China’s need for speed ‘drives global car market’

A woman rides her bicycle past a Mercedes Benz at a cross roads in Beijing on August 5, 2014

By Tangi Quemener

Young, rich and hungry for speed: a new generation of Chinese drivers is reshaping the global market with their taste for powerful cars, according to a study released on Wednesday.

Asia and particularly China, the world’s second-largest economy, have long been a key market for global automobile manufacturers as they seek to make up for weak demand in the US and Europe.

But a study of 14 countries by French think-tank Cetelem found that Chinese consumers were also set apart by their attitudes to cars, which wealthy young buyers see as an important status symbol.

“Ninety-four percent of Chinese told us that a car is a sign of modernity,” Cetelem head Flavien Neuvy told AFP a week ahead of a major industry conference in Paris.

Chinese buyers see power and safety as the most important factors for choosing a vehicle, he said. In contrast, in 12 of the 13 other countries surveyed buyers looked first at the price of a car and then its fuel consumption.

Already the world’s largest car market, China has become a key focus for major brands such as US giant General Motors and Germany’s Volkswagen, which dominate the market through local partnerships.

Low ownership rates of around 69 cars per 1,000 people, compared to 770 per 1,000 in the United States, the world’s number-two market, also mean it is set to be a key driver for growth in the coming decade.

“In 2005, they were 17 per 1000 and by 2020, they will be 184. In 15 years, they have multiplied the pool per capita by 10,” said Neuvy.

“The potential is considerable for all emerging markets, which is good news for all manufacturers.”

China’s car buyers are also much younger than in other countries — on average 35, compared to 52 in the US and 54 in France — and much less likely to be “patriotic” in their tastes.

Whereas more than half of drivers in auto manufacturing hubs such as France and Germany prefer national brands, rising to 94 percent in Japan, in China only around a quarter of buyers shop at home.

Chinese also spend more of their budget on buying and operating their car: 19 percent of consumer spending is devoted to vehicles, compared to around 11 percent in France and Germany and 16 percent in the US.

Cars also cost more compared to salaries in other major markets. Buying a new Volkswagen Golf in China is equal to five years of wages, 13 times as much as in the US.

“Americans spend a lot, including operating costs. Fuel prices are lower, but they have bigger cars that cost more in maintenance and they drive a lot,” said Neuvy.