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New world order

The mood in Shanghai is far more upbeat than the Big Apple, where economy is the hot topic.

China is clearly on top of the car world in 2011. The sales numbers already put China well ahead of the USA, with a likely advantage this year of around four million vehicles, and now it is scoring a convincing victory in a head-to-head motor show shootout. 

The latest Shanghai show trumps New York city for previews and new arrivals, as well as the overall number of brands with stands and - not surprisingly - the attendance.

The mood in Shanghai is far more upbeat than the Big Apple, where economy - both the under-performing American economy and new-car fuel economy - are the hot topics. Carmakers are shifting more and more of their focus to China, where the communist government is no impediment to new factories, special local models, and a Chinese motor industry that is bursting at the seams.

The importance of Shanghai Auto 2011, the 14th running of the event, is reflected in the 700,000 people who will visit the 17 giant exhibition halls.

In contrast, the New York Auto Show will be lucky to draw 250,000 people to a downtown location that is more intimate than most shows, with an overall display area closer to the Australian International Motor Show in Melbourne in July.

It is easy to dismiss motor shows because of the number of frothy concept cars that sit under spotlights, but there is plenty of serious new stuff this year in Shanghai and New York - and most of it is coming to Australia.

The baby-class newcomers include the next Honda Civic, Subaru Impreza, Nissan Pulsar and Kia Rio, there is a mid-sized Chevrolet Malibu that will become a Holden in 2012, and the luxury reveals include newcomers from Lexus, BMW , Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce.

The hero cars are led by a Volkswagen Beetle that's new again, and looks to be done right, and a BMW M5 that is back to V8 power. And, once again, it's China that scores.

The Beetle is shown first in Shanghai, just like the concept car that will become the M5, and even Jaguar uses the China show to preview the much-needed V6 diesel for its XJ flagship.

Subaru has the sexiest of its new baby cars, the XV crossover, in China and Audi also uses the show to reveal its compact Q3 SUV.

The Chevrolet Malibu also breaks cover first in China, together with a Kia Rio called the K2, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class concept and the long-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Ghost.

The importance of China is not lost on Ralf Speth, who heads Jaguar Land Rover and flew first to Shanghai to reveal the XJ before heading to the Big Apple for the unveiling of the facelifted XF, which was a rare American win together with the Lexus LF-Gh concept.

"China is not just chauffeur-driven cars. There are a growing number of people who have cars for recreation, who just enjoy driving themselves," Speth says. He says a vast number of Chinese are about to begin their motoring lives, and not just on tractors or sitting in the back of a government limousine.

In contrast, most of the people in New York spend their lives in the subway, riding buses, or sitting in the back of taxis and limos. You still see Rolls-Royces and Bentleys in the traffic, but they are rare.

Inside this week's shows, Shanghai has an obvious local focus. There are more than 50 makers and their creations range from copies and silliness to the sort of serious export babies that will soon be   winning more people to Chery, Geely and Great Wall showrooms in Australia. But Citroen uses Shanghai to show its DS5 hybrid for the first time and Audi rolls out a four-door sedan version of its E-Tron A3 electric car.

In New York, there is a facelift of the Ford Taurus that's focussed on fuel economy, and the Malibu with the emphasis again on miles-per-gallon, although Nissan has a racing version of its plug-in Leaf, which is named at the show as the 2011 World Car of the Year, and Mini adds some fun with Kiss-themed cars.

So China is still accelerating while the USA works on its recovery, staying focussed on the basics - like a Civic that comes with a choice of gasoline, compressed-natural gas and hybrid motivation - instead of getting too far ahead of itself.

The bottom line in the Big Apple comes from Mark Reuss, the former  president of GM Holden who now heads up the giant Chevrolet division of General Motors in the USA. He stands beside GM's star in New York,  the Malibu, and points to its most compelling feature. "It's Chevrolet's most-efficient mid-size sedan, ever," Reuss says.

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