Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shanghai Auto Show

Let me start off by noting that the coolest thing I saw at the show -- by far -- was the new Chevy Camaro. Despite all my travels and time spent abroad, I still bleed red, white and blue.



This being my first ever Auto Show, I was not certain what to expect; however, my experience there completely blew away my minimal expectations. After my second day, I realized that there are actually two different exhibitions going on at the same time: one for the assemblers, and one for the parts suppliers.

The assembler exhibits were all about flash and noise -- an effort to draw attention without any shame. I was amazed at how easy it was for the manufacturers to draw attention to even the homeliest of cars by standing pretty girls next to them.



This Chery QQ, however, was cute enough to pick up and put in your pocket. (I'm talking about the car, not the girl.)


The parts suppliers, on the other hand, were all about business. In some of the temporary exhibition spaces one could find sellers of every conceivable piece of a car from fuel pumps to transmissions to piston rings to interior consoles.

Whereas the assemblers only had a handful of people standing around to answer questions (compared to the throngs standing around their cars), the supplier booths were set up for making deals. The assembler areas were generally so loud that it was impossible to have a conversation. The parts areas were set up specifically for conversations to take place.

So that you don't think I was there only for business, I did manage to see this eye-catching act at the Hawtai Auto Group booth. (They were actually pretty decent musicians too!)


Now for the cars...

There were some interesting concept cars including this Hover H7 from Great Wall


And this one from Ford. I particularly liked the minimalist interior of the new Iosis Max.




Speaking of Ford, among America's Big 3, I was most impressed with Ford's exhibition space. While GM accentuated its very American big cars including Cadillacs and Buicks, Ford's focus (no pun intended) was more on smaller, fuel-efficient and alternative fueled vehicles. Ford's was also the most interactive of all the OEM exhibits with a lot of games of skill and trivia for car buffs.

As for Chrysler, well... I felt bad for them. Their exhibit lacked any imagination. It was a desert motif, which I thought quite appropriate for the times they are going through. They didn't bring any of their muscle cars, only the PT Cruiser (which was attracting some attention) and a bunch of warmed-over Jeep variations.

The Japanese exhibits were, except for the the pretty models they had hired, also pretty boring. Nothing but boring, dependable cars -- the kind of cars you would love to own, but that you wouldn't necessarily run out and brag about to your friends. Though Mazda did have an interesting concept car that looked like a grinning tiger.


The Chinese automakers, on the other hand, had a lot of interesting things to see. Geely, Chery, BYD, Great Wall, Changfeng, Brilliance, Lifan, Shanghai Auto, Changan, Dongfeng, First Auto, Beijing Auto and probably a few others I am forgetting all exhibited their own brands along with those of their JV partners. Here are some of the more interesting models I saw.

This concept from Changfeng

This gull-winged mini-car from Geely with solar cells embedded in the hood

Geely's Rolls Royce knockoff

And just in case you were wondering what "BYD" stands for, it's not Build your Dreams...

And here's a Mercedes-looking convertible from BYD. They're doing more than just plug-in hybrids.

Having seen all of the major Chinese branded offerings, it seems to me that, right now, there are essentially two kinds of Chinese-designed cars: those whose designs are copied from a foreign model, and those with, to put it gently "Chinese characteristics". The original designs, while creative, still lack a certain maturity that we can see in Japanese, American and European brands.

That isn't to say the Chinese brands are ugly, just that many of them do not appeal to my personal taste. While I found many of them interesting, I didn't find many that I would be proud to own and drive. I don't know whether this is a stage that Chinese designers will grow out of, or whether it is simply a difference between Western and Chinese sensibilities that will always exist.

For example, this Geely Tiger concept is hard to look at, but also hard to look away from. I'm not sure what to make of it.

Among the Chinese branded models that I would absolutely drive (based purely on appearance) are Shanghai Auto's Roewe 750 and Chery's Riich A6. Both have a sort of Jaguar/Lexus feel to them, yet they are unique enough not to be mistaken for something else.




And for the academics who have patiently scrolled through the cars to find out whether I gathered any research worthy of note, sorry to disappoint you. I'll cover that in another post.

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Edit: Some may also be interested to see the new four-door Porsche Panamera that debuted at this show. It was impossible to get close enough for a good shot. Fortunately, the Chery exhibit across the way had a raised platform from which to use my zoom lens.