Buick and BMW: Very Big in China

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 17, 2013

If it wasn’t for the fact that the Chinese have a passion for the brand, Buick might have died when Pontiac did. But Buick’s cachet as a premium car in China has driven the automaker to a milestone: It now sells more cars in the People’s Republic (1.6 million in the first half of 2013) than in the U.S. (1.4 million).

The Buick stand at Chinese auto shows are a star attraction. This is the car everybody wants! (GM photo)In May, GM actually outsold VW in China. Buick sales were up 23 percent to more than 63,000 cars, compared to just 3,843 Cadillacs. Luxury car sales are taking off in China, which could be the largest market for high-end cars in the world by the end of the decade.

GM isn’t alone. BMW, of all brands, is likely to sell more cars in China than in the U.S. this year, too. Did you know that one of the reasons automakers introduce “long wheelbase” versions of their popular models is because higher-end Chinese car buyers often have chauffeurs? This was brought home to me earlier this year at the New York Auto Show, where I discovered that the new 2014 BMW 335i Gran Turismo is based on a stretched 3-Series for the Chinese market.

I’m reminded of the many chauffeur-driven Dodges and Plymouths I used to see in Bombay, India. The cars were locally assembled, which turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. And what was pedestrian in the U.S. was upmarket there.

For GM, it’s all about Buick, which is an aspirational vehicle for the Chinese middle class (far more than Cadillac, oddly enough). Reports Car and Driver:

The average Buick customer in China is in his mid-30s—about half the age of his U.S.-market counterpart. Buick is the brand of choice for young, successful entrepreneurs and enjoys a cachet born of the big car’s popularity among the wealthy in 1930s China. While it doesn’t try to compete with the premium German carmakers, Buick is clearly superior to the typical Chinese mass-market brands.

Since the LaCrosse, C&D says, “Buick design has been driven by  the tastes of Chinese buyers.” They like rounded shapes, and that’s why Buick’s styling departs so markedly from Cadillac’s angularity.

China is likely to be BMW's biggest market in 2013, so it's not surprising the automaker is coming up with more China-specific models. (BMW photo)Mercedes is stepping up its game in China, and said last month it is expanding its sales network there. At the end of last year, the company had 260 Chinese stores, compared to more than 300 each for BMW and Audi—another big brand.  

Carmakers are increasingly looking east. Even though China has a huge domestic auto industry, it is so vast—and there are so many new drivers—that its new roads can accommodate a lot of western cars also. What’s happening with BMW and GM is a very important development as the industry moves into the 21st century.

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