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No reining in Chinese vehicle firms

2014-03-04 13:12 China Daily Web Editor: qindexing
A carmaker's promotion event in Guangzhou. Auto sales growth in China helped virtually every major manufacturer achieve record sales. Provided to China Daily

A carmaker's promotion event in Guangzhou. Auto sales growth in China helped virtually every major manufacturer achieve record sales. Provided to China Daily

China's car industry looks a sure bet to be a winner in the Year of the Horse.

Growth rates may not quite match those of 2013, when a 16 percent jump in sales surprised most observers, but total volume should still rise by about 10 percent to almost 20 million units.

This increase will widen the gap with the world's second-largest market, that of the United States, to about 4 million vehicles, a gap that will grow inexorably.

Moreover, while the US will finally recover to its pre-global financial crisis sales level, China's total will be more than three times that of 2008, a tribute to the extraordinary advance of its auto industry while most of the rest of the world - and the entire developed world - has been stagnating.

Last year's growth helped virtually every major carmaker in China achieve record sales. The top performance was that of Ford Motor Co's, with a more than 50 percent rise in sales to 935,000 units, as it launched a slew of new models, including popular sport utility vehicles.

But Japan's big three carmakers (Toyota Motor Corp, Honda Motor Co Ltd and Nissan Motor Co) also had good years.

The leaders, however, remained General Motors Co and Volkswagen AG, which for the first time in nearly a decade reclaimed its crown as China's top automaker with total sales of 3.19 million units (ahead of GM, which had 3.16 million units).

South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co held onto third place with sales of just over 1 million.

Barring unexpected political or economic turbulence, these companies should all set further record highs in 2014. Measures aimed at curbing pollution and congestion via license plate quotas will affect sales in some of China's richer cities, but any decline in these locations will largely be offset by the fast-growing rise in demand coming from inland and lower-tier cities.

The main focus of these latter markets will be affordable cars.

But the fast-growing sophistication of consumers in even the most remote regions means taste and demand patterns are rapidly converging with those of the eastern seaboard.

As a result, regions once seen as primarily the preserve of domestic car producers making entry-level models are increasingly being contested by the big global companies looking to leverage the experience acquired in their first years in China to the new emerging markets of the hinterland.

The continuing success of the global carmakers, able to apply the strengths of their global supply chains through their joint ventures in China, makes it hard for domestic companies to compete.

It looks likely that while the domestic original equipment manufacturers' volumes may continue to rise in China, their market share will fall. It is noteworthy that Great Wall Motors Co Ltd saw total sales rise 21 percent in 2013 to 754,000 units, almost solely due to a 48 percent rise in demand for its SUVs (to 417,000) rather than its sedans, where volume fell.

Demand for electric vehicles shows no sign of rising to significant levels, even with central government subsidies of up to 60,000 yuan ($9,836) per car. Total passenger sales of EVs amounted to fewer than 15,000 units last year.

Exports remain one of the few areas of weakness, with sales of Chinese cars overseas dropping nearly 10 percent in 2013 due to softening demand in emerging markets in South America and the Middle East.

Consolidation of China's fragmented auto industry still looks a long way off. Despite being home to more than 170 vehicle makers, and reducing that number having been an official goal for the past seven years, the combination of local government support for companies in their own backyards, plus the need for any merger or acquisition to be signed off by a host of central government bodies, has resulted in almost no progress.

This year is also unlikely to see any significant lifting of the rules restricting foreign ownership of carmakers in China to a maximum of 50 percent. Although officials have spoken out about relaxing these conditions, with foreign brands dominating the Chinese market (indeed, slightly increasing their share) it's hard to see any change before at least one domestic carmaker has established itself as a force in the market.

When that might happen is anyone's guess. For certain, it won't be in the Year of the Horse, which will continue to be dominated by heavyweight Sino-foreign joint ventures. But as Ford's rapid rise last year demonstrated, who will be the eventual winners in the China car market remains an open question, and one unlikely to be decided before the end of this decade. Which horse to back is the main issue for discussion.

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