The Shanghai Auto Show is in full swing this week, and automakers from around the world are showing off their latest products.
The Chinese auto market is a young one, but it is already the world’s biggest, and a key region for an industry that is still recovering in the U.S., and collapsing in Europe.
But to sell cars there, it’s more than a question of translating manuals and opening a few dealerships.
Over the last 30 years, according to the New York Times, the Chinese public has also formed some very strong opinions as to who drives a particular make and model and why — and those views are often at odds with how brands are perceived in the U.S.
For non-Chinese automakers, understanding those perceptions is key to putting more cars on the road.
While other luxury makers carry a stigma of old money and old age, Audi is quietly becoming synonymous with younger age and 'new luxury.'
Fast fact: In England, the perception is quite different. Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson told 60 Minutes he believes Audi drivers are 'psychologically unfit to drive anything more powerful than an electric razor.'
BMW's higher pricing in China has led to some very negative perceptions, especially when government officials are seen in one. It's a sign they may be spending funds incorrectly.
Fast fact: BMW has been building cars in China for 10 years, and has invested $1.95 billion in the country. This month, it announced ZINORO, a new brand designed specially for the Chinese market.
When someone mentions a luxury car, an image of the three-pointed-star logo and the name Mercedes-Benz almost immediately springs to mind. Mercedes are favoured by those with old money and fans of classic luxury.
Fast fact: The Benz Patent-Motorwagen was the first purpose-built, self-propelled car and was first shown in 1886.
Mercedes-Benz has taken on the 'Oldsmobile' role in China. They are seen as the car of the retired, and are not a strong statement, like an Audi or BMW. They are not daring, they are not outrageous.
Buying a Mercedes is a safe, conservative choice.
Fast fact: China is Mercedes' fastest growing market, and the brand is opening more than 50 new dealerships every year.
Buick has been trying to reinvent itself in the US for decades. While sales have been steadily approaching pre-2008 levels, the brand does not have much excitement to offer young Americans.
Fast fact: Buick incorporated in 1903 and is the oldest American automaker still selling cars.
And this brings us to Buick in China. What was once declared a 'damaged brand' by GM VP Bob Lutz has come back in spades. Buicks are seen as the hottest luxury cars in China, which makes them a status symbol.
The Buick Excelle (called the Verano in the US) was the number one passenger car in China in 2011. The next year, Buick's sales in the country jumped 8%.
J.D. Power & Associates predicts total sales could hit 1 million by 2016, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Fast fact: Some of the interest in Buicks is legacy based; China's last emperor and first president drove them.
The minivan has a well-earned reputation in the United States as the way soccer mums and dads move kids around the suburbs.
Fast fact: The Stout Scarab, the world's first production minivan, hit the road in 1936 with a removable table and seats that swiveled 180 degrees.
Chinese high-powered executives have bought hundreds of thousands of the typically family-centered vehicle over the past decade, creating a surprising new luxury market, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Fast fact: In 2010, GM capitalised on the trend with the luxury version of its Buick GL8 minivan made just for China, with an interior inspired by luxury yachts, featuring leather seats, power outlets, automatic doors, and a 10-speaker sound system by Bose.
For Americans, Toyota models like the Camry and Corolla have long been viewed as dependable, is somewhat boring sedans.
They do the job and stay out of the shop (although that reputation has been marred recently by waves of recalls).
Toyota's sales plummeted in China last year in the wake of violent protests and boycotts of Japanese products, sparked by the nations' dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea.
Along with other Japanese automakers, it was forced to cut its production in half.
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