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Vroom, vroom as luxury car makers smell high sales

ZHANG Qian loves luxury cars and he has the means to afford these expensive toys. The 30-something owner of a toy factory in Wuxi in Zhejiang Province drives a BMW 745Li and also owns a Bentley luxury sedan. Last week he was among the 600,000 car enthusiasts who attended the Auto Shanghai 2009.

"I am interested in Porsche's Panamera, a four-seat sports car that offers both driving pleasure and a spacious interior for my family," said Zhang, "I wanted to have a closer look at it and see if I might have the opportunity for a test drive."

The global financial crisis has taken its toll on the auto industry worldwide and on the revenues of Chinese exporters like Zhang, but wealth hasn't disappeared completely and neither has the dream of getting behind the wheel of a luxury vehicle.

That is a heartening sign for Porsche, Rolls-Royce and other high-end auto makers who are banking on sustained China sales.

Crisis impact less

"Although China has been impacted by the economic slowdown, generally speaking, the effects have been less spectacular than in the traditionally largest markets for luxury car makers, in particular in the United States and Europe," said Klaus Paur, regional director of the automotive division at TNS China, a consulting firm.

"Signs of recovery can already be seen (in China), while the mature markets appear to be taking much longer to recover," he said. "The commitment to China is a long-term investment into the future."

Indeed, the Shanghai Auto Show highlighted that trend, with several premium and luxury brands on display, some making their Asian or even world debuts. The gloom of the economic downturn took a backseat to a market that's still showing relatively strong revving power.

Porsche AG chose the Shanghai show for the world premiere of its first four-door grand tourer, the Porsche Panamera. The debut of the sports car was postponed at the Geneva Auto Show, and Klaus Berning, executive vice president in charge of Porsche sales and marketing, said it was the first time in the company's history that a new model was being introduced outside Europe or North America.

"Although in operating terms we are set up better than many other manufacturers, we too feel the global slump in demand," Berning said at the launch ceremony on the 97th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center. "China is a significant growth market for Porsche."

Last year, Porsche delivered 7,600 vehicles to the Chinese mainland, a jump of 145 percent from a year earlier, and compared to around 400 units in 2004.

The Panamera would be Porsche's fourth product series in addition to the existing 911, Boxster-Cayman and Cayenne. The German car maker is expected to sell the model between 1.85 million yuan (US$270,468) and 2.5 million yuan, depending on engine options, when it hits the Chinese market in the fourth quarter of this year.

Berning said Porsche expects about a third of its forecast 20,000 Panamera sales a year to come from China and the rest of Asia.

Ferrari is equally optimistic about the Chinese market. It had its latest sports car, the California, on exhibit at the Shanghai show. The California will be priced at around 3.4 million yuan in China. A company official said sales of Ferrari rose 20 percent to 212 in the Chinese mainland last year.

Maserati launched the Asia debut of its GranTurismo S Automatic and officially launched the Quattroporte Sport GT S in China at the show too.

Last year, Maserati sold 350 vehicles to the mainland, making it the fastest growing market among the 59 markets it operates in.

Rolls-Royce unveiled its RR4, or Ghost, at the Shanghai show, a luxury sedan that may cost more than four million yuan when it is launched at the end of this year. With sales of 106 cars last year, the mainland became the manufacturer's third largest market after the United States and Britain, surpassing Japan as its major Asian market for the first time.

That's not to say that the luxury car market in China hasn't suffered some pangs from the economic slowdown. Sales of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi slowed from their average 30-percent growth in the second half of last year as even the wealthy curbed their spending, especially in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province where many factories have been forced to close.

The luxury car market also has to contend with plans to levy higher taxes on cars with large engines, which will increase their purchase price.

"Without favorable government policies, it's still questionable whether the luxury car market will rebound to its former high-growth levels in the absence of improvement in the global economy," said Lin Huaibing, an analyst at Global Insight.

Long-term prospects

"We are seeing less profit because consumers are demanding higher discounts," Fire Fung, director of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Shanghai. "We have held back our plans to open new dealerships in the East China region this year to ensure existing dealers would be able to make money under the current circumstances."

Longer-term prospects, however, look good.

China's robust economy has created millionaires at a fast pace.

The nation is home to 51,000 people who are worth more than 100 million yuan (US$14.7 million), according to a study published by Hurun Report, a business magazine best known for its "China Rich List." One in every 1,700 people on the Chinese mainland has more than 10 million yuan in personal assets, according to the magazine.

Encouraging sales

"The economic situation doesn't mean all rich people are in dire straits," said Xu Qun, publisher and editor of Car & Driver and Mr Modern.

"But they have become more selective when buying luxury vehicles. They do more comparison shopping. They want to know everything about the car, and they want a test drive."

At the auto show, Bentley, the premier affiliate of Volkswagen AG, said it sold 15 vehicles including all models on display.

Company officials from Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and Maybach declined to give sales figures chalked up at the auto show, but most of them said sales exceeded expectations.

Lamborghini said it received more than 10 orders for its models, including one for its LP670SV sports car that costs more than 7.5 million yuan, even though buyers will have to wait a year for delivery. About 18 Rolls-Royces also were sold, including the RR4 luxury sedan that will hit the market later this year.

TNS China's Paur said the country's nouveaux rich likes to flaunt their wealth. "Luxury car ownership is a good opportunity to express one's affluence, and highly inspirational brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Rolls Royce are benefiting from that."

"Chinese consumers are also very fond of new products and the latest technologies," he added.

Luxury car makers revving up business in China have had to adapt to Chinese tastes in vehicles.

BMW's and Audi's longer wheelbase luxury sedans are specially designed for the Chinese market because consumers think bigger is better, particular for business use.


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