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China driving design from the back seat

Shanghai now holds the world’s largest auto show thanks to the new National Exhibition and Convention Center used for the first time at the April’s event. This is fitting for a nation which since 2009 has been the largest new vehicle market in the world.

While there were less noteworthy world premieres at Auto Shanghai this year than in previous years, the importance of China in driving the luxury and premium markets was still evident.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled its near production-ready Concept GLC Coupe – a sporty SUV designed to compete with BMW’s X4. With an insatiable appetite for all things German among China’s newly rich the Shanghai debut is hardly surprising. What counts, though, is that it’s an SUV in a market which favors such vehicles.

China is now influencing the design of premium and luxury vehicles from inception. At one time manufacturers thought catering for the Chinese market meant just stretching an existing design. These days, as evidenced by the current BMW 3-Series and forthcoming new Jaguar XF, long wheel-based variants are an integral part of the model family design process. With China now one of the top three markets for most manufacturers and models, to ignore Chinese tastes is a sure way to lose to the competition. Jaguar discovered this to its cost with the current XF. As an import up against locally produced stretched A6, 5-Series and E-Class competitors, sales suffered due to the perceived lack of rear space.

Pandering for the Chinese market also used to mean a special edition with some Chinese elements like dragon motifs. Manufacturers failed to realize that often the reason for purchasing the car was that it was foreign, and if the owner wanted a Chinese luxury car they could have bought a Hongqi (Red Flag). “Global OEMs did not want to risk much money for designing a specific car only for the Chinese market. They only put some Chinese elements on their car, such as a dragon theme,” says Zhou Jingzhe director for China and Korea at IHS Automotive Advisory. “The cheaper way doesn’t make a car look better; it only makes the buyer of such a car look like a ‘parvenu,’” he adds.

The launch of the Porsche Panamera from the dizzying heights of the 94th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center in 2009 marked a new dawn. No longer would dragon motifs and afterthought stretches cut it. “We introduced the first Panamera to a world audience here in Shanghai – and very intentionally here. Because it was clear to us that our Gran Turismo would be precisely the right model for this future market,” said Porsche chairman Matthias Mueller in 2013 at the Shanghai unveiling of the facelifted and stretched Panamera.

Traditional sports car manufacturers have found to their cost that there is not a ready market for such vehicles in China. The Cayenne and Panamera far out sell the 911 and Boxster. Buyers favor SUVs or sedans. Part of the reason is that many rich Chinese prefer to be driven by a chauffeur – this with the rising number of young wealthy individuals is now changing though. The other big reason is that a car is seen as a family purchase and is far more likely to have adult passengers in the back than in the U.S. or Europe. There is simply no room for grandma in the back of most sports cars.

Porsche may have been an early mover but it is not alone. Around a quarter of the 200 limited-edition Aston Martin Lagonda Taraf look set to come to China. The British marque recently received a government grant to develop new models to appeal to the Chinese market. The first is likely to be a production version of the SUV style DBX concept. “We believe this type of product will be particularly appealing to customers in China,” said Aston Martin CEO Dr. Andy Palmer. While the likes of the Aston Martin Lagonda and Lamborghini LM002 dabbled before in these waters it seems that thanks to China this trend is here to stay.

Bentley chose Beijing as the location for the media launch of the new Flying Spur in 2013 for good reason. Around 55 percent of the first generation cars were sold in the Chinese market and the new model was designed from the outset with Chinese tastes in mind. One of the results is that there is an emphasis on rear comfort to the detriment of the driving experience. While SUVs are generally popular in most markets, again it is China that is a leading consideration with Bentley’s forthcoming Bentayga.

In China many potential buyers first sit in the back of the car rather than the driver’s seat. The trend for increasing the comfort for rear passengers with items like media screens, massage seats and air conditioner controls is a direct response by producers to this need. Volvo showed off its new XC90 Excellence at the Shanghai event indicating that the Swedish firm’s new Chinese master knows a thing or two about the local market. Eschewing the usual seven seat setup for a four seater configuration with rear passengers getting captain style thrones, it is the most luxurious Volvo ever.

Technology also seems to be a key area where China is beginning to influence design trends. MINI unveiled its Augmented Vision concept at the Shanghai show to a market which often wants the latest in connectivity. “The most important influence of the Chinese consumers in the future might be in terms of connectivity,” believes Jochen Siebert, managing director of JSC Automotive.

Regardless of future trends when Chinese buyers of luxury vehicles speak, and often it is from the back seat, the manufacturers will have to listen.

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