China falls for 4x4s at Beijing Auto Show
A Jeep display at the "Auto China 2014" Beijing International Automotive Exhibition in Beijing on April 20, 2014
The SUV (sport utility vehicle), with a distinctive stocky frame, all-wheel drive and "rugged" image, has become equally coveted and ridiculed in the West in recent years, but is a recent phenomenon in China.
Ford, the world's first carmaker, arrived later to the market than its domestic rival General Motors, but has proved to be one of the biggest winners in the Chinese SUV race so far, with sales of its locally-produced Kuga model soaring.
It is far from alone. The list of motoring brands angling to scratch China's itch for SUVs keeps getting longer, with Audi, Mercedes, Volvo and Citroen all clamouring for business after Chinese sales of the vehicles doubled last year to 2.9 million units, of a total 22 million cars sold in the country.
Volvo's China bestseller is similarly an all-wheel drive, and Audi outlined its intentions with the TT Offroad at the Beijing show, a five-door concept model with traditional Audi features such as a prominent single-frame grille and a heavily curved roof line in an echo of its smash-hit Q5.
In a similar vein, France's PSA Peugeot Citroen showcased the DS 6WR, an SUV inspired by the Wild Rubis, a concept car unveiled in 2013.
And Mercedes-Benz presented a Coupe SUV concept, aimed at competing with BMW's X6, which was the first to combine the utility of an SUV and the attractiveness of a coupe, with great success.
- Drivers 'love that higher seating position'-
"Today it's a segment that is a little less competitive than the sedan, but it's the future," said Gilles Normand, Asia-Pacific chief at Renault. "There is a major trend in the industry towards this type of product."
The French manufacturer would know: its bestselling model worldwide is the 4x4 Duster, and the firm is currently laying the groundwork for its first factory in China.
For John Yan, who travelled to Beijing from North America for the show, it is hard to imagine life without a 4x4. "It's so practical. I wouldn't know how to survive without an SUV," he said.
Chinese clients enjoy one particular aspect of the 4x4 just as much as their Western counterparts: "They love that higher seating position," said Haakan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo, a feature that offers the driver a greater sense of security on the road.
SUVs, while not as ubiquitous as smaller cars, have become an increasingly common sight along urban roads in China for more than a decade.
They run the gamut from Chinese automakers to luxury foreign brands such as Porsche, with the higher-end models often seen as status symbols.
As in other countries Chinese families do not necessarily buy them for off-roading in the wild, and instead rely on them for urban trekking -- school dropoffs and other business around town.
But beyond the cliched "soccer mom" driving her children around a manicured Californian suburb in a giant SUV, there is a more practical application for the range's technical prowess in some areas of China.
"If I'm going to the mountains, it's hard to drive when the frame is low and the roads are bad," Chinese SUV enthusiast Wang Ping told AFP at the show.
The growth of the SUV is not universally assured. China's car sales surged 13.9 percent last year, but that growth hit a speed bump in March, slowing to a 6.6 percent year-on-year rise after reaching a record 17.8 percent high in January.
China's economy has also turned in its weakest performance in 18 months, growing 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
But Beijing has indicated a willingness to accept weaker growth as it tries to move the economy away from investment and toward domestic consumption, which is where cars come in -- joint partnerships with Western brands such as Citroen means more investment and more jobs, to add to China's growing band of SUV fanatics.
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