Beijing Auto Show becomes a showcase for luxury carmakers

In one corner of the exhibition hall, Ferrari was unveiling its ultra-exclusive 599 GTO. In another, Porsche was doing the same for its sleek Panamera 4.

Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche later stood on a stage with a Chinese opera singer to plug a trio of Mercedes-Benz cars. They included a 571-horsepower SLS AMG with gull-wing doors. Starting price: around $180,000.

Flash? Absolutely. The Beijing Auto Show, which opened Friday, has become a showcase for premium carmakers looking to cash in on China’s rising prosperity and dizzying economic growth.

China last year blew by the U.S. to become the world’s largest car market; consumers here snapped up 13.6 million vehicles, compared with 10.4 million sold in the U.S.

Although many of those vehicles are stripped-down economy models, the nation’s wealthy are fast developing a taste for pricey cars.

Luxury car sales in China were up 66% the first three months of 2010 compared with last year, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

Mercedes-Benz has seen its China sales more than double so far this year compared with 2009.

BMW announced at the event that it was boosting its sales target in China from 100,000 to 120,000, which would make the country its third-largest market. The company sold 90,000 cars here last year.

“Nobody anticipated the growth here,” said Ian Robertson, head of sales for BMW. “Growth rates [like this] happen once in a lifetime in mature markets. Here, they’re happening every year.”

The intensifying focus on China comes as American and European markets are still shaking off the effects of the financial crisis.

Daimler’s Zetsche went so far as to describe China as “a market that is increasingly becoming the engine of our industry.”

Demand has been so strong that most Chinese BMW buyers are placed on a waiting list to receive their cars.

Favorites include the ultra-luxurious 7-series cars, priced between $170,000 and $326,000 and built slightly longer to accommodate more legroom in the rear. Unlike Western buyers of premium cars, wealthy Chinese owners prefer to be chauffeured.

BMW sold 17,000 units of its 7-series here in 2009. Runner-up was the U.S., with 9,000 sold.

“The level of wealth in China is substantial,” Robertson said.

China has about 875,000 millionaires, according to the Hurun Report, a publication aimed at China’s rich.

Still, experts say the fight for market share will only get tougher as more competitors seek a slice of the market. Luxury carmakers could look to increase manufacturing capacity in China to reduce costs.

A number of foreign automakers already have plants in China because they are required by law to enter into joint ventures with domestic manufacturers to gain access to the market. Many automakers have also invested in extensive research and development facilities here.

German automaker Audi chose the auto show to unveil the A8 LW12 Quattro, a 500-horsepower sedan with the Chinese mogul in mind.

Backseat features include extra legroom and a footstool; 14,000 watts of Bang & Olufsen speakers; ambient lighting with rotating colors; a walnut folding table (just in case you need to sign a deal); a 10.2-inch LCD screen behind the front seats; and massage chairs that “wave, pulse, stretch and lumber.”

Meanwhile, the driver can use a touch pad on the console that recognizes Chinese characters for the navigation system.

“For China, this car has to make a statement,” said Matthias Mueller, general project leader for the A8. “It has to show you’ve ‘made it.’ ”

Audi is a particular favorite among Chinese government officials. A common sight in the capital (much to the chagrin of ordinary Chinese) is a black Audi with tinted windows and official plates weaving through traffic with scant regard for the rules of the road.

Mueller said Audi’s connection to government had given the brand a boost. But he said younger drivers were embracing the cars as well. He can tell, he said, by the growing number of buyers choosing colors other than black.

“People want to be different from the government,” he said. “They want a bright car because of this issue.”

Mueller said the new A8 and its gas-electric hybrid cousin would land on the Chinese market later in the year. A price has yet to be determined. But cars of its class can often cost twice as much as they do in the U.S. after calculating import tariffs and gas consumption taxes.

That’s of little consequence to anyone able to afford some of the opulent vehicles on hand at the exhibition, including vehicles by Bugatti, Lamborghini and Bentley.

Among the most highly anticipated was Ferrari, which chose Beijing to launch its limited edition 599 GTO. Priced around $460,000, the car is faster than the legendary Ferrari Enzo.

Ferrari Chief Executive Amedeo Felisa said the decision to unveil the 599 GTO here underscored the importance of the Chinese market.

“We have 10 dealerships and we’re starting to understand China much better,” he said. “The Chinese owner, compared to the rest of the world, is younger and [they] tend to be very good entrepreneurs.”

Felisa said Ferrari sold 60 cars in China in 2004. The total jumped to 220 last year. China also has more female buyers than other markets. About 20% of Ferrari purchasers last year were women, compared with 5% in the rest of the world.

As for the 599 GTO, Ferrari has already selected buyers for all the units being made, which was capped at 599. Twenty of those buyers are in China.

Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.