Geneva Motor Show: Courting the Chinese driver

Qoros 3 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Shanghai-based Qoros has used the Geneva Motor Show as a launchpad

The Geneva Motor Show is, in theory, focused on the European market. But listen to the gossip in the halls and on the stands and much of it concerns a market far from Switzerland - China.

There is a good reason for this. China has a large population, a growing, newly affluent middle class and a tremendous appetite for established brands and luxury engineering.

Unlike markets in Europe and North America, it is not saturated, and there is enormous potential for growth. Naturally, established carmakers are vying for a slice of the cake.

But Chinese manufacturers are also trying to secure their own share. Some have tried to do so by buying up established makes, to obtain both the engineering know-how and the brand value that goes with them.

Stable ownership

One of the companies that has been taken over is Volvo.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Volvo revealed its futuristic Estate Concept in Geneva

Four years ago, it was bought by the Chinese manufacturer Geely, after a long period during which it struggled under the ownership of American giant Ford.

Since then, according to chief executive Hakan Samuelsson, its fortunes have changed dramatically.

"It's made a huge difference," he says.

"Number one, they offered us stability. It's never good for a company to be constantly in the newspapers, with speculation about who will buy you or whatever.

"Now, we have stable ownership and we are concentrating on our investment programme, building the new Volvo."

But the new Volvo is a very different beast from the old. For a start, it has to sell cars in China, and that means adapting to the demands of a very different set of consumers.

Culture shock

Achieving the right balance can be tricky.

"You can't just reinvent the brand in China and deliver something new - you would not be authentic," says Mr Samuelsson.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hakan Samuelsson admits catering for the Chinese consumer has been a challenge

"So we will deliver exactly what customers will expect from us, such as world-leading safety, world-leading environmental performance - but we will be making the brand a bit more exciting, especially for younger buyers."

There have been reports of a fair amount of tension between Volvo's Scandinavian management and their Chinese bosses over just how far Volvo should go to meet the expectations of its Chinese customers.

Volvo has traditionally been associated with rather understated Scandinavian luxury, while newly wealthy Chinese buyers prefer more ostentatious quality. A bit of "bling", in other words.

According to Mr Samuelsson, those reports are wrong. But he admits that there has been an element of culture shock in adapting to the Chinese market.

"Of course, in China there is a lot of demand for big executive sedans, which have to have a very different feel and look to a Scandinavian family car," he says.

"If you want to be competitive with a big sedan in China you have to design it for rear seat owners - the owner doesn't drive the car, he's sitting in the back, and you have to give him the luxury he expects.

"This is a bit new for us, a challenge."

Chinese ambition

With all the hype surrounding the Chinese market, and the efforts Western manufacturers are making to gain a share of it, it comes as something of a surprise to find a Chinese firm doing the exact opposite.

Yet that's exactly what Shanghai-based Qoros is up to. The company, which is jointly owned by Chery Automobile and Israel Corporation, is pushing hard for a share of sales in Europe.

In 2013 it launched its first model, the Qoros 3, at Geneva. This year it has brought along a new hatchback version.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Qoros 3 hatchback is the follow-up to the Qoros 3 saloon

On the face of it, the Qoros 3 doesn't look particularly special. It's a smartly turned-out, average-sized family wagon. It certainly wouldn't stand out on European roads, but nor would it look out of place.

That, says Qoros's vice-chairman and chief executive Volker Steinwascher, is precisely the point.

The real target for his company, he says, is the Chinese market. But in order to get a slice of domestic sales, it needs to show it can cut it alongside established international players.

"China is the most important market for everybody, including us - there's no question about that," he says.

"But the Chinese car industry, if you don't count the international joint ventures, has a very bad reputation, especially on safety.

"So in order to differentiate ourselves from the domestic manufacturers, I think we need to prove that we are a company which can build cars to international standards."

One of the firm's priorities, he says, has been to obtain a five-star rating for the Qoros 3 in the EU-backed Euro-NCap safety tests.

Actual sales in Europe, it seems, are not so important.

"Of course, the European market is not particularly attractive, especially right now," he admits.

"But it is a market, and I think it makes sense for us to go there in order to be seen as an international company."

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