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2015 Shanghai motor show highlights maturing Chinese car industry


What happened to all the copycat cars? They were there, but you had to look a lot harder.

It is the biggest motor show on the planet, in every sense of the word.

The site map for the Shanghai motor show looks straightforward enough. With its simple clover-leaf design, at first it appears there are four halls to cover.

Then you discover the floorspace of each hall is the size of the MCG – and split in two sections under one enormous roof. So, eight enormous halls then.

But if you fold out the map – as I did, on day two – you then learn there are two levels to every hall.

So instead of covering two of eight halls on day one, it turns out I only made it to two out of gigantic 16 halls. Needless to say, the joint is huge.

China overtook the US car market in 2009 and hasn't missed a gear since.

So many Chinese can now afford a car that it has caused instant gridlock

More than 24.8 million new vehicles were delivered in China last year (compared to 1.1 million in Australia and 16.5 million in the US) and sales are still powering, up by more than 13 per cent in 2015.

The country with 1.35 billion people is rapidly developing a middle class, and they want to switch from two wheels to four.

So many Chinese can now afford a car that it has caused instant gridlock; the government often alternates days which allow cars with odd or even licence plates on the road.

In Shanghai, a city of more than 23 million people, equivalent to the entire population of Australia, the traffic is so bad that the best way to get to the motor show is by train.

We found this out the hard way, having taken more than two hours to travel by bus from the downtown hotel to the motor show site on day one; the train ride the next day took 20 minutes. So much for celebrating the car.

But even the Shanghai train system, although infinitely more efficient than Australia's network, is suffering from growing pains.

The local transport website helpfully points out that an English translation version of the train map is not available as a PDF because the city is adding so many new lines that it doesn't fit on an A4 sheet of paper.

China is a place with big ambitions. While the Chinese auto industry is booming, that is largely because each of the top-selling brands have their hands held by a foreign car company.

If you want to build and sell cars in China, the government mandates you must partner with a local manufacturer – and split the profit down the middle.

You name the brand, and they're either already in China, or about to set up shop

It's one of the reasons China's middle class economy is growing so fast, the government ensures the wealth is distributed far and wide.

When a foreign auto company turns up to start building cars, they are told which provinces they will set up their factories in, and which company will partner them.

That's why you see some unusual acronyms after household names such as General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.

The list goes on. You name the brand, and they're either already in China, or about to set up shop.

Meanwhile, demand for imported luxury cars is so strong that brands such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Rolls-Royce now list China as their biggest market.

At a previous motor show, Rolls-Royce had to install a credit card machine because so many cashed-up Chinese buyers wanted to drive home in the display cars on the spot.

Just as Chinese have had to adjust to understanding the difference between a motor show and a dealership (Rolls-Royce took their deposits but delivered the cars later), the global industry has had to change its approach to such an important market and has developed models exclusively for sale in China.

At the other end of the scale, dozens of China-only car brands are trying to leave their mark on the local market and, eventually, the world.

Many of these brands are the ones responsible for the copycat cars that have been the butt of jokes in recent years.

There was the fake Mini, the sincere form a flattery to the Range Rover Evoque, the BMW X5 nose that appeared to be grafted onto what was apparently a tribute to the Toyota Prado.

However, apart from a handful of cars (one that had a Ferrari nose and a Porsche Cayman rear end, and another that looked like a Volkswagen Touareg SUV, except it wasn't) this year's show stood out for its lack of counterfeit cars.

Indeed, the domestic Chinese car makers are showing signs of maturing.

Would I rush out and buy a Chinese car? Not yet

The similarities in foreign design are still there, but they are much more muted and on their way – hopefully – to their own look.

The smart brands are hiring foreign design talent (there appears to have been a raid on Audi, BMW and VW designers recently) to help nurture the extremely creative Chinese designers coming up through the system.

But would I rush out and buy a Chinese car? Not yet. Probably not for several years. Maybe even a decade.

It should be pointed out that, just as with big foreign brands, not all Chinese cars are created equally. Some are most certainly better than others.

The Chinese automotive industry absolutely knows how to manufacture every single part that goes into making a car

That said, even the big improvers of the Chinese domestic brands are still a long way from challenging the German, Japanese, North American and South Korean brands on quality, safety, refinement and efficiency.

The Chinese automotive industry absolutely knows how to manufacture every single part that goes into making a car – and give it the appearance of quality.

But the world's biggest car market is still yet to hone the skills to design and engineer vehicles from the ground up to truly international standards.

In the meantime, foreign design and engineering talent will be able to enjoy the China boom.

Indeed, even Australia is getting a slice of the action.

The new China-only Ford Taurus unveiled this week was created from the ground up in Australia.

Ford employs 1500 designers, engineers and mechanics (twice as many employed on the production line that will fall silent next year) at Broadmeadows to develop cars for Ford of China.

The only difference is the factory is 8000km away, rather than next door.