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26 April 2012

TopGear at the Beijing Motor Show

Jason Barlow reports back with his highlights and lowlights from a smoggy China…

Jason Barlow
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We drove through Tiananmen Square after midnight, under Chairman Mao's impassive gaze, and focal point of the famous June 4th demonstrations and massacre. 1989 was a tumultuous year, here and elsewhere in the world, and a very different Beijing has emerged. But probably not the Beijing we were expecting.

The economic crisis of 2008/9 - among other factors - has intensified the global focus firmly on one place: China. But more so in the car business than most. As Dr Ralf Speth, the boss of Jaguar Land Rover told TopGear during the auto show, it's meant relearning how to go about things. ‘There are new cultures, new ways of doing things. It's like the industrial revolution, only it's happening 200 times faster. The truth is, you are either in or you are out. And one thing is certain: the winners and losers in the automotive business will be decided here, in China.'

The numbers make for fascinating reading. In 2011, a whopping 18.5 million cars were sold in China. Against this, a more sobering statistic is that the government has reduced its target for overall GDP growth to 7.5 per cent, the lowest since 1999. Car sales in the first quarter of 2012 were up only 2.5 per cent, partly a reflection of the end of government incentives designed to drive sales of small cars, partly because things have cooled generally.

But not everywhere. The great automotive goldrush, particularly at the premium end of the market, shows no sign of abating. Luxury car sales in 2011 increased by 20 per cent. Sales of SUVs had an identical double digit growth. Sports cars sales, meanwhile, rose by 40 per cent. China is now Bentley's biggest market, and BMW's sales and marketing director Ian Robertson told me at Beijing that he expects China and the USA to be ‘neck-and-neck' by the end of the year. Jaguar sales are up 156 per cent in China, the company will soon have 125 dealers throughout the country, and now employs 10,000 people there. A proposed joint venture with Chinese outfit Chery is currently working its way through the labyrinthine domestic government approval processes.

You can understand why Jaguar wants to do it. Volkswagen started building the Santana saloon in China nearly 30 years ago, and now has a commanding 14.5 per cent market share. Its cars are everywhere out here, wearing unfamiliar badges like Magotan and Lavida. They sound like renegades from a cheap sci-fi TV show, but look like regular VWs. The company is planning to invest 14bn euros in China between 2012 and 2016.

In other words, the commercial realities are absolutely irresistible. It's also why Lamborghini unveiled its Urus SUV here, and why Bentley's Mulsanne Diamond Jubilee edition, complete with a ghastly engraving of Her Majesty's Jubilee coach in the centre of the dashboard, on the head-rests and on the rear seat cushions, was an instant 60-car sell-out despite costing approximately Rs 4.22 crore. Honestly, it's a licence to print money.

But the truth is harsher. There are 25 million people in Beijing, and the ever-growing car population currently sits at five million. Even if you are battle-hardened to the M25 or M1, the density of traffic out here would take your breath away. That's assuming, of course, that the pollution doesn't do that first. During the three days I was in Beijing, the air remained a visibly toxic soup, and at night even glittering neon signs and tall buildings were shrouded. Death and serious injury is depressingly commonplace on Chinese roads, a consequence not just of the gluey traffic, but also of shockingly bad driving.

Life moves - well, tries to - at a vicious pace, and although on a brief zip through one of the city's 3000 charming hutongs - a network of alleys with largely improvised housing - we ended up having lunch at a total stranger's house (very nice it was too), this city feels like a brutal, unforgiving sort of place.

As for the car show itself, well I actually thoroughly enjoyed that. Held in a sprawling set of buildings on a building site (there are a lot of those in Beijing) 40-odd miles outside the city, there was tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Packed and hot on a press preview day, public days are apparently so thronged with visitors that the people move almost as one, swelling like a sea.

Cars? There were some of those, too. Star of the show for me was Mercedes mini-CLS, previewing the upcoming CLA production car. Beautifully proportioned and less fussily designed than some recent Mercs, it's also the work of Brit Mark Featherstone, who has the SLS on his CV. ‘It came together really quickly,' he told me. ‘We wanted to simplify things, to get the proportions absolutely right and keep its shape clean.' The real thing is going to fly out of the showrooms, mark my words.

Rather like Range Rover's Evoque, whose Victoria Beckham makeover proved perhaps surprisingly on-message and desirable. Matt paint, gloss black alloys, piano black finish inside with rose gold highlights: it's pricey, but for now the ultimate Evoque. (I also met and interviewed Mrs Beckham, who was funny and engaging. Read all about it in the next issue of TopGear magazine.)

As for the local stuff, well, to describe it as a mixed bag would be an insult to mixed bags. At best, like the Denza (fruit of a JV between Daimler and BYD, with backing from billionaire money man Warren Buffett), it was impressively good. There were some tidy - and Euro-designed - SUVs (30 new SUVs are about to hit the Chinese market). There were also innumerable, innocuous cheap saloons and hatches that were dead-ringers for Kias back when Kia was still falling over on the nursery slopes.

At its worst, though, it was hum-dingingly awful. Chery's Ant was a future mobility concept that was presumably meant to invoke the ingenious movements of the ant kingdom, but reminded me instead of the ghastly exploitation horror film The Human Centipede. Geely's Emgrand was and remains hideous, despite a recent restyle. But most offensive of all was Geely sub-brand Englon's SC7, a mash-up of Rolls Phantom, London taxi, and God knows what else.

There is a lot to fear and admire about China. But not this abomination.

Chery's Ant was a future mobility concept

Denza EV concept

Englon SC7

Tags: lamborghini, mercedes benz, land rover, bentley, beijing

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