, Kevin Wale, said last month GM will "put as much energy as we can" into China.

GM has said it expects the number of Chinese families that can afford a car to mushroom to 75 million in 2015 from 10 million in 2005.

Toyota Motor Corp. says it will display 50 vehicles including its latest gas-electric Prius hybrid and an electric concept car. Toyota's image has taken a beating abroad over safety complaints but sales in China, where only a few thousand vehicles were recalled, have suffered little impact.

"By participating at this level, Toyota is expressing its highest degree of attention to this auto show and the Chinese market," said a company statement.

China's fledgling automakers are showcasing their ambitions to expand into global markets.

Geely Holding Group, a 13-year-old brand barely known abroad before it agreed in March to buy Sweden's Volvo Cars from Ford Motor Co. for $1.8 billion, is showing 55 of its own models, including 11 new vehicles.

Geely says it hopes to boost sales this year by 22 per cent over 2009 to 400,000 units.

"We will highlight our technical edges in driving safe, green performance as well as energy efficiency," the company said in a statement.

Other Chinese producers plan to unveil a total of 64 new models, according to organizers.

They include Chery Automobile Co., China's biggest domestic auto brand, and BYD Co., with backing from American investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns a 9.9 per cent stake.

Chery plans to show 29 vehicles and is bringing in 200 sales agents from foreign markets to see its latest models, said Jin Yibo, a spokesman for the automaker. Chery exports to some 70 developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

"We basically want to show our progress over the years including technical innovation," Jin said. "We also are moving up to high-end brand image."

Chery's sales target for this year is 700,000 vehicles, with exports doubling to 100,000, according to Jin.

A key theme for many automakers this year is clean transportation, including cars and buses driven by fuel cells, natural gas and other alternative power sources.

Beijing sees alternative vehicles as the auto industry's future and is pushing its own manufacturers to develop technology, though industry analysts say China's market is likely to be dominated by gasoline engines for the foreseeable future.

BYD plans to show the e6, an all-electric five-seater the company wants to sell in North America this year. Plans call for doubling BYD's total sales this year to 800,000 vehicles and expanding to Europe in 2011.

BYD says the e6 has a top speed of 140 km/h and can travel up to 330 kilometres on a single charge.

"Our theme at the show will remain focused on green, environmentally friendly and renewable energy," said a BYD spokesman, Paul Lin.

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