2012 Beijing motor show highlights
Through an atmosphere clouded by smog and pollution, and at a venue surrounded by permanent traffic jams, the brands wheeled out new models designed to help continue the growth of the Chinese market, now officially the world’s largest. There was a new concept from Mercedes, debuts from BMW, Fiat, Jaguar and Land Rover, and a product blitz from the VW Group, which is the largest player in China, with a market share of almost 20%.
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The local brands are clearly playing catch-up; wander round the nine halls and you’ll find dozens of entirely forgettable, anonymous pastiches of the sorts of cars you’d have found in an American hire car park a decade ago. There are also signs - more than in Shanghai just 12 months ago - that they are making real progress. Chinese brands want to make vehicles desired abroad, apparently, because that, in turn, will make them desirable at home.
With that in mind, China’s big car show might not be the best supported in the world in terms of global launches just yet, but it’s easily the most important.
These are What Car? magazine editor John McIlroy's highlights of the show.
BMW i8 Spyder
The BMW i8 isn’t necessarily new - we’ve been shown concepts of the petrol-electric hybrid supercar before - but the model at Beijing a) lost its roof and b) become more production-realistic than the versions we’ve seen up to now.
Due on sale in late 2014, the i8 will offer 155mph performance with more than 90mpg. The Beijing car featured subtle bodywork modifications - to improve aerodynamics, presumably - and solid doors, instead of the transparent items shown originally.
The fact that the show car is an open-top is pretty significant, too - because it points to a convertible version of the production car. Sources say it could turn up around a year after the hard-top model - and that a removable panel, instead of a folding roof, is the most likely technical solution.
The Chery TX looked the most coherent-looking new car from any of the Chinese brands at the show - and it’s already destined for production.
This SUV, which incorporates references to many European models, including the front end of the latest Ford Kuga and the rear of the Alfa Giulietta, will replace the Tiggo in Chery’s domestic line-up. There are no plans for exports to Europe just yet, though.
The TX is designed under the direction of a Briton, James Hope, who moved to Chery earlier this year from General Motors, where he last worked on the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer. This is the first car produced under his guidance - and it’s an encouraging start.
Citroen Numero 9
The Citroen Numero 9 shows how seriously the French are taking China - because the future of their larger models may well depend almost entirely on whether or not they can sell them there.
A ‘shooting brake’ estate, the Numero 9 is almost five metres long. Its looks were imposing, although some felt that the proportions - long wheelbase, low roof - gave it a ‘squashed’ appearance instead of a sleek one.
The Numero 9’s debut coincided with the launch of the DS range (DS3, DS4 and DS5) into China - and the show car gives a good indication of how a larger DS-badged saloon could look.
Whether or not UK buyers would be offered such a model is still under discussion - but other DS cars influenced by the Numero 9’s styling, including an SUV, are more likely to turn up in British dealerships.
The Fiat Viaggio is a car of many parts. First, it was was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Then that car’s underpinnings were exported to the United States and re-engineered into the Dodge Dart.
Now that car, in turn, has been turned into the Viaggio, a saloon that will reach Chinese showrooms in the autumn. Neat and inoffensive, and not that much shorter than a Mondeo, the Viaggo gets a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, with either 118bhp or 147bhp.
Fiat would love to bring that re-engineered Giulietta tech back to its home patch in another model - and the Viaggio could appeal in markets where small saloons do well, mainly in Eastern Europe - but at present, it’ll be built and sold in China only.
The Lamborghini Urus is not confirmed for production, according to the manufacturer - but it was hard to find anyone in Beijing who wasn’t convinced that it’s already earmarked for showrooms by the middle of the decade.
The massive SUV - it’s a full 114mm longer than even a BMW X6, but 24mm lower - will use many of the same chassis parts as the next Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne. It’s likely to be powered by a V10 engine, be capable of more than 180mph and accompanied by a price of at least £150,000.
Its biggest success of all? It still looks like a Lamborghini - wild, extravagant and very much in your face. It’s so much better resolved than Bentley’s SUV concept.
Mercedes Concept Style Coupe
The Mercedes CSC - Concept Style Coupe - was one of the most significant Beijing launches in global terms, because it previews the German company’s next small saloon.
Called CLA, it’s due next year and is designed to offer the sort of style associated with the larger CLS model at a much-reduced price. The concept shows that the car won’t be small - it’s as long as a C-Class - but the CLA will share mechanicals with the latest A- and B-Class, so it’ll be front-wheel drive and feature the same range of turbocharged petrol and turbodiesel engines.
It looks great - and if enough of the CSC’s curves make it into production, this car could really offer a more stylish alternative for Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class buyers.
A potential rival for the Nissan Juke, the Icon is a 4m-long jacked-up supermini with rear-hinged back doors and extremely bold styling.
There’s probably a little too much of the original MGB in its headlights, front grille and tail-lights for it to really fulfil the brief of being ‘modern, not retro’, but it was one of the most striking vehicles on display. Best of all, the concept has been built on an existing platform, so the path to production should be straightforward - if MG’s owner SAIC thinks it’s worth doing.
Giving the Icon the green light would be a bold signal of the Chinese company’s intentions for its British brand.
Range Rover Evoque by Victoria Beckham
A Range Rover Evoque specced up by Victoria Beckham could have gone very wrong indeed, so there was quiet satisfaction at Land Rover when the understated special edition received a warm welcome not only from the locals, for whom it is intended, but also from the world’s press.
Just 200 examples of the car will be made, each with a matt black paint job, gloss black and rose-gold trim, vintage-finish tan leather seats, microsuede headliner and a four-piece set of fitted luggage.
The UK is likely to get only a handful of these cars, and those who want one will need to want it much, much more than a regular Evoque; it’ll cost around £80,000.
Skoda’s MissionL has been seen before, in hatchback form, but in Beijing the Czech manufacturer showed a booted version tailored to Chinese market tastes.
More importantly, it also confirmed that the production version of the MissionL will carry the name Rapid, reviving a classic Skoda badge.
The model itself should play on the brand’s traditional values, too; it should be big on value, offering VW Golf space for a price that sits somewhere between that car and the smaller Polo.The Rapid won’t be the only VW Group product to offer ‘big space for a small price’ - Seat has its own model on the same underpinnings, called Toledo.
However, the Rapid looks particularly well resolved; if its cabin quality can match that of the Octavia, then it could have another hit on its hands.
Volkswagen took the roof off its electric Beetle concept for Beijing, previewing (for the last time, surely!) what the convertible version of the car will look like when it turns up before the end of this year.
Significantly, it shows that when the new car’s roof is down, it can be stored away out of sight, giving the drop-top a cleaner side profile. That’s in contrast to the old Beetle cabrio, where the roof was visible even when lowered.
It’s still not entirely convincing, though; the latest Beetle’s stock VW interior looks even more out of kilter with the racier convertible looks. Even with the kudos that this car’s badge carries, some of the panache has gone missing.
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