China is the world’s most populous nation, and it was easy to feel that a good percentage of that humanity was attending Auto China 2014 when it opened in Beijing on April 20. China is also the world’s largest vehicle market, so automakers both domestic and foreign went all out to impress.
It you wanted to see an SUV or crossover, this was the place. The segment is the fastest-growing in China and seemingly every automaker showed multiple models. China’s government is pressuring automakers to produce electric vehicles, so every stand had at least a token EV as well. Overall, optimism was in the air.
Herewith, a look at the 10 most compelling debuts at the show.

Beijing Auto BJ100

Beijing Automotive Industry Corp, or BAIC, looked to its long-fallow Beijing Jeep joint venture with Chrysler for inspiration for some of its own vehicles. Among these was the BJ100 concept, a hulking, Hummer-like lug with rectilinear styling and dubious parentage. However, the BJ moniker indicates BAIC wants us to remember the failed Jeep JV. If the BJ100 becomes a production model, perhaps BAIC can sell some to the People’s Liberation Army, which the original Beijing Jeep also supplied. Adding side armour might give it a more distinctive look.

Denza EV

Rumours abounded of discord at Shenzhen BYD Daimler New Technology, the joint venture between BYD Auto and Daimler AG formed in 2010. The two seem to have gotten along well enough, however, to design and engineer the Denza EV, a fully electric vehicle with a claimed range per charge of 300km, or roughly 186 miles. Priced at 369,000RMB or $59,000 at current exchange rates, the four-door EV will test the marketing strength of the Daimler name. Partner BYD, though an early producer of electric vehicles in China, hasn’t seen much success with its own pure electric vehicle, the e6.

Baojun 730

Sure, it’s a minivan. But the Baojun 730, produced at SGMW, the joint venture between SAIC, Shanghai General Motors and minivan maker Wuling, could just be GM’s best weapon to take back the China sales lead that VW snatched from it last year. Launching in the second half of 2014 and reportedly starting at around 70,000RMB, or $11,200 at current exchange rates, the 730 is aimed at buyers in smaller cities who need a vehicle that can morph from a business car to a family van. It likely will also be exported to developing markets, where Wuling minivans and Baojun cars are already sold under the Chevrolet nameplate.

Nissan Lannia concept

Foreign automakers maintain design centres in China that create cars for the domestic market and, increasingly, the world. The Nissan Lannia concept, is such a vehicle. The coupe, conceived at Nissan’s Beijing design centre, embodies the brand’s “global design direction”, Nissan Motor executive Andy Palmer told gathered journalists. The target customer is young Chinese, the post ‘80s or “balinghou” generation. Though designed “by China and built by Chinese people”, the Lannia  will ultimately “be sold to the world”, Palmer said. The big question, however, is when. After the press conference, Palmer said that while the concept is ”very close” to production, no date has been set for building to begin.

Changan CX20

To compete against foreign brands, China’s domestic automakers are internationalising their design footprint and launching low-priced models crammed with the latest technology. Changan Auto’s 2014 CX20 is an example of both. Designed at Changan’s Japan R&D centre, the small SUV is touted at “powerful, clean and quiet” by the brand. For 57,900RMB or $9,250 at current exchange rates – well in the reach of China’s rising middle class – customers get standard features such as airbags and a backup sensor. The CX20’s 1.4-litre engine meets Euro 4 emissions standards, an important feature as Beijing begins to more rigorously enforce China’s emission standards in the face of rising public discontent over poor air quality.

Great Wall Haval H2

Great Wall is China’s largest maker of pickup trucks and SUVs, and also one of its most progressive companies. It has recently loaded its design studio with Europeans, among them a former BMW designer to head the operation. The Haval H2 small SUV is loaded with a turbocharged 1.5-litre engine, cruise control, push-button start and other upmarket bits, and priced at 105.800RMB or $16,900 at current exchange rates. There are rumours it may also be sold in Europe.

BYD Qin plug-in hybrid

In the US, BYD Auto is best known for announcing it would sell its purely electric e6 there, then not following through. Sales of the e6 in China are also negligible, but BYD seems to be having success with its Qin plug-in hybrid sedan. Named after the dynasty that unified China, the Qin was reportedly the best-selling EV in the country in the first quarter of 2014. BYD says it will sell the Qin as a fleet vehicle in the US “soon”. Meanwhile, BYD is developing an SUV-based PHEV named after another dynasty, the Tang. Under Tang rulers, China became the most powerful and prosperous country in the world at that time.

Hongqi L5

The Hongqi, or “Red Flag”, China’s first passenger car brand, was born at First Auto Works – aka FAW – in 1958. Though possessing a certain kitsch charm (little red fin hood ornaments, particularly), the brand languished as its technology fell behind. Now, FAW aims to rejuvenate the marque with the Hongqi L5 sedan. While its styling does have retro appeal, China’s young, affluent tastemakers are unlikely to warm to the L5 with a price tag of 5m RMB, nearly $800,000 at current exchange rates.

  • Read more about the Hongqi L5 here.

Lifan 330

China’s automakers have largely distanced themselves from blatantly copying foreign brand designs (except, perhaps, where Land Rover is concerned), but they are still paying what might charitably be described as homage to their Western peers’ models. The Lifan 330 is an example, resembling a Mini Cooper Countryman. Meanwhile, the real Mini showed its revamped Paceman, a three-door version of the Countryman, at the Beijing show. Perhaps Lifan was taking notes.

Audi TT Offroad concept

Audi is China’s largest luxury brand, and it aims to keep that title despite efforts by arch-rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz. So it was no surprise that Volkswagen Group, Audi’s parent, chose the Beijing salon for the world debut of its Audi TT Offroad concept vehicle. The concept came with Volkswagen’s plug-in hybrid electric drive system, which offers pure-electric, hybrid and sport driving modes tied to a 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine and hybrid electric motor. Audi is doubtless not blind to smog-choked Beijing’s need for vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions, but nor are they going all-in with a pure battery-electric. The TT Offroad concept also uses wireless charging, which would come in handy in a country that has yet to settle on a national plug standard.