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Luxury market shines for car makers

CHINA'S luxury car market remains a beacon of hope for international car makers although sales growth may be much slower this year because of the global financial crisis.

Premier car makers, including Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and BMW, are continuing their expansion in China with almost simultaneous launches for new models at the beginning of this year.

Despite the global financial crunch, "we believe China remains one of the countries that have the most growth potential," Shoju Nozaki, executive vice president of Toyota China, said yesterday.

The premier car market in China used to grow 30 percent year on year but could not be shielded from the global financial crisis as even well-heeled consumers began belt-tightening. The weaker demand was also because of higher taxes on large-engine vehicles which meant a price surge for imported luxury vehicles.

Figures from the consultancy Automotive Resources Asia showed market growth slowed to 15 percent for the first 11 months last year.

Most analysts forecast the downturn will continue for the first half of this year.

"We still expect growth for the Chinese market this year, and we are sure the government stimulus package will have a positive impact especially in the second quarter," said Klaus Maier, president and chief executive officer of Mercedes-Benz (China) Ltd. "The increase in the premier car segment will be double-digit, compared to the 6 to 10-percent growth for the overall passenger car market."

Last year, sales of Mercedes-Benz models, both locally made and imported, in Chinese mainland jumped 44 percent to 38,700 units from a year earlier, after 12 new models were launched.

Godfrey Tsang, vice president of Toyota China in charge of the Lexus brand, was also confident about the growing momentum of the Chinese market in the long term.

Lexus achieved international sales of 435,000 units last year, a sharp decline from a year earlier. But sales in China bucked the trend with a 30-percent jump, helping the country pass Japan to be the second-biggest market for Lexus for the first time, after the United States, Tsang said. He estimated the overall luxury car market in China would grow 3 to 5 percent this year.

Banking on the Chinese market, luxury car makers are pushing new models and expanding dealerships in the country.

Lexus added the Lexus GS450h sedan to its portfolio in China yesterday to match the trend to fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly models. It is the third hybrid sedan brought to China after the RX400h and LS600hL. The B-class compact multi-purpose vehicle from Mercedes-Benz is expected to help that car maker extend to the lower luxury car segment.


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