06/30/05

Car designs for China: competitive edge and challenge

A growing number of major car manufacturers are pushing into the lucrative Asian market, and both developers and designers are facing the question of what are the needs of Chinese car buyers. Designs in China must not be too European: German car design, Lei Yucheng, chief executive of the design house TJ Innova Engineering & Technology, says, was too conservative, and the Italians were too innovative.

 

In the past, Chinese car buyers actually preferred the classic models, while hatchback cars were by far not as popular as in Europe. This has changed due to the increasing in traffic volume, the rise in gasoline prices, and the end of cheap loans as it was regulated by the government. As a result, now also in China, there is a growing demand for compact car, so that more and more companies are pushing into this profitable market. This new trend toward lower-priced models causes considerable pressure on car manufacturers. In the price-war game, it is essential to gain a clear competitive edge and to stand out from the competition. Design does play a crucial role in this, because design can be employed to create differentiation.

Constantly facing the question of what are the demands on design by Chinese car buyers, developers and designers are responding appropriately. Volkswagen AG, long the leader in China, is adapting some of its models to the market, and it is sending Chinese designers to Germany for 18-month training sessions. In addition, a growing number of carmakers have realised that car designs in China must not be too European. “Foreign companies have the technology, but we are familiar with Chinese culture,” says Lei Yucheng, chairman and chief executive of the TJ Innova Engineering & Technology Co. design house. Italian design was innovative but a little too “different.” But German design was a little too conservative.

What Chinese car buyers actually do want is not easy to say. Anyway, it definitely is not a boxy black passenger sedan so much is for sure. According to the latest sales statistics, the car is expected to be more than just a means of transport. For many Chinese, the car is a symbol of luxury and, therefore, the good looks of a car is of very high importance to Chinese car buyers: a little extra chrome, leather and wood is always welcome. This has also become apparent at the latest Shanghai auto show. As compared to European car buyers, there are also differences in colour choice, because the Chinese prefer brighter colours for the interior. And for reasons of culture, white as a colour for a car is taboo. The non-colour white connotes death in China.

Comfort is also a crucial factor in Chinese customers’ buying decision. In China, the VW Passat and the Audi models, for instance, are 10 centimetres longer than in Europe and therefore give more interior space for passengers. Security aspects, however, are not yet a truly effective selling point; they are only gradually gaining in importance.

Because most car buyers are first-time customers and, consequently, it takes time to develop experience with the market, the search for a Chinese identity will continue to be the topic of many discussions among developers and designers.