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Auto Shanghai 2013 the wrap


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 -- where everyone is wearing a suit, and authorities haven’t moved the cars out of the way.

From above it looks like an ant farm. You can only see the roofs of cars. And that’s after crowds have queued for up to an hour outside the hall, just to get inside.

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 will filter through the mayhem to cover an area the size of which feels like Canberra.

But the 2013 Auto Shanghai will also likely 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, literally, Chinese cars have typically been insincere forms of four-wheeled flattery. Until now.

In recent years, Chinese cars have often been be 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 a BMW X1 and even a US-inspired school bus.

But anyone who under-estimates 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 about 15 million in the US and about 1 million in Australia). The forecast is for 30 million sales by 2020.

Australia will likely see its first Chinese-branded car with a five-star safety rating by the end of this year. Others will surely follow.

Meantime, Ford and Holden have been quietly adapting their businesses to capitalise on China. Both brands 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