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Engage your Chinese Consumers Better

Foreign EV in China

The Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR concept car, inspired by the Avatar movies

Hello, and greetings, again, from Shunyi for September, Tuesday 14th to be precise. Last Thursday, September 9th, we published a short article titled EV in China in which we commented that it seems non Chinese brands of NEV / EV were arriving late for the party. In particular, the Detroit makers. Today, we will expand on that a little to look at non Chinese EV brands in China.

During the early motor car take up days in China, the ICE age (Internal Combustion Engine), it does seem that European marques who were to the forefront initially, have dragged the chain somewhat with their NEV entries and fallen behind their domestic counterparts. Of course, looking beneath the surface there were economics at play here which would dictate terms.

To begin with, most Chinese makers, especially the successful ones, were in JV with foreign brands. They were arguably in a better space to be able to cut production quickly, reposition to producing NEV under their own brand names. Foreign marques on the other hand had a massive investment in design, development and marketing of current platforms so were financially tethered into maximising that investment. Perhaps gambling that their already solid reputation in the China market would offset their tardy arrival.

European Auto Brand History in China

Back in the late 1990’s private cars were not just a luxury, they were a rarity. The realm of successful business people and Gvt departments where Nissan and Audi respectively ruled supreme. In black of course. Even in Beijing in early 2000, it was rare to see private cars on the roads.

Throngs of bicycles and taxis. including Citroen – whose reputation in Beijing at least may have been built on its performance as a taxi. At that time, circa 2000, Citroen shared the taxi license with the FAW Tianjin works version of the Daihatsu Charade- known as Xiao li in Chinese, and the early WW Jetta’s. The Citroen was based on the ZX , made in China by China Dongfeng and the French PSA group- now Stellantis .

Those 3 brands corresponded – roughly – to the 3 taxi fare levels in Beijing at the time, Citroen held centre ground. For those up and coming users who wanted and could afford more luxury in their ride the Citroen impressed them enough buy their own, later known as Elysee. The ZX’s legendary performance and handling also made it a choice for many Gvt departments, Including the police.

However, by and large, VW had that sector tightly sewn up with their more powerful Jetta’s, Passat’s and potent Santana’s as well as holding the top fare taxi slot. It’s also worth noting that back in 2016 Citroen unveiled the E-Elysee EV, at the Beijing auto show. At that time the top spots in the China EV market were held by local makers, led by BYD.

This of course was well pre WeChat or social media, heck, digital was still a dream in the making. So auto makers would pitch their product based on its race track and taxi business performance. The latter probably more gruelling, demanding than the Le Mans 24 hour not to mention real time , practical, hands on relativity to the customer. One could point to the rise in popularity and sales of the Hyundai Elantra which eventually displaced the afore mentioned 3 brands as taxis in Beijing and other Chinese cities as well as police cars.

For foreign car makers the 17 or so years since 2000 would be their golden years. Especially for European and Asian brands who for the large part seem to be more popular than Detroit models. VW maintained its position as the “People’s Car” in China whilst Mercedes Benz, Audi and BMW fought among themselves and Japan’s Toyota and Nissan for the luxury segment.

But that was then and this is now. Some almost 22 years since those first tentative steps China took into mass motoring. In that time, Chinese makers have learnt a lot and are already challenging international brands for dominance. Not just in their home market, but increasingly in the global market also. So, have foreign brands gambled and lost or is there room for comeback in the future? We may explore this in another article.

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