Great hall of China

Herald Sun - Motoring - - First Drive - JOSHUA DOWLING NATIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowling@news.com.au

OH, the hu­man­ity. To get an idea of the scale of the Shang­hai mo­tor show, sim­ply imag­ine the crush of peo­ple at the start of the City to Surf fun run but with ev­ery­one wear­ing a suit, and au­thor­i­ties haven’t moved the cars out of the way.

From above it looks like an ant farm. You only see car roofs. And that’s af­ter crowds have queued for up to an hour out­side the hall, just to gain en­try.

Auto Shang­hai is now the big­gest mo­tor show on the planet in terms of vis­i­tor num­bers and the sheer size of the ex­hi­bi­tion area. More than 2 mil­lion peo­ple fil­ter through the may­hem in an area that feels the size of the ACT.

But the 2013 Auto Shang­hai will be re­mem­bered as the first time the Chi­nese car in­dus­try be­gan to shed its copy­cat im­age. In a land where fake watches and knock-off hand­bags are the or­der of the day, Chi­nese cars have typ­i­cally been in­sin­cere forms of four-wheeled flat­tery. Un­til now.

In re­cent years, Chi­nese cars have of­ten been poor im­i­ta­tions of Maz­das, Toy­otas, Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes-Ben­zes and even Fer­raris and Lam­borgh­i­nis. The flights of fancy are still there but they are now firmly in the mi­nor­ity. And the qual­ity of the cars from the lead­ing Chi­nese brands is an­other step closer to global stan­dards.

The best ex­am­ple of the tran­si­tion China’s in­dus­try has made in the past two years alone could be seen on the Changan stand. It has a small car that ap­pears to owe a lot of in­spi­ra­tion to the Mazda3 (con­trary to per­cep­tion, Mazda has noth­ing to do with it) just me­tres away from one of the most ex­cit­ing con­cept car de­signs from any Chi­nese brand, a ve­hi­cle that I think was called a CS95 (ac­cord­ing to the num­ber plate). There were nu­mer­ous other ex­am­ples.

Of course, not all Chi­nese brands have pro­gressed at the same rate (Great Wall Mo­tors and Ch­ery ap­pear to be the early lead­ers in em­brac­ing more strin­gent global reg­u­la­tions). And for the time be­ing there are still enough copy­cat cars to of­fer a great source of amuse­ment, such as the faux Hum­mer, the Chi­nese-copy of aBMWX1 and even a US-in­spired school bus.

But any­one who un­der­es­ti­mates the rise of Chi­nese do­mes­tic brands will do so at their peril. China over­took North Amer­ica to be­come the world’s big­gest car mar­ket four years ago and hasn’t looked back since. More than 19 mil­lion cars were sold there last year (com­pared to about 15 mil­lion in the US and about 1 mil­lion in Aus­tralia). The fore­cast is for 30 mil­lion sales by 2020.

Aus­tralia is likely to see its first Chi­nese-branded five-star safety rated car by year’s end. Oth­ers will surely fol­low.

Mean­while, Ford and Holden have been qui­etly adapt­ing their busi­nesses to cap­i­talise on China. Both are de­sign­ing and en­gi­neer­ing Chi­nese-mar­ket cars in our back­yard even though we will never see most of them sold or built in Aus­tralia. It’s the new world or­der. This re­porter is on Twit­ter:

@JoshuaDowling

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